By Nomali Cele
“What happens when many people are involved in a tragedy like this, [is that] we never really get to hear much about individuals.” – John Perlman
The first time it really sunk in for me what was happening with Life Esidimeni was during an investigative programme where two mothers of former Life Esidimeni patients were asking for help. One mother had a daughter whose mental illness manifested in violent outbursts. The woman was visibly afraid and distressed throughout filming. The Gauteng Health Department had tried to move her daughter kilometres away from home but told her that since she said the NGO was too far for her to visit, she could take her daughter home.
The other mother, older and frailer, shared that her daughter had been moved to a group home that didn’t seem very capable of catering to her daughter’s needs. Life Esidimeni was a service the mother needed because she was far too old to take care of her daughter herself. This investigative programme showed both stories to then-Gauteng Health Department MEC who seemed bored and irritated.
This is how I remember the Life Esidimeni tragedy. Not just as 144 nameless people but as these two mothers pleading for help from the Gauteng Health Department. In the nearly two years since patients were first moved from Life Esidimeni, not enough of the deceased are known outside of the 144. Christine Nxumalo is changing this for her sister.
“My sister was my everything, I have known her all my life,” said Christine Nxumalo on Today with John Perlman. She detailed the difficulty the family faced when they realised that Makhaphela would have to live in a care facility such as Life Esidimeni.
Christine Nxumalo’s sister, Virginia Makhaphela, suddenly became ill later in life. Before Life Esidimeni, Nxumalo remembers her sister as the strong woman who raised her when her mother passed away in Nxumalo’s mid-teens. She described their relationship as a close one. Nxumalo says in the two years at Life Esidimeni, her sister’s health vastly improved and all seemed to be well.
[LISTEN] Christine Nxumalo talks about her beloved sister, Virginia on Today with John Perlman
But in early in 2016, the Gauteng Health Department announced it would be moving mental health patients from Life Esidimeni to NGOs — we would later learn that a number of these NGOs were unlicenced. Her sister was moved to Precious Angels, the NGO facility in Attridgeville where 20 Life Esidimeni patients died. And this is where the confusion began.
Nxumalo has said she was she was notified that her sister would be moved to Cullinan Care and Rehabilitation Centre but no one could help her locate Makhaphela for a couple of months. Communication with Ethel Ncube, owner of Precious Angels NGO didn’t lead to any answers about Virginia Makhaphela. Late in August 2016, Ncube informed Nxumalo that her sister had passed away.
During her conversation with John Perlman, Nxumalo also touched on the fact that the arbitration process hasn’t given families the closure they’d hoped for. She spoke about still not knowing what caused her sister’s death and the guilt not knowing if her decision to put her in care in the first place was the correct one. Nxumalo can’t be the only family member who lost a loved one in this tragedy feeling this way.
As the arbitration process comes to a close and recommendations are made, it’s time for us as a society to decide how we want to remember these 144 people. This culture failed them in life — someone somewhere clearly viewed patients with mental ailments as disposable — it’s now time to decide how we will hold their names up in death. We have to decide that deaths like these can never happen again. We have to remember.