Online memorial to remember 144 patients who died in Life Esidimeni tragedy

Karabo Ledwaba Journalist
Christine Nxumalo & her late sister Virginia Machpelah and late niece Shanice.
Christine Nxumalo & her late sister Virginia Machpelah and late niece Shanice.
Image: Mark Lewis

An online memorial and advocacy project to remember the lives of 144 mental health patients who lost their lives in the Life Esidimeni tragedy was launched on Thursday.

The memorial, launched by the Life Esidimeni family committee, Section27 and the SA African Depression and Anxiety Group (Sadag), shares haunting portraits and stories of family members with pictures of their deceased loved ones in an effort to make sure the tragedy is never forgotten.

One of the images is that of Mojanilu Selina Klaas and  her late sister Bernika Mokaneng. Klaas only has an ID book to remember her sister's face. 

"We have to remember these stories. We have to keep talking about the failed mental health system...if we remember it every day then we can stop it from happening again," said Sadag operating director Cassey Chambers.

The memorial project, led by documentary maker Harriet Perlman, has been in the works for two years. "This is an ongoing memorial for those who have lost loved ones in the Life Esidimeni tragedy," said Perlman.

Daniel and Lydia Maretele and his late sister Maria Maretele.
Daniel and Lydia Maretele and his late sister Maria Maretele.
Image: Mark Lewis

"We travelled to the families' homes and took portraits of them with pictures of their loved ones who had died. Some of the pictures were from the last day they saw them alive."

Perlman, who is also working on a feature film about the tragedy, said the website is also to assist those who are seeking help on how to report mental healthcare facilities and practitioners.

Chambers said the website also assists with the relevant contact details for useful numbers such as a gender-based violence line, Sadag mental health lines and health complaint lines. It also allows victims to share their experiences on the website or on a special Life Esidimeni SMS line. 

Christine Nxumalo, who has been at the forefront of the families seeking justice, said she hopes the website will help educate communities about mental health.

"So many of us were accused of dumping our family members in facilities and people don't realise how difficult that process is. I hope people will be considerate, think about the words we use to describe mental illness and break the stigma," she said.

Section27's head of health rights and lawyer Sasha Stevenson said currently, the organisation is gearing up for the July inquest into the tragedy which will be heard  in the North Gauteng High Court in Pretoria.

Stevenson, who will be representing 35 families, said although the state has accepted accountability, there is still a question on whether criminal prosecution can take place. "There is a need from families for there to be criminal responsibility if indeed a crime occurred," she said.

The inquest will determine if there  should be criminal liability and it will be up to the National Prosecuting Authority to proceed.

"We need a judge to rule on the legal cause of deaths, and if there is a criminal offence that led to the deaths, and ultimately if there needs to be a prosecution," said Stevenson.

"We look forward to this opportunity to present evidence to a judge and show where there may be links of criminal accountability."


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