Why Ramokgopa returned to tackle Esidimeni tragedy

Gauteng Health MEC Gwen Ramokgopa. Picture Credit: Peter Mogaki. © Sowetan.
Gauteng Health MEC Gwen Ramokgopa. Picture Credit: Peter Mogaki. © Sowetan.

What made Gauteng health MEC Gwen Ramokgopa come out of retirement from public office?

She has the Herculean task of repairing the department's reputation after the painful Life Esidimeni scandal that led to over a 100 patients dying.

Last month, health ombudsman Malegapuru Makgoba found that former health MEC Qedani Mahlangu was unsuitable to lead the department, after she oversaw the chaotic process of removing patients from Life Esidimeni facilities to over 20 unsuitable NGOs.

Mahlangu resigned the night before Makgoba released the report on February 1. In a chat with Sowetan, about what lies ahead, Ramokgopa responded to crucial questions as follows:

Question: On your first day at work your inbox is brimming after the recent scandal. What is the first thing you tackle?

Answer: When I got to the office I acknowledged first that this was a daunting task. The trust by the public was broken, the families were angry and hurting. We had to rebuild (our reputation) quickly by putting measures in place to ensure there would be no new deaths.

Q: And how did you appease the families?

A: Meeting them made me appreciate the extent of the problem. Some were still looking for loved ones, and some were anxious to rescue them from those NGOs and we did not even have a full database of the patients.

Q: How did you reach out to them?

A: We organised a healing session facilitated by Mme Lillian Dube and I have never experienced such pain. They told us of their efforts to try and stop the rapid move and to trace their loved ones. One family only found out on the day where their loved one was, and had to go and identify him at a mortuary and came back to the session with all that fresh grief.

Q:With two weeks remaining to implement the ombudsman's recommendations, how far is the process?

A: We are removing the rest of the patients from the NGOs to suitable public facilities. We are in talks with a nursing agency for more nurses, and will rope in more doctors. The Centres for Disease Control are our project managers.

They have, in consultation with our acting CEO Dr Ernest Kenoshi, done the specification guidelines of facilities for mental patients; state requirements for licensing of NGOs to prevent future incidents; and looking at the logistics and resources needed.

Returning to public office was not easy

Having served more than 20 years in various portfolios, including MEC for health, Tshwane mayor and Deputy Minister of Health Gwen Ramokgopa had retired from public office in 2014 and initially did not want to take on this task.

When Gauteng premier David Makhura summoned her, she was late for the meeting as she never would have guessed they were going to ask her to come back to government.

"I was happy running my own consultancy - focusing on preventative medicine and public health policy as I wanted to focus on other projects I had postponed when I was serving the public."

It took her a week to consult with her family that includes her husband and three children, who were now getting used to having her home. "I was even enjoying quality time with my grandchild and siblings."

In that time she received many calls from people enquiring about various aspects of our health system.

"It made me realise that government was not accessible. I have now asked for all our (contact) numbers to be displayed at our facilities for the public," she says.