The hearing is investigating the consequences that resulted from the decision of the Gauteng Department of Health to cancel its contract with Life Esidemeni who had been providing long-term, specialized care to severely mentally disabled people for more than 20 years. The Department’s motivation in doing so was to cut costs.
The plan was strongly opposed by practitioners, civil society organizations and families. The Department nevertheless went ahead and even continued to discharge patients after reports that some had died in the NGOs in which they had been placed.
One thousand seven hundred patients (1700) were discharged to NGOs that lacked the capacity to care for them. Their families were not informed where they had been placed and had to search for them. The subsidies were not paid to the NGOs for four months.
One hundred and forty three (143) patients subsequently died of neglect -malnutrition, cold and lack of medication. Some were buried without the knowledge of their families, and some of those who died remain unidentified.
The whereabouts of 59 are unaccounted for.
To this day family members lack.information about exactly how the situation came about and who made the decisions that sent these patients to their deaths.
This is one of the biggest scandals in mental health care in post-apartheid South Africa. Despite a constitution that places a high value on dignity and a progressive Mental Health Care Act that promotes the rights of users and standards and responsibilities in terms of provision of care, treatment and rehabilitation, it takes mental health care practitioners and officials at every level to be committed to the rights and well-being of mental health care users to make this a reality.