Suspended Gauteng department of health boss Dr Barney Selebano told the Life Esidimeni arbitration hearing this morning that he closed several NGOs after receiving a call from Health Minister Dr Aaron Motsoaledi.
“Dr Motsoaledi called me and said, you have to intervene. He said, Barney, you can’t afford to have any more people dying. I said, you have to write a letter to the MEC [Qedani Mahlangu] and inform her that you have made a decision. Indeed the letter was written, and I ran around making sure I close those NGOs,” Selebano told the arbitration hearing.
Proceedings were momentarily delayed when Selebano’s counsel sought clarity from the chairperson, retired deputy chief justice Dikgang Moseneke, on the process following two judgments delivered by Johannesburg South High court Judge Danny Burger.
Burger not only denied Selebano’s application to be excused from the hearings by setting aside the subpoena, but also dismissed the application for an appeal, stating there were no reasonable prospects for a different judgment.
Selebano kicked off his submission, which Moseneke warned would be arduous and highly “debated”, by answering questions on the grounds for issuing a September 29, 2015, “letter of notice of cancellation of contract between department and Life Esidimeni”.
Selebano told the evidence leader “the noticed was issued on the advice of managers from finance, mental health and legal” after he was “told to sign”.
This response elicited robust cross-examination from both the evidence leader and Mosekene, as they both pressed Selebano on how he dispensed his duties as the head of department.
He attributed everything to the public service bureaucratic system, which he said kept him from intervening even in cases where there was prima facie evidence that patients transferred to illegal NGOs were facing hardships.
“There was fiscal pressure, the contract has been there for a long time, and there was a certain amount [paid], and it was felt that it was high. It was one of the contracts where it was discussed to find the same way of getting the same value at a lower cost. It is known that the department of health has pressures because demand of inward migration … under pressure to provide services,” Selebano told the hearings.
He vehemently denied as unreasonable the expectation that he should have been on top of the project once the decision to distribute the patients to different NGOs around the province was taken.
Reassuring Moseneke that he was not “obfuscating” his failure to give direct answers, Selebano said: “At a granular level, the HOD will not not know. The mental health directorate said this is how we are going to move patients.”
He conceded that despite agreeing with this recommendation after receiving a presentation from Dr Makgabo Manamela and her team of deputy directors and assistant directors, he left it to the “workforce” to implement.
When asked why he didn’t intervene much earlier to prevent the death of the patients, he mentioned being “careful not to jump my colleagues and speak to deputy directors and assistant directors”.
He stressed several times that his red line in the department was only to Dr Lebethe, who is the deputy director-general in charge of clinical services. He said it was Lebethe’s responsibility to then convey his concerns to Dr Phila Mazamisa, a chief director whose directorate oversaw Dr Manamela’s work.
He said when he received the call from Dr Motsoaledi, 36 people had already died: “It was emergency, and I told them we are running. The MEC called a meeting where the whole matter was discussed. Personally, I was no longer interested in meetings. I wanted to save as much as possible.”
Selebano also told Moseneke he did not seek political permission from his immediately supervisor, Mahlangu, as this was a purely administrative matter that had received an in-principle greenlight at prior meetings. He said if he had tried receiving a go-ahead from his political principal, that would have delayed the decision to cancel the contract unnecessarily.
The hearings continue.
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