Accountability Watch

Gauteng deaths: finally, some accountability, but not enough

Qedani Mahlangu
Qedani Mahlangu.jpg

The death of at least 94 mentally ill patients in Gauteng finally saw an ANC government accepting some political responsibility and accountability, but that is not the one swallow that makes a summer.

The resignation of the Gauteng provincial government’s MEC for Health, Qedani Mahlangu, after a damning report by the Health Ombudsman (Malegapuru Makgoba on her department’s Mental Health Marathon project), is not the usual response of the ANC – from President Jacob Zuma down.

The prime example of the ‘normal’ pattern is the one that followed on the Public Protector’s report on the upgrade to President Zuma’s private Nkandla residence, where state officials were blamed, and where even a court judgement that he had violated his constitutional oath of office was ignored.

Almost the only exception was the resignation as a member of parliament and of other political positions by Minister Pallo Jordan when his fake qualifications came to light.

In the case of Mahlangu there was no attempt to blame either the officials fingered in the report or others. She also said she accepted political responsibility.

It is, however, interesting that her resignation came a day before the report was released, leading to speculation that she was under political pressure to do so and the timing was aimed at avoiding political embarrassment.

However, it might not be the last word from her, and there might still be a fight-back regarding the findings of the report. In her letter of resignation, she wrote: “In this communication‚ I propose not to raise issue with its findings or recommendations.” (Our emphasis.)

The head of the Gauteng government, premier David Makhura, in accepting Mahlangu’s resignation, said, “she fully understands that if something goes profoundly wrong in your area of responsibility and executive authority‚ you have to take direct accountability and not pass the buck to junior officials.”

He promised to improve the care of the surviving patients and said he has instructed the Director General in the Office of the Premier to urgently institute appropriate action to deal with the recommendations of the Ombudsman. He also tendered an apology to residents of Gauteng, especially to the families of the deceased, saying such incidents would never happen again.

There was, however, no indication that he, as head of government, was willing to accept any personal political responsibility for what has happened.

Fight-back to come

There are signs that the events in Gauteng might have triggered a fight-back in broader society, and even from inside the ANC, against the culture of non-accountability. The story is far from over.

Even the ANC’s Youth League (ANCYL) in Gauteng has demanded that Makhura resign as premier, saying they would occupy his office if he didn’t. They also laid criminal charges against him and Mahlangu, as did the Economic Freedom Fighters, for allegedly committing murder.

Ironically, in the meantime the ANC itself and the SACP in Gauteng have welcomed interventions put in place by Makhura, with the ANC saying he had demonstrated continued accountability by the provincial government. The SACP criticised the DA and those who sought to “hijack and manipulate” the ombudsman’s report for internal factional battles within the ANC and its alliance.

The NGO Section 27 said it was also looking at legal alternatives and consulting with families of the deceased. Cathy Chambers, operations director of the South African Depression and Anxiety Group (Sadag), said the organisation would study the full report and look into the legal options available to them.

The DA’s Gauteng health spokesperson, Jack Bloom, pointed out that despite the department’s view that patients were moved to the NGOs to cut down on expenses, it might have to spend billions to compensate the families of the victims.

The Treatment Action Campaign said: “We do not consider Mahlangu’s resignation to provide sufficient accountability for the lives lost, due to her gross mismanagement of mental healthcare in Gauteng. She must face criminal charges.”

The relatives of the victims are organised in the Life Esidimeni Relatives Committee and one of its members, Ivan Lukhele, was quoted as saying that while the report and response to it were positive, it was too little, too late. “Unfortunately, with our government it seems people have to die, have to protest, before anything’s done.”

If the response to the charges laid, and to the compensation claims likely to follow, is not satisfactory, a class action and/or prosecution by the newly established private prosecuting unit of AfriForum, led by Gerrie Nel, just might come into play.

by Steve Whiteman

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