The inquest into the deaths of 144 Life Esidimeni patients is set to begin on Monday in the Pretoria High Court. The 144 mentally-challenged patients were part of a group of over a thousand patients moved to non-compliant NGOs. This followed the termination of a contract between the Gauteng Health Department and the Life Esidimeni group in 2015. Due to neglect, dehydration, torture and hunger, they died between March and December 2016.

The inquest is one of the final steps to give closure to the families of the 144 victims of the tragedy.

Spokesperson for Section27, Julia Chaskalson, says the inquest will be presided over by a judge but is not a criminal trial.

“What’s starting in Pretoria is an inquest investigating each of those deaths and essentially try and establish whether there was any criminal action or omission on the part of state officials and NGO owners which was responsible for that death. The inquest is not a trial, nobody is going to be found guilty but it’s just to establish any criminal liability and whether that could open the door for the NPA to lay charges and to prosecute in future,” she says.

In March 2018, retired Deputy Chief Justice Dikgang Moseneke awarded the families R1 million in damages and R200 000 for emotional suffering and funeral costs, after an official inquiry. He found government officials acted in breach of the law and the Constitution when they ended the Life Esidimeni contract and moved patients to NGOs without due regard for their well-being and state of health.

The NPA indicated in 2019, after studying the 144 dockets, there was not enough evidence to prove causation of death, nor enough evidence to link the actions of different role players to the eventual deaths. The judge will now determine if someone can be held liable for the deaths after the inquest.

Nomvula Nonjabe’s sister was one of the patients that was moved from a Life Esidimeni facility to another NGO, but survived the ordeal. Nonjabe says they need justice and not just compensation.

“I’m feeling hopeful, right, because it is justice in the right direction. So I’m really hoping the outcome would be that justice will be served for the families. Because I think that will also bring a bit more closure to the families other than just the compensation. Because there was a criminality on it because people died so justice needs to be served,” she says.

Over a thousand mentally-challenged patients were moved between March and December 2016 to other NGOs. Of those, 144 were confirmed dead while some have still not been found.

Andrew Pieterson lost his brother in the tragedy. He says the inquest must run its course, but he doesn’t believe anyone will ultimately be charged and convicted.

“Even if somebody is found guilty nothing will happen to that person but this should happen because half a loaf is better than no bread. We support this in full, Section 27 must carry on but as I said to you, one is wondering if things will turn around or not,” adds Pieterson.

Section27 represents some of the families of the deceased.

The inquest is expected to last more than 40 days and an estimated 30 witnesses will be called to testify: