Esidimeni mastermind forced out, but ‘I’ll believe it when I see it’
Families react with disbelief as ANC finally says Qedani Mahlangu must quit the provincial executive
Family members affected by the Life Esidimeni tragedy could not believe that one of its architects, Qedani Mahlangu, is finally facing the consequences for her role in the saga that led to 144 deaths.
She resigned as Gauteng health MEC in 2017, but in July was re-elected as a member of the Gauteng ANC leadership, the provincial executive committee.
On Monday, the senior leadership in the national ANC said she had to resign from the provincial executive with immediate effect. In 2017, Mahlangu moved more than 1,400 mentally ill patients out of Life Esidimeni institutions, despite desperate pleas by families not to move their loved ones into ill-equipped NGOs. As a result, 144 patients died of cold, pneumonia, hunger and neglect.
Following a hearing into the events, Judge Dikgang Moseneke found Mahlangu “acted with impunity, thinking that she will get away with murder because the (mental healthcare) users and their families were vulnerable and poorly resourced”.
On Tuesday, it emerged that ANC deputy secretary-general Jessie Duarte wrote to the provincial office in November that Mahlangu should resign with immediate effect, but could remain a member of the party.
The DA’s Jack Bloom suggested she was forced out because of the forthcoming general elections in May 2019.
Family member Nompilo Nkosi was stunned that Mahlangu was finally pushed out of the ANC leadership: “Are you sure? I will believe it when I see it.”
Nkosi’s brother survived the tragedy despite becoming thin and withdrawn after being moved to Cullinan Care and Rehabilitation Centre, where patients were sleeping on the floor.
Nkosi testified at the arbitration hearings that she was very involved in helping other family members who lost loved ones.
“Has she resigned? I am shocked. Are you sure ? Give me a moment to comprehend [the news].”
When Nkosi saw a copy of the letter that had been sent to Mahlangu from the ANC, she said she needed time to digest its contents.
“I normally read and re-read again , then process; bear with me, please. I am in shock.”
Mahlangu did not respond to phone calls and a text message sent to her personal phone.
Earlier this year, the ANC Gauteng integrity committee proposed that she be kicked out of both the leadership and the party, but the PEC dug in its heels and she was re-elected in July. Family members were outraged at the time.
Esidimeni family committee spokesperson Christine Nxumalo said in July: “If the ANC represents the people and is for the people‚ then how are these elections reflective of the will of the people?”
Nxumalo sounded elated when she heard the news of Mahlangu’s expulsion from the ANC leadership on Tuesday. She couldn’t believe the news at first.
“Honestly, I am shocked. I actually thought it was a hoax. This these are first steps of accountability, you know.”
Nxumalo lost her sister, Virgina Macphelah, who she had been searching for in July 2017 after realising she had been moved from a Life Esidimeni institution. Nxumalo was notified of her sister’s death by the NGO owner only days after.
The day the Esidimeni hearings started, Macphelah’s 21- year-old daughter died suddenly of undisclosed causes.
Another member of the family committee, Nomvula Nonjabe said: “My view is that it’s a good thing that they have finally made the right decision. It has been long overdue.”
But she said families want the leaders whose decision led to the deaths to be criminally prosecuted. “It should not end with her stepping down. There are still criminal charges outstanding.”
Nonjabe’s sister survived the tragedy but Nonjabe was elected onto the family committee and worked with NGO Section 27 to help family members who lost loved ones.
Mahlangu appeared before Life Esidimeni hearings in January where Moseneke praised her for resigning, saying it was unusual for a public servant to do so.
She described testifying one of the “worst weeks of my life” as family members heckled her and accused her of crying crocodile tears.