From Sharpeville to Esidimeni

William Saunderson-Meyer says the Gauteng govt leaders failed to do penance on Human Rights Day


Human Rights Day lesson is more than Sharpeville

Wednesday was Human Rights Day. On 21 March 1960, the police at Sharpeville had fired on a peaceful protest against the Pass laws, killing 69 and wounding 180.

The Sharpeville massacre reverberated around the world and indelibly shaped our history. In 1994, the first democratic government declared the day to be a public holiday, a time to reflect on our rights and how best to protect them.

As Parliament declares on its website: “We must remain vigilant and report abuse and cruelty, such as … violence against women, children, and the aged and other vulnerable groupings of people.” 

These are genuinely stirring sentiments: take the horrors of the past and mourn them, but also learn from them. Let them not be repeated.

It is fitting then that in a week dedicated to human rights, former Deputy Chief Justice Dikgang Moseneke released his arbitration finding into the Esidimeni tragedy. 

It follows Gauteng Health’s removal of over 1400 psychiatric patients from institutional care, to be callously dispersed among a multitude of dubious non-governmental organisations, many set-up with the sole purpose of accessing the state funding that accompanied the “money-saving” transfer. At least 144 patients died; 1418 were exposed to trauma, starvation and life-threatening illness; and 44 remain missing.

It is, writes Moseneke, “a harrowing account of the death, torture and disappearance of utterly vulnerable mental health care users in the care of a delinquent provincial government. It is also a story of the searing and public anguish of the families and of the collective shock and pain of many other caring people in our land and elsewhere.” 

Esidimeni – along with the Marikana massacre of 2012, when police shot dead 34 miners – is the nadir of human rights in the democratic era. Eerily, the phrases that describe what happened are redolent of the Apartheid era. 

He writes of “a terrible narrative… arbitrary mass displacement… coercive removals… pointed warnings ignored… unlawful instructions… murderous… reckless and uncaring officials… cruel, inhuman and degrading behaviour… places of death and torture… deaths from malnutrition, dehydration and exposure…. mismanagement, incompetence, fraud… misinformation…”

He writes that Gauteng Health’s leaders provided explanations “so improbable that they must be false … neither cogent nor rational … disingenuous and dishonest. Their actions were “vacuous… in blatant breach of the law and the Constitution”.

These officials and African National Congress politicians were in scornful contravention not only of SA’s legislative framework, but of the African Charter, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, and various United Nations conventions. The triumvirate most responsible – former health MEC Qedani Mahlangu, head of department Dr Barney Selebano and head of mental health Dr Makgabo Manamela – may yet face criminal charges, a decision that Moseneke has left to the police and prosecution services.

Given that the events at Esidimeni are so in conflict with the values enshrined in Human Rights Day, one might assume that the government would have taken Wednesday’s ceremonies to be an apposite moment for reflection and penance. Nope, not really.

Deputy-President David Mabuza made passing reference to that “painful period” in a speech, which also detailed a pit latrine death and a falling lampost that killed a child. But Panyaza Lesufi, standing in for the Gauteng premier, said nothing about Esidimeni. 

On the contrary, the Gauteng government, which should be doubled over with shame, this week put out 45 self-congratulatory tweets or retweets about Human Rights Day, 15 boastful ones about development plans for the Itirileng community, and only six about Esidimeni – simply noting the release of Moseneke’s findings.

In fact, while it is debatable whether social media chatter accurately reflects what most South Africans are thinking and feeling, the online public response to Moseneke’s report was also surprisingly muted. Much of it was around the size of compensation to victims, the cost of the arbitration, and Moseneke donating his professional fee to law education.

It is this very issue of compensation that is most revealing of the state’s true feelings about what happened. It’s about pence, not penance. Crassly, the state pre-emptively warned the hearing that it had budgeted a derisory R180,000 per victim for common law damages, and R20,000 for funeral expenses. 

This week Moseneke responded scathingly: “In effect the Government invited me to squeeze this pervasive and reeking violation of our Constitution and many valuable laws into …  [what] might be the going rate in trial courts. I decline that invitation.” He topped up the state’s offer with another R1m per victim, “as appropriate relief and compensation for the Government’s unjustifiable and reckless breaches…”

Esidimeni epitomises some of the darkest aspects of South African life today: stunning callousness, greed, and arrogance, to name a few. But it is emblematic also of SA’s hope and strength. 

The Sharpeville killings went entirely unpunished and uncompensated. Esidimeni, at the least, has delivered reparation for transgression. In time, one hopes, there’ll also be punishment.

Most importantly, it might teach us that jealously guarding human rights is the only way to prevent us endlessly repeating history. 

Follow WSM on Twitter @TheJaundicedEye