'In short‚ we made a mess' Selebano admits at Esidimeni hearings

Suspended Gauteng department of health head Barney Selebano gives testimony on Life Esidimeni tragedy under oath.
Suspended Gauteng department of health head Barney Selebano gives testimony on Life Esidimeni tragedy under oath.
Image: ALAISTER RUSSELL

Suspended Gauteng health department boss Dr Barney Selebano ended his testimony at the arbitration into the Life Esidimeni saga with an apology to family members‚ admitting that his department “made a mess”.

Selebano asked to read a statement he had prepared‚ saying it was important that he and other officials “humble ourselves” before the affected families.

His address was interrupted by the sharp cries of some of the family members present at the hearing‚ one of whom cried out: “Some of them are still lost.”

Selebano spoke for several minutes‚ explaining that he felt the need to apologise to the families. He also thanked the evidence leaders in the process.

The arbitration process‚ which is being chaired by former deputy chief justice Dikgang Moseneke‚ began after 141 psychiatric patients died after being moved from Life Esidimeni centres to NGOs.

Many of the NGOs were not equipped to accommodate the mentally ill. The hearing has heard evidence of maladministration within the department as well as poor planning.

Selebano said he understood the anger expressed by family members.

“During these days that I’ve been here‚ one thing I’ve observed is that the families are very angry. The anger is palpable‚ you can even touch it‚” he said.

Selebano said during lunch breaks at the hearing he was often confronted by “difficult words” from family members.

“They are angry. We have let them down‚” he said.

“I am saying to the families that you have every right not to forgive us … your loss is not a group loss‚ it’s an individual loss. In short‚ we made a mess. The officials that I know‚ that I work with‚ are in a state of sadness.”

Selebano said the Esidimeni saga had “completely decimated” the public trust.

“When you go to our hospitals‚ I can invite you to see the trauma that people experience. They don’t trust us anymore.

“I ask myself: Would I also forgive? Would I heal that quickly?”

Selebano‚ who considers himself “an ethical guy who tries very hard”‚ said the Esidimeni saga would haunt him forever.

“This is a permanent bracelet around my neck. Even at my old age‚ the bracelet will never go away.

“It’s a painful thing to carry. It embarrasses you. It hurts my family‚ it hurts my friends.”

He added that he wanted to try and apologise to individual families and would try to gain an audience even if he was turned away.

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