Pretoria – An online memorial and advocacy project was launched yesterday to remember those who died in the Life Esidimeni saga and prevent a tragedy from happening again.
The formal inquest hearing into the Life Esidimeni saga is due to start on July 19 in the high court in Pretoria.
The website tells the stories of the horrors and hardships of the family members of 144 mentally ill patients who died from neglect and starvation while in the care of the public health system.
The government promised a proper memorial to all those who lost their lives in the tragedy, but never fulfilled that promise, said law centre Section27, which is part of the project.
The website and advocacy campaign gives a voice to the lived experiences of mental health users and their families, and puts a spotlight on the crisis of mental health care delivery in South Africa.
The platform also offers help through links to helplines and counselling services which offer referrals, information and support.
Cassey Chambers, of the South African Depression and Anxiety Group, who launched the project, said: “We must not forget. But we must remember so that we act to ensure it never happens again. We must talk until someone listens.”
Christine Nxumalo, head of the Life Esidimeni Family committee, said during the launch that until people with mental health challenges are treated differently, their work will continue. “This can never be over. It is important to talk about our stories. We must never forget this tragedy.”
Documentary filmmaker Harriet Perlman said the website would be an ongoing memorial and advocacy project. “It is a story of unimaginable horror and hardship. It is also a story of extraordinary courage and tenacity.”
She and her team visited several of the families who had lost loved ones in the Esidimeni tragedy and recorded their stories. They took pictures of them, in turn holding pictures of the family members they lost, which can be seen on the website.
Perlman said for many it was the only picture they had of their family member.
“This series of portraits pays tribute to the people who lost loved ones in the Life Esidimeni tragedy. We photographed people in their homes, holding a picture that they selected of their brother, sister or child who had died.
“Some of the pictures were taken on the last day they saw their loved one alive. Others at a family event. Some only had an official photo from an ID book. But no matter the photograph, every single picture held meaning for those left behind.
“Sometimes we heard the story of when the photo was taken. Or were reminded of a happy time. But it also stirred painful and ever-present memories of how their loved ones died. These photographs open a door to the past. And they also shed light on the present,” Perlman said.
A documentary film is due to be released next year about the tragedy.
Section27’s head of health rights, Sasha Stevenson, said they were representing about 35 of the families during the upcoming inquest. “We need state accountability and criminal accountability. While some accountability was achieved through the arbitration process, progress has been slow.”
Stevenson said there were still many unanswered questions, including how exactly some of these mental patients had died in the state facilities. On many of the police reports it was stated that they had died of natural causes, which was untrue, she said.
She explained that it was expected that the judge would listen to all the evidence and that she would, at the end, recommend whether some people be criminally charged.
It ultimately remained the decision of the National Prosecuting Authority to take the matter further.
Chambers meanwhile pointed out that the website was not only for the Esidimeni survivors and family: “Anyone can tell their story here, seek help for a mental problem or report any abuse.”
The website address is www.lifeesidimeni.org.za/lives-remembered.