HOD pleads for forgiveness, politicians next in the dock

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Gauteng Health suspended head of department Dr Barney Selebano ended his testimony ‘with a heartfelt plea for forgiveness, but this was only after contradictions were exposed in his evidence and he tried to evade responsibility for what occurred,” reports The Citizen.

The Life Esidimeni arbitration hearings had concluded this year with senior officials put under the spotlight and searing reactions from bereaved relatives, The Citizen reports that Democratic Alliance (DA) spokesperson and Gauteng MPL Jack Bloom said. “We now need to hear from the top politicians who are ultimately accountable for this tragedy in which 143 mental patients lost their lives.

Former health MEC Qedani Mahlangu is due to testify on 22 January next year, followed by Gauteng premier David Makhura, and national Health Minister Aaron Motsoaledi. I hope that they are not as evasive as the Gauteng Health Department officials who have appeared at the hearings,” he said.

The report says suspended head of department Barney Selebano ended his testimony “with a heartfelt plea for forgiveness, but this was only after contradictions were exposed in his evidence and he tried to evade responsibility for what occurred”.

It was clear that Mahlangu was the driving force behind the cancellation of the Esidimeni contract, and health officials were scared to challenge the reckless transfer of patients to illegally registered NGOs. Selebano had said the budget council chaired by Makhura approved the cancellation of the Esidimeni contract for budgetary reasons. Makhura’s knowledge of the Esidimeni transfers needed to be probed, including why he ignored warnings sent to him and alarming media reports, Bloom said.

“He also needs to answer why he failed to fire Mahlangu immediately after 36 deaths were revealed in response to my question in the Gauteng legislature on 13 September last year. This step would have saved many lives as Mahlangu and senior officials continued to cover up what was really happening.

“Furthermore, Health Minister Motsoaledi must account for his own ineffective action as the tragedy unfolded. There must be nothing less than full disclosure and sincere contrition from the politicians involved so that the families can find some sort of closure in this traumatic matter,” Bloom is quoted in the report as saying.

 

Selebano conceded that the lives of psychiatric patients were compromised and that he and his team were negligent when implementing the Life Esidimeni marathon project. Testifying for a second day, Eyewitness News reports that Selebano has not been able to explain why he ignored warnings from mental health professionals on the dangers of moving psychiatric patients from Life Esidimeni facilities.

The report says when the Gauteng Health Department decided to terminate its contract with the Life Esidimeni group, clinicians, psychiatrists and civil society organisations wrote emails and held meetings. They warned officials about the danger this would pose to the lives of psychiatric patients. These organisations and some families even took the department to court on an urgent basis to try and stop the project. Unfortunately, the court ruled in favour of the department.

 

Meanwhile, Legal Aid advocate Lilla Crous submitted to the hearing Selebano has shown no remorse for his role in the death of over 140 mentally ill patients. “If you are so eager to come and show what went wrong, why was it so difficult to get you here to come and testify…if you have nothing to hide?” she asked.

News24 reports that the same sentiment was echoed by Solidarity’s Dirk Groenewald. “You have not taken disciplinary action against any your employees. You have appealed the findings of the ombud, you have done everything in your power to not testify at these proceedings. You have not resigned, you have taken a salary for…10 months now,” Groenewald said.

Selebano retorted that he had not been afforded the opportunity to do so.

The report says the former head of department, who has previously worked as the CEO of Charlotte Maxeke Hospital, not only challenged the Health Ombudsman’s report of February, but also applied to set aside his subpoena to appear as a witness in the arbitration. His application was set aside.

He admitted to Groenewald the had not done anything to show accountability. “I’ve not done anything. I have not had an opportunity to do that,” Selebano said. He said that a lot could have been done, but added that an attempt to pay for the families’ funerals would have been perceived as a bribe.

Selebano also testified that he was well within his rights to appeal the finding of the Health Ombudsman, saying that he would not limit his Constitutional rights as a citizen. When asked if he would vacate his position, he gave a non-committal answer, saying that the matter would be ventilated at the disciplinary hearing.

“If anything goes wrong under your watch, whether you knew about it, whether you were active and involved in it, it doesn’t matter, you must stand up and take accountability for it,” he said.

Although the moving of patients was supposedly a cost-cutting one, which he admitted was unlawful, it was revealed that costs could have been saved when Health Minister Aaron Motsoaledi told to Parliament that there was more than enough to look after the patients.

The report says Selebano relied on the benefit of hindsight, saying that his actions would have been different had he known what the “unintentional and irreversible” effects would be. He testified that his intention wasn’t to cover anyone’s tracks. He said stepping down would mean that he would not be put in front of a disciplinary hearing, something he did not want to run away from.

“As the accounting officer, whether you knew about it or were active or not in it, you must stand up and say will you be held accountable for it,” he said. He said he did not know if he should get his job back after all that has happened.

The report notes that he has earned close to R1m before tax since his suspension.

The Citizen report
Eyewitness News report
News24 report


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