Qedani Mahlangu tries to shift the blame for Life Esidimeni tragedy

JANUARY 22, 2018. Former Gauteng Health MEC Qedani Mahlangu appears before the Esidimeni arbitration hearings probing the deaths of at least 143 mentally ill patients.
JANUARY 22, 2018. Former Gauteng Health MEC Qedani Mahlangu appears before the Esidimeni arbitration hearings probing the deaths of at least 143 mentally ill patients.

Former Gauteng MEC for health Qedani Mahlangu appeared before a packed Life Esidimeni arbitration hearing on Monday to explain her role in the move that led to the deaths of 143 mentally ill patients. Here are five noteworthy points from her first day of testimony.

- She implicated her former boss who has always maintained his ignorance of the fatal move

Mahlangu said Gauteng premier David Makhura would have known about the decision to end the Life Esidimeni contract‚ as part of a plan to save money by the provincial health department.

In 2015‚ she said‚ Makhura called her to a meeting to ask if the National Health Education and Allied Workers Union (Nehawu) workers who stood to lose their jobs at the Life Esidimeni homes could be absorbed by the health department.

She also discussed the cost-cutting plan with the "premier's budget committee".

The premier has always signalled he did not know about the relocation plan. Last year‚ his spokesman Thabo Masebe said in a statement: "Any suggestion that the premier gave instructions or was involved in the transfer of mental health patients from Life Esidimeni to NGOs‚ is devoid of any truth".

- She blamed her juniors

She basically said then head of department Barney Selebano and former director of mental health Makgabo Manamela were to blame for not telling her of problems relating to the move‚ such as the lack of food at cash-strapped NGOs and the lack of beds for patients. Selebano‚ as administrative head‚ signed the cancellation with Life Esidimeni homes‚ she said.

She spoke of their reports saying: "They were inaccurate". Later she said they "lied" to her.

- She admitted the Gauteng health department is broke

Mahlangu stated: "What do you do with a lack of budget‚ yet needs are growing on a daily basis?"

She explained: "You rob Peter to pay Paul."

She also admitted that the department did not budget for the many medical negligence cases it faces. This may explain why many lawyers who win millions for babies damaged at birth have to use the sheriff to attach Gauteng health department assets to force them to pay the money owed.

- She denied ever hearing from the families asking for help

Mahlangu said she gave concerned families her cell number before the move‚ but never heard from them. "I gave the patient families my number in case they had concerns. I don't remember receiving one phone call." However‚ the Sunday Times reported on detailed email exchanges between Mahlangu and Marion Conway - the daughter of a severely ill patient‚ who explained repeatedly to Mahlangu that her mother needed 24-hour care.

- She accidentally pressed "reply all" and got caught appearing to lie

Section 27 advocate Adila Hassim has a way of catching people out on the stand.

Mahlangu faced a line of questioning as to why she didn’t tell the truth in the Gauteng legislature about all the concerns over the Esidimeni move. The Democratic Alliance's Jack Bloom had asked various questions about the move in September 2016 and Mahlangu didn’t explain that NGO Precious Angels was implicated in many deaths. Hassim wanted to know why Mahlangu had withheld this information.

Hassim detailed a letter sent to Mahlangu from Section 27 and the SA Depression and Anxiety Group (Sadag) that outlined family member Christine Nxumalo's experience hunting for her sister who had died at Precious Angels.

Mahlangu tried to suggest she didn't get the email‚ meaning she didn’t withhold information from the legislature. "It does not mean I read every correspondence addressed to me. I am not saying I didn’t receive it. I am not sure I dealt with it personally or it was sent to a person in my office."

Hassim then told the hearing Mahlangu had pressed reply all to the email - and sent her response criticising Sadag and Section 27 right back to them. Mahlangu wrote to her lawyer saying: "These NGOs are dishonest" but she accidentally sent it to Section 27.

This showed she saw the letter‚ she didn’t take it seriously and withheld the information in the letter from the legislature‚ suggested Hassim.

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