At least 30 witnesses expected at inquest into Life Esidimeni deaths

Gill Gifford Senior journalist
Families of patients who died in the Life Esidimeni tragedy sing outside the venue where arbitration hearings took place in 2018. File photo.
Families of patients who died in the Life Esidimeni tragedy sing outside the venue where arbitration hearings took place in 2018. File photo.
Image: Thulani Mbele

Monday sees the start of weeks of evidence as the formal inquest into the deaths of at least 144 Life Esidimeni psychiatric patients begins in the Pretoria high court.

The inquest hearing, which will run for an as-yet undetermined period but is expected to last more than a month, will establish who is liable for the deaths and if anyone should face criminal charges.

Details of how the patients died in the Life Esidimeni tragedy will unfold, with witnesses of all kinds called to give evidence before presiding judge Mmonoa Teffo.

At least 30 witnesses, including national and provincial government officials who were responsible for making the decisions leading to the deaths, will be called to testify.

Sasha Stevenson of public interest law centre Section27 said the inquest will start with opening statements from the evidence leaders and Section27. Witnesses will then give oral evidence.

Evidence leader advocate Pieter Luyt will ask the witnesses to tell what they know about what happened in the Life Esidimeni tragedy in their evidence-in-chief. Once they are finished, they can then be cross-examined by other lawyers involved and who may be representing other parties.

The first witness scheduled to take the stand is Cassey Chambers of the SA Depression and Anxiety Group, who will give an account of the process that was followed when the Gauteng department of health ordered that the mental health patients be removed from the private Life Esidimeni facilities and either sent home to their families or placed in the care of unregistered NGOs in what was intended to be a large-scale cost-cutting exercise.

Chambers is also expected to detail her involvement with the bereaved families and how the deaths unfolded.

“She will basically outline the whole story in broad strokes,” Stevenson said.

After that, Judge Teffo will decide on who she would like to hear from and set the pace at which the hearing will proceed.

Umunyana Rugege, Section27 executive director, said: “This is a fact-finding mission. It is an important and serious process, and we have faith in it to get to the bottom of the cause of the deaths.

“Causation is a difficult issue in law. Part of seeking justice is about seeing real accountability.”

Life Esidimeni family committee representative Christine Nxumalo said: “It is all part of closure. What the families want is to hold those responsible accountable, and this is also part of that.”

While Teffo is tasked with making recommendations at the end of the inquest, it will ultimately be up to the National Prosecuting Authority to decide what criminal charges, if any, will be laid, and who will be charged.

The inquest inquiry will be live-streamed and is open to the public to watch online via the Judiciary RSA YouTube channel or the South African Judiciary Facebook page.

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