Gauteng Premier David Makhura was lauded by the chairperson of the hearings, retired deputy chief justice Dikgang Moseneke, when he concluded his evidence submission for taking responsibility for the Life Esidimeni tragedy.
He told Moseneke and relatives of deceased mental health patients he would not trust the information provided to him by MECs and other government officials like he did the information provided to him during Qedani Mahlangu’s tenure at the health department.
Makhura’s last day of testimony kicked off with the question on what would have been the reason for Mahlangu misleading the premier budget council on transferring of patients to NGOs – she had said they would be absorbed into government hospitals: “I can’t think of a reason. I can only marvel at that. It can only be an exercise in shifting blame. I can’t do that. The buck stops with me.”
Makhura also conceded that the cancellation of the Life Esidimeni contract was not in line with the Mental Health Act, despite Mahlangu’s reliance on a clause that states that “mental healthcare users must be treated in the less restrictive ways possible”.
Makhura referred to the letter of cancellation for the contract that expressed that patients requiring further care would be referred to the hospital wards. The letter seemed to suggest that some would be transferred to NGOs.
“There are existing mental NGOs that are licenced and doing a pretty good job. I will say that the issue of transfer of patients of the NGOs under question, I wouldn’t say it is here in this statement,” he said.
Makhura explained to the hearing: “In 2016 I introduced a system, apart from meetings, every six weeks I meet with MECs to review the progress and their work with regards to the delivery of our priorities, give them feedback and crack the whip where there is no progress.”
He said after the disclosure that 36 patients died, he met with Mahlangu to establish “how many people died and how did they die” after a tip-off from his spokesperson.
“As I said they gave a number of figures and it was clear out of the meeting that they themselves have a problem tracking data. They figures will vary, it was more than 36. Even among them it was clear that more died”, he said.
After receiving ombudsman report on 11 February 2017, he said he made it clear that “the report is very serious”.
“She did say to me if it is that serious she will resign. You can’t fire someone who is resigning”.
The premier said he accepted Dr Selebano’s resignation, who gave scant reasons and said he had nothing to do with Dr Manamela’s resignation, as that would have to be dealt with by the MEC. He denied Mahlangu and two senior managers received a “golden handshake”, asking what the justification would be for offering disgraced officials exit packages when they had in fact acted recklessly in a project that resulted in more than 143 patients dying.
“Ms Mahlangu was an MEC of health before … on that basis I was confident she will be able to handle any portfolio … I didn’t have a doctor to appoint when I set up government in 2014.
“This is why I asked Dr Gwen Ramokgopa, who had retired from public service, to come back to the public service… there is no guarantee that if you have the highest qualification you will do better. I do want to look at what other skills people have,” Makhura responded when asked why he didn’t appoint competent people at the health department.
Makhura also disclosed that R1.8 billion of unauthorised expenditure had been referred to the special investigative unit (SIU), and made the connection between “financial irregularities and the decision to shut down Life Esidimeni”.
He also announced he would be instituting an intervention to prevent the “medico-legal scam” driven by lawyers and doctors in the province with the assistance of departmental officials. “Money just goes into wrong places. SIU will help us track all scams.”
He also confided to the hearing that he had been too trusting of his MECs in the past, giving them “the benefit of the doubt”, as he had no reason to doubt them. When Moseneke asked him exactly what was he going to do differently in future, Makhura said when he receives documents from his executive council, he would always remember that it may not be a true representation of what it claims it is and treat all information with circumspection.