Tucked away in the old-money suburb of Parktown and surrounded by old-establishment institutions such as Charlotte Maxeke Academic Hospital, Wits Education campus and bordered to the east by the inner-city suburb of Hillbrow is the Emoyeni conference centre.
The conference centre recently acquired a new upscale neighbour in the form of Nelson Mandela’s Children Hospital, with a huge board overlooking the M1, written “to be opened soon”.
The venue has a Victorian ambience, with the sprawling lawns, pavilions and a deck overlooking greenery. It is undoubtedly a place of serenity that offers stressed-out clients an opportunity to reconnect with nature in Joburg.
“Life Esidimeni, turn right in straight through after filling the book,” a mild-mannered guard whisks me inside.
The mood became sombre as soon I climbed the stairs leading to the main venue, where retired deputy chief justice Dikgang Moseneke’s authoritative voice could be heard booming from speakers mounted in the lobby of the venue.
Two breakaway venues are marked “counselling room.” On this day, they are not occupied.
“You are under oath. Please answer yes or no. Please don’t waste our time. You have very many other questions coming your way, try and not concoct many other excuses, the answer is yes or no,” an irritated Moseneke ordered.
The media is sparse during this week’s hearings, which resumed this morning with the evidence leader and a lawyer for Section 27 grilling the deputy director responsible for NGOs in the mental health unit of the province, Hannah Jacobus.
Five hours into the hot seat, Jacobus finally admits she was part of the illegal conduct that led to the death of as many as 140 patients transferred to unregistered and ill-equipped NGOs around the province.
Family members and relatives of victims in the overflow room, far from Moseneke’s stern look of disapproval at those verbally participating, started clapping when she did, and some said bribery was the motivating factor in this whole saga.
Tea and lunch breaks are a strict regiment, with Moseneke, the evidence leaders and other counsels heading upstairs. Family members and support staff congregate under umbrellas in the porch outside having private conversations.
I take a chair right at the end of a long table reminiscent of a garden wedding. The two guys offering me mindless chitchat are sign-language interpreters. It doesn’t take much to figure out this has been taxing on them too.
There could be about 200 people in the venue. Besides Moseneke, a subdued health ombudsman Prof Malegapuru Makgoba listens attentively as the evidence is led. He released the report that recommended an alternative dispute resolution.
The deputy director-general for communications in Premier David Makhura’s office, Thabo Masebe, is as cool as a cucumber in the blistering heat. “You finally made it. Well done!” he teases me as we exchange pleasantries.
Advocate Adila Hassim is a tough as nails, the kind of a lawyer who does not tick at the sight of tears. She is polite to a fault, but don’t be fooled. “That doesn’t make sense, let me ask the question differently,” she punches holes in Jacobus evidence when she fails to answer whether the marathon project broke the very same regulations she issued.
“Can I speak to her?” I enquire from a gentleman who introduced himself as an employee of Section 27. “Absolutely not. She is cross-examining witnesses, but we are also trying to avoid complications at all costs,” he said with a smile.
The overflow room is also packed with employees and managers from some affected NGOs. When Jacobus does not answer Moseneke’s question on how she and Dr Manamela chose the NGOs that were part of the project, the responses come thick and fast in the overflow room.
“Bribery. Say it. You were also involved. You agreed with Manamela because you both took kickbacks from the NGOs. You and the MEC. Those are crocodile tears.” I battle to suppress a chortle at the running commentary.
Former health MEC Qedani Mahlangu is expected to appear at the hearing next week Monday, with one media aide offering sage words of advice: “Be here bright and early, it will be packed. And don’t share the WiFi password.”