Reflecting on the value of a life in South Africa today

11 October 2017 - 07:34 By The Times Editorial
Retired Deputy Chief Justice Dikgang Moseneke. File photo.
Retired Deputy Chief Justice Dikgang Moseneke. File photo.

Will the arbitration process over the deaths of 118 state psychiatric patients in Gauteng be the final chapter in what is arguably democratic South Africa's greatest administrative scandal?

The process, which is under way and is chaired by retired deputy chief justice Dikgang Moseneke, will consider, among others, what is appropriate compensation for the families of those who died. This raises complex practical and philosophical questions.

Will this only be about assigning a monetary value to each of the lives that were lost?

Is this process part of healing and closure by providing the relatives the opportunity to speak of their loss to the rest of society?

Is it about, as is apparently planned, a formal apology from the state for its culpability? Is it about the officials involved telling all, or is it a combination of all of these things?

Justice Moseneke's wisdom may be like that of King Solomon, but few would envy the task that lies ahead for him over the coming three weeks.

But, as he acknowledged before the process began, this arbitration provides a rich opportunity, if tragic in its circumstances, to reflect on the value of a life in South Africa today.

How do you place a value on the life, asked Moseneke, of a poor, unemployed state psychiatric patient in a country where most people are unemployed, but in a society whose constitution seeks to protect the dignity of all its citizens?

It is that concept - dignity - which South Africans hope will sit at the centre of this process because, more than anything else, that is what these patients were denied while they lived. They were treated simply as an inconvenient cost by a government whose duty it was to protect and care for them.

The families of the victims must be compensated, of course, but the dead deserve the restitution of their dignity.