Nokukhanya Mntambo9 July 2024 | 4:38

Life Esidimeni tragedy: Families still reeling from deaths of loved ones

More than 140 mental health patients died in 2016 following a botched project meant to move thousands of patients from the Life Esidimeni hospital to ill-equipped NGOs and public facilities.

Life Esidimeni tragedy: Families still reeling from deaths of loved ones

A collage of the families of the victims of the Life Esidimeni tragedy with pictures of the loved ones that they lost. Picture: @LifeEsidimeni/Twitter

JOHANNESBURG - The families of the victims in the Life Esidimeni tragedy continue to be haunted by the deaths of their loved ones almost a decade after the harrowing event.

More than 140 mental health patients died in 2016, following a botched project meant to move close to 2,000 patients from the Life Esidimeni Hospital to ill-equipped non-governmental organisations (NGOs) and public facilities.

This week, the Pretoria High Court will determine whether anyone should be held criminally liable for the deaths.


- Families of Life Esidimeni victims worried perpetrators won't be punished

- Life Esidimeni inquest: Mahlangu says she couldn't have foreseen the tragedy

- Life Esidimeni inquiry: Manamela denies hiding key info about patient deaths

- Life Esidimeni: Selebano concedes warnings over patient transfers were ignored

For Christine Nxumalo, the death of her sister, Virginia, in August 2016 is still unbelievable.

“The doctors told us at Charlotte Maxeke, ‘your sister might outlive all of you’. That’s how well she is, so we didn’t expect her to be dying.”

Nxumalo said 50-year-old Virginia suffered from Alzheimer’s but remained upbeat and active even during the episodes of memory loss.

She added that it was difficult to reconcile her last image of Virginia on a cold slab at the mortuary with the woman she knew and loved.

“The doctor that did the postmortem says they stuffed cabbage leaves down her throat, so when the autopsy is done, it gave the impression that she was fed.”

Of the fatalities reported at NGOs, the majority of deaths happened at Precious Angels.


The inquest is now expected to determine if the owner, Ethel Ncube, is complicit in the deaths.

As the country awaits judgement on the Life Esidimeni inquest, the Democratic Alliance (DA)’s Jack Bloom, who exposed the tragedy in 2016, is worried that the country’s public healthcare sector is a ticking time bomb.

Bloom has again painted a grim picture of the ailing state of public healthcare as the Life Esidimeni tragedy and the COVID-19 disaster continues to pile pressure on State institutions.

In a scathing 56-page report by then Health Ombudsman Malegapuru Makgoba, several deficiencies in the public health sector were laid bare.

They include a lack of planning, poor implementation, lax internal controls, political interference and the complete disregard for objections raised by the families and lobby groups.

Almost a decade after the failed marathon project, Bloom said little had been done to prevent another crisis in the health sector.

“I think the real atrocities are invisible. I think it’s the subsidy that isn’t paid on time, the subsidy that’s withdrawn without good reason, it’s the rampant corruption, it’s the money that is wasted and for mental health patients, I still don’t think we’re doing the best for them.”

He believes the lack of infrastructure at some facilities, including at the Sterkfontein Psychiatric Hospital, is a recipe for disaster.

“I do think there is a silent Esidimeni as we speak.”

The inquest is set to determine if former Health MEC Qedani Mahlangu and other officials were complicit in the deaths.


There is hope that the judgement in the Life Esidimeni inquest will hold those responsible for the 144 deaths accountable.

Bloom further said the 2016 Life Esidimeni tragedy was an indictment on government, as he again levelled harsh criticism against the Gauteng Department of Health.

Mahlangu, former head of department (HOD) Barney Selebano and the former head of the Mental Health Directorate Makgabo Manamela are all at the centre of the Life Esidimeni tragedy.

They’re believed to have been the decisionmakers that led to the termination of the longstanding Life Esidimeni contract without the due diligence done.

Bloom said officials in the provincial Health Department failed to uphold their oath of office.

“I think what stands out for me is how arrogant Qedani Mahlangu was, no one stood up to her. And now they’re all blaming each other.”

The Pretoria High Court is expected to hand down judgement in the Life Esidimeni inquest on Wednesday.