94 Corpses and Counting: Inside South Africa’s Mental Deaths Horror
By Ray Mwareya
JOHANNESBURG, South Africa ‒ No single gunshot fired. 94 corpses. Still counting. The “worst hospital massacre” in South Africa.
This is the horrific tale of 94 mental health patients whose corpses, hidden at first, have now been counted.
“We expect to discover more bodies. The toll may reach 100,” warns Professor Malegapuru Makobga, South Africa´s Public Health Ombudsman. He is the man leading a judicial inspection into the tragedy.
Professor Makobga says mental health patients were ruptured from hospital sick beds, ferried in open-air trucks designed for cattle; dumped in unlicensed care homes; corpses laced with bizarre bruises and death certificates forged to fool families.
From 2015, over 817 mental health patients were sometimes forcibly, secretly seized from LifeCare Esidimeni, a well-equipped hospital, and shipped “like cows at auction” to mostly unlicensed care homes where starvation, untrained medics and fraudulent documentation gobbled 94 lives in mysterious circumstances.
0.4 % of all deaths in SA are due to mental health diseases. This group has a higher death rate due to treatment or surgical difficulties, says Dr.Pali Lehohla, South Africa´s Statistician General.
Today, some of the victims’ families are still combing mortuaries fearfully looking for hidden corpses of their loved-ones.
Death spiral begins
The death spiral begun in this way: In October 2015, the health minister of Gauteng, which is South Africa´s wealthiest and smallest, Ms. Qedani Mahlangu, gave a notice to take away 2000 mental patients from one Life Esidimeni Healthcare Hospital.
Life Esidimeni Healthcare is one of the biggest contractors that take care of mental health patients on behalf of the South African government.
The notice spelt out the minister´s desire to begin a five year gradual process where mental health patients from the hospitals would be transferred into home care environments.
Dubbed “deinstitutionalization” this meant – taking back mental health sufferers from formal hospitals into community homes care, near families.
“I am taking my patients away, I have better care homes,” the minister allegedly boasted to Lifecare Esidimeni Hospital, its psychiatrists say.
But, a five year project was mercilessly accelerated in six months.
The health minister and his aides began to pluck away hundreds of mental patients from the hospital.
All of the 24 care homes under accusation were operating unlawfully and unregistered, says the Ombudsman.
Head of The Voice of South Africa Federation for Mental Health, the country´s largest mental care union, Ms. Bharti Patel, calls it a “tragic madness.”
The newly-established care homes, were poorly selected, poorly prepared, absent of trained nurses.
Patients were transferred far off from families without family knowledge – also making it hard for families to visit, says Zane Wilson, founder of the South African Depression and Anxiety Group.
Professor Makgoba says: “Patients were transferred in inhumane cattle Lorries with drips removed, some with epilepsy, sores oozing puss, disabled patients not in wheelchairs tied but with bed sheets so they won’t fall off, shuttled around several care homes like ‘auction cattle’.”
These new care homes were “like concentration camps,” the South Africa Human Rights Council charges.
Several relatives began to notice malnourishment on their patients. Rotten bread, smelly cabbage, one meal a day – they say was the diet.
Marie Kotz 58, widow to Freddie Kotz (61) a depression patient who died when transferred to the unlicensed Mosego care Home in Krugersdorp town, west of Johannesburg, says: “His corpse had unexplained bruises. Freddie had wound to head, sore on nose, ankle bruises two hours before his death. Care givers only say he fell on lawn.”
With post mortem never done, his suspicious death certificate was written: “died at 17:00 of natural causes.”
“Yet I phoned at 17:30. They said he is asleep. My son phoned next morning. Don’t you know your father has died, they told him off.”
Walter Skosana manager of the Mosego Care Home refuses to talk of Freddie´s death. “It´s confidential,” he says.
Another example, was Mrs. Charity Ratsotso who died on 11th July 2016. The family was not notified until 20th December 2016, five months on, they say.
The care homes plead innocence. The minister did not pay them subsidies. This drove them into debt and patients into hunger and death, they claim.
So, 94 patients died between 23 March and 19 December 2016, says the health Ombudsman.
When cornered in parliament on 13 September 2016 to disclose the number of deaths, the minister made an astonishing claim. “Only 36,” she said.
By then, 77 patients had died then reveals South Africa´s health ombudsman.
Pressed to explain her dodgy numbers on deaths, the minister says: “I didn’t want to reveal correct numbers of deaths in parliament. It had become a political game. Institutions would be characterized as killing people.”
Rush to death
Qedani Mahlangu, the minister in the storm of deaths, claims: “It was a project to cut costs. Putting mental health patients into community homes would reduce state expenses.”
But, “This was a rush to death,” continues head of The Voice of South Africa Federation for Mental Health, Ms. Patel.
“When this tragic project progressed, the minister ignored expert medical advice to cancel it,” says Jack Bloom, a lawmaker for the Democratic Alliance, South Africa´s biggest opposition party.
Mr. Bloom was the first legislator to raise alarm about the scandal when he demanded the challenged the minister in parliament to reveal the death toll.
“94 deaths is no small matter in the life of any nation.”
“This scandal shows the devastating outcome when public data is poorly kept,” remarks Dr.Pali Lehohla, the statistician.
The minister, Ms. Mahlangu has been sacked from her job. She and senior health managers face multiple lawsuits and possible prosecution.
She says. “Sorry. Things went horribly wrong. The dead are giving me sleepless nights.”
South Africa plans to file a UN Expert Report detailing the scandal.
Ray Mwareya is a Citizen Reporter in South Africa.