One hundred patients wait for beds at Sterkfontein

22 June 2011 - 11:03 By Ananias Ndlovu, Wits Justice project,

The families of more than 100 mentally-challenged inmates waiting for beds at Sterkfontein Psychiatric Hospital will listen with huge interest to what the head of the hospital has to say in court next week.

Dr Eddie Pak has been subpoenaed to testify at the Johannesburg Magistrate’s Court on 29 June why there is not a bed available for murder accused, Ben Engelbrecht. The 51-year-old Linden man was arrested on 27 May for allegedly killing his wife and son before allegedly botching his own suicide.

On Monday [COR], his lawyer told the court that, even the presiding officer had ordered that Engelbrecht be placed under psychiatric observation, there was no bed available and Engelbrecht had been put on a waiting list.

But, if proper procedures and guidelines for getting a bed at Sterkfontein are followed, Engelbrecht is at the bottom of a list numbering more than 100 – and it might therefore take months or even up to a year for him to get a bed.

Some inmates have been waiting for more than eight months to get a bed. Raymond Khumalo, 28, was arrested in December after allegedly assaulting his neighbour in Soweto and he is still waiting for a bed at Sterkfontein.

When Khumalo was put on the list, he was number 140. Today, he is number 35 on the list and, according to hospital sources, it could take months for him to get a bed.

Khumalo has been receiving treatment at Orlando Clinic since 2004. According to his family, he has been heavily treated for mental instability. In January, the Orlando Magistrate’s Court issued an order that Khumalo must be taken to Sterkfontein for evaluation. But there is still no bed available for him and he is being held at Johannesburg Prison (“Sun City”). 

There are currently four psychiatrists available to evaluate patients at Sterkfontein. The hospital accommodates patients from all south Gauteng and from some North West province courts.

Lebogang Dlamini, a spokesperson from Sterkfontein, said that the hospital can only accommodate 30 remand (awaiting trial) patients and each patient needs to be given a 30-day evaluation period. “If you are on the list, it might take months for you to be evaluated. We are trying everything in our power to speed up the process but still we have to give every patient 30 days,” said Dlamini.

Sterkfontein is not the only psychiatric hospital facing a bed. At Weskoppies hospital in Pretoria, there are currently more than 50 awaiting trial inmates (ATDs) waiting for beds. The hospital can only accommodate 50 patients in its ATD wards. It has to cater for inmates from 11 courts in Gauteng, eight courts in North West, and 30 courts in Mpumalanga. Chief Executive Officer of the hospital, Maureen Mabena, said it takes about two months for one patient from the waiting list to be accommodated.

 “An awaiting trial detainee is placed on the waiting list. If it is a high profile matter, a bed is made available as soon as possible – within a week. Otherwise the person is placed on the list and the police station is informed as to when the person should be brought in. If it is single observation, not needing a panel, the appointment is also within a week. If it is for a panel observation, then the bed is available as soon as the panel is able to see the person,” said Mabena. 

Khumalo’s mother, Virginia, is not taking the news lightly. She said she will listen eagerly to what Dr Pak has to say. “It is almost six months now my son has been waiting for a bed at Sterkfontein and we were told that it might take even longer. We will have to wait and see what the doctor is going to say. It would be unfair for some people to skip the queue. If my son and others can wait, then everyone has to wait,” said Virginia.