Lingering questions haunt Life Esidimeni family members

A year on, the relatives of Life Esidimeni patients who perished in the spiral of abuse are still searching for answers.

Shanice Machpelah died with a broken heart.

The 21-year-old collapsed at her aunt’s house in Buccleuch, north of Johannesburg, a year ago today [October 9] as the Life Esidimeni hearings began in Parktown.

“We were just about to start and that’s when I got the call that she was struggling to breathe. By the time I got to the hospital, she was declared dead,” said her aunt Christine Nxumalo, her voice trailing off.

A picture of a smiling Machpelah embracing her mother, Virginia, hangs in the hall of Nxumalo’s house, where Machpelah had been staying for the last few years of her life. This photograph is just one of a number of ways in which Nxumalo is trying to keep the memory of her niece and her sister alive.

Now, a year later, Nxumalo said the family still doesn’t know what killed her shy niece who loved to sing, but suspects trauma played a part.

“When I spoke to the doctor, he said he can’t understand what’s wrong. He can’t see anything,” she said, adding that Shanice had been struggling with the flu and a cough weeks earlier. “They just couldn’t explain it. The only thing [the doctor asked] me was, ‘Was there any trauma?’ and I said, ‘There was a couple of years of trauma.’”

The trauma

The trauma resulted from the death of Machpelah’s mother, Virginia, after she was moved from the Life Esidimeni facility in Randfontein, west of Johannesburg, to Precious Angels in Atteridgeville, west of Pretoria.

Virginia was one of 144 people who died when the Gauteng health department moved mentally ill patients from Life Esidimeni facilities to a number of unlicensed NGOs. She had suffered from an aggressive form of dementia and the family had agreed to move her to Johannesburg from her home in Kimberly in the Northern Cape in 2013.

Machpelah had seen her mother’s health decline rapidly, and Nxumalo believes the 21-year-old didn’t tell the family the severity of the trauma of witnessing this.

“We tried to talk, but the only thing you can do is comfort each other,” she said. “It was very traumatic. I remember we were offered counselling because it was all happening very fast. It really was not good. Shanice just started at a new school, and I suppose as a child what she was feeling was very hard.”

After Machpelah’s mother had spent some time consulting with doctors in Johannesburg, they recommended that she be admitted to a Life Esidimeni mental health facility. “We were okay with it,” Nxumalo said. “After a month, there was a remarkable improvement in [Virginia’s] condition. It started looking okay.”

In 2016, the family was informed that Virginia would be moved at some point, as the Life Esidimeni facility was closing down. “We were told she would be going to a facility that would be able to provide the same level of care she received at Life Esidimeni.”

Then, in June 2016, Nxumalo received an SMS to say her sister had been moved to the Cullinan Care and Rehabilitation Centre in Cullinan, northern Gauteng. “But when I phoned, no one knew anything about my sister. They told me to contact Siyabadinga or Anchor – on the same grounds. I tried and tried, but no one knew where my sister was,” she said.

During the Life Esidimeni arbitration hearings, Nxumalo said that it took “about two-and-a-half weeks to get any sort of answers”, but she was still not able to track down Virginia.

On 25 August 2016, she received a call from Ethel Ncube, the owner of Precious Angels, to tell her her sister had died – she would later learn that Virginia had died 10 days earlier.

“When we got [there] Shanice was broken. She was broken. That day was horrible, horrible…” Machpelah accompanied her aunt to identify her mother’s body at a makeshift mortuary in Hebron, northwest of Pretoria. “Shanice was with me every time. We went back and forth because we weren’t able to find the place the first time. She came with me every time, but I did not know how broken she was,” Nxumalo said.

It was only when Nxumalo went to the police station to open an inquest into her sister’s death that she first realised how bad the situation was at Precious Angels. “When I was at the police station, the detective referred to ‘the others’. I asked, ‘What others?’ and she said, ‘There are eight other bodies’. I immediately stepped out of the office and phoned Section27 to tell them there was something wrong,” Nxumalo said.

At that stage, she had no idea she would play a key role in assisting Section27 with the investigation into the deaths of mentally ill patients. Nxumalo and Machpelah worked tirelessly to track down other families who had lost relatives as a result of the abuse and neglect at the new facilities.

The hearings

It all culminated in the hearings after more than a year of convincing families to tell their stories. “We were hoping to get answers, truthfully, but we knew there was going to be an element of not all the answers coming out,” Nxumalo said of the hearings.

“It’s better formed in our heads, but what we don’t have is what happened to the money … It would be nice to see all the little pieces of what happened and where they fit in … [But] there are still some pieces that [are] not there.”

Nxumalo missed the first two weeks of the hearings because of Machpelah’s death, but when she heard that Ethel Ncube would be testifying, she decided she had to go face her. “I remember saying to my husband, ‘I have to go. I need to go see this woman. I need to go see and just hear what she has to say,’” Nxumalo said. “And unfortunately she didn’t say anything other than to feel sorry [for herself] and play the victim. That was the first time I saw her face.”

Nxumalo was so angered by Ncube’s testimony and exacerbated by the lack of answers that former deputy chief Justice Dikgang Moseneke had to ask her to stop heckling. “I was angry. I was angry! I remember the judge had to shout at me because I was literally shouting back while she testified.”

Nxumalo still has unanswered questions. “I am just as much in the dark as I was before. Even now, still. We really did not get any answers out of that process.”

Nxumalo said despite the findings and recommendations following the hearings, there won’t be justice for Machpelah and her mother until people have been held accountable. “For me, we’re still pushing the [National Prosecuting Authority]. There has got to be a proper investigation … These people need to be prosecuted. A whole lot of people had been colluding. You can’t just let it go,” she said.

“We’re also waiting for the ANC to come back to us to explain how the hell she [Qedani Mahlangu, the member of the executive council responsible for the Life Esidimeni tragedy] could be appointed to the PEC [Provincial Executive Committee].”

Part of the reason Nxumalo took on all the responsibility was to ensure that the system changed. “I think for me personally, part of why [I] took this journey is so that, one, my sister … and all the other people didn’t die in vain. But also the idea is that this must never happen again,” she said. “For me, I am saddened that a year later nothing has changed. There has been nothing to show that they took this seriously.”

Ahead of the anniversary of Machpelah’s death and the start of the hearings, Nxumalo said the family still has no idea how they will commemorate it. “Funny enough, we actually haven’t been talking about [the anniversary]. I don’t know. I honestly don’t know. It’s almost like I wish I could just sleep and sleep it off. And not actually experience it. But she should be here, she should be here…”

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