DEATHS OF MENTALLY ILL A TRAGEDY OF THE FIRST ORDER
“WHAT you do to the least of these you do unto me.” These immortal words of Jesus Christ uttered more than 2 000 years ago are, par excellence, apt in relation to the treatment of the mentally ill in South Africa. The Gauteng mental health project in which at least 94 mentally ill patients died in appalling conditions is a tragedy of the first order. In his damning report, the health ombudsman, Professor Malegapuru Makgoba, listed certain adverse findings, inter alia, that patients died unlawfully of starvation, thirst and the cold in overcrowded NGOs – all 27 were operating under invalid licences. He also found that the “high-level decision” to terminate the Life Esidimeni contract was taken “precipitously” and the transfer was “a total shambles”.
Mentally ill patients by virtue of their condition are probably the most vulnerable group and minority of persons in our land.
They, like all people, have fundamental rights in terms of the constitution.
However, mentally ill patients’ rights have to be exercised in a fiduciary manner for them, through those charged with their care. In this regard, the first responsibility rests with the political and administrative officials who take decisions relating to the care of such patients.
Next responsibility rests with the pro- fessional care workers and the supervising doctors who take decisions and oversee the treatment of such patients.
There is also a responsibility that rests with the public to ensure this vulnerable group receives the correct, compassionate and dignified treatment.
From Makgoba’s report, all these were found wanting.
Qedani Mahlangu, who has resigned as the MEC for health, and senior professional staff, who took the decision to relocate mentally ill patients, bear a very serious responsibility, both morally and legally. Metaphorically, Mahlangu should be weeping and wailing!