I wasn't fully involved in Esidimeni tragedy – health official

'But I was not innocent bystander'

Dr Richard Lebethe
Dr Richard Lebethe
Image: Freddy Mavunda

A Gauteng senior health official who has been implicated in the Life Esidimeni tragedy has continued to distance himself from the planning and implementation of the marathon project which saw 144 mental health patients die.

Dr Richard Lebethe, who says he was asked by then MEC for Gauteng health Qedani Mahlangi to visit some of the non-governmental-organisations before 1,700 patients were moved, insisted that he was not fully involved, but does not ultimately see himself as an innocent bystander.

“I am not necessarily an innocent bystander. It's quite a difficult situation,” said Lebethe.

This was revealed at the Life Esidimeni inquest which aims to find if there can be any criminal liability for the deaths. 

Section27's Adv Thabang Pooe pointed to a number of letters that showed concern about the project which were sent to health officials, including him.

“Do you agree that this [letter] was a thorough warning of the implications?” asked Pooe. Lebethe agreed that psychiatrists had shared their concerns on the movement of patients.

“At that stage I was not as yet fully involved,” he said.

Lebethe said the letter would have been replied to by officials such as former director for Gauteng mental health Makgabo Manamela and Mahlangu.

“At that stage I don't think I had a look at it exactly at that time... no I can't remember,” said Lebethe.

Pooe asked if he took the responsibility to catch up on what he missed at meetings he did not attend or left early. 

“Although I tried it was difficult to cope... more than that there was a team... I felt covered, but much more bigger was the other responsibilities which would have been difficult to carry them all simultaneously,” said Lebethe.

He also said he was not responsible for officially checking NGOs but was only there to visit the facilities for a general look.

“At Precious Angels there was specialists from mental health who were part of the team, I was called from somewhere else when the visit was almost finished,” said Lebethe.

He said his role after the deaths were reported was to ensure that forensics and postmortems of the dead mental health patients were completed. He said the deaths of patients could not have been seen with 100% certainty.

“Situations especially when you deal with patients are not absolute,” he said.

When asked if, as a medical doctor, he believes the movement of patients could have caused illnesses such as pneumonia he said he cannot say.

“Infections do not depend on movement or lack of it. I can get an infection at home or when going to the National Prosecuting Authority's offices,” said Lebethe.

Lawyers for Levi Mosenogi, who was the head of the Life Esidimeni project, told the court that he would be testifying that Lebethe was in fact a key part of operations and in his role as the deputy director-general of clinical services often chaired meetings.

“You were very much operational as far as this project was concerned, hence you were in the meeting and various meetings and the fact that when resolutions were taken you were part of them,” said Mahlapi.

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