Former Gauteng Health MEC Qedani Mahlangu has been accused of withholding the truth from the provincial legislature regarding the challenges being faced by NGOs after she was alerted of the challenges ahead of her appearance before the legislature.
As the Life Esidimeni saga was unfolding, Mahlangu initially reported to the legislature that she had only received one complaint about an inadequate NGO, despite receiving a complaint from Section 27 and the South African Depression and Anxiety Group (SADAG) about the state of the Precious Angels facility.
"At the time, I was made to believe that the information was correct and in the absence [of more information], I could not have answered [the legislature] differently," she told the Life Esidimeni hearings on Monday.
Mahlangu said she believed that things were going well at the facilities because the Head of Department (HOD), Dr Barney Selebano, and former health head Makgabo Manamela, who informed her of all the processes regarding the NGOs, had not alerted her of any challenges before she provided answers to the legislature's health committee.
Section 27 lawyer Advocate Adila Hassim said Mahlangu was not forthcoming to the legislature regarding complaints about the NGOs as per her constitutional obligation.
Mahlangu, however, denied the claims.
Shock, disappointment at being 'misled'
"I never misled the legislature. Everything I presented before them was based on the information I received from the department," she said.
Mahlangu saw the communique expressing concern about the facility before she appeared before the legislature.
She said she did not know why officials at the health department, including Selebano, would have misled her with incorrect information, but expressed her shock and disappointment.
The "feared" former MEC was speaking during her first day on the witness stand at the hearings in Parktown, Johannesburg.
She had been responding to a question on why she did not alert the legislature about the complaints regarding the inadequate facilities.
The former MEC appeared dejected and often irritated when answering questions posed to her by Hassim.
Staff asked to 'show leadership'
Retired deputy justice and arbitration chair Dikgang Moseneke questioned the department's surprising disregard for professionals and dissenting opinions of civil society groups in the mental healthcare fraternity.
He said it was a recurring feature among officials who had testified.
Mahlangu told the panel that she began to mistrust the reliability of information she was receiving from health officials during the saga as more complaints and media reports surfaced. She began thinking it was a political game.
"I began not trusting the information I was attaining from health officials during the saga," she said, adding that it might be used against the department to attain some sort of political objective.
In an email Mahlangu was asked to read out, she instructs her juniors to "show leadership" and get lawyers involved as more people lose their lives and family members speak out.
Mahlangu ended the mail with the words: "These NGOs are dishonest", instructing them to lawyer up after more emails from civil society groups.
Mahlangu said she could not recall what led to that.
"I really have to refresh my mind," she said.
Mahlangu was instrumental in the transfer of more than 1 000 mentally ill patients from the Life Esidimeni healthcare facility to various, sometimes unlicensed NGOs, which saw the death of more than 140 vulnerable people. More than 50 are still unaccounted for.
She told the panel that by September 2016, she knew of 36 deaths – all due to natural causes.
Official figures show that at this time, the death toll linked to the deadly move was at 86, and the deaths were not natural.
She explained that she decided to take political accountability.
"I realised that things had gone horribly wrong under my leadership," she said.
Mahlangu said her resignation in February 2017 was sufficiently demonstrated her accountability and that she took responsibility, and she felt no need to challenge or appeal the report by Health Ombudsman Malegapuru Makgoba despite disagreeing with his findings against her.
Makgoba found in the report that Mahlangu's conduct amounted to negligence.
'I do not agree with Makgoba's findings'
After much questioning, Mahlangu finally said she accepted the recommendations and contents of the report, but took issue with the finding that her conduct amounted to negligence.
She said she was not an administrator.
"I do not agree with [Makgoba's] findings relating to me personally or my capacity as then MEC for health, I deny the capacity of his findings," she said. The former MEC initially testified that she had commissioned the report of the ombudsman after she found out about the 36 deaths, but Hassim said that Makgoba testified that Health Minister Dr Aaron Motsoaledi, initiated the report.
She testified that she was advised by Selebano to terminate the contract with Life Esidimeni based on a legal opinion that Selebano had sought and received.
Mahlangu resigned on the eve of the release of the report by the ombudsman, before jetting off to an international school to further her studies.
- This article was written by Nation Nyoka, and first published in News24
Photo Courtesy: SABC News