'Was he staring into space? Is this how he died?' asks sister of Life Esidimeni victim

11 October 2017 - 08:55 By Katharine Child
Dirk Groenewald at the arbitration hearings between the State and the families of victims in the Life Esidimeni tragedy. Retired Deputy Chief Justice Dikgang Moseneke is heading the hearings. File photo.
Dirk Groenewald at the arbitration hearings between the State and the families of victims in the Life Esidimeni tragedy. Retired Deputy Chief Justice Dikgang Moseneke is heading the hearings. File photo.
Image: ALON SKUY/THE TIMES

Johannesburg resident Mariana Jamnik-Schmidt feels "intense guilt" that she had not seen her 67-year-old brother for a few months before starvation led to his death.

Her brother Nicholas stayed at a Life Esidimeni psychiatric home as he had severe schizophrenia. Unbeknown to Jamnik-Schmidt‚ he had been moved to an ill-equipped NGO in Krugersdorp last year.

Jamnik-Schmidt is attending the arbitration hearings in Johannesburg that are being held to find "closure" for the Esidimeni victims.

In 2015 former MEC Qedani Mahlangu decided to move more than 1‚400 psychiatric patients in Life Esidimeni homes into unlicensed NGOs‚ despite multiple warnings from doctors and civil society. More than 118 died‚ but it has emerged in the arbitration hearings that the final number of dead is not yet known.

Last year‚ Jamnik-Schmidt had been struggling to cope with life‚ working to pay off debt and dealing with family crises‚ so she said she had not seen her brother from February. She didn't know Life Esidimeni was closing down.

Then in August her daughter phoned and told her that her brother was dead. "I didn't believe it‚" Jamnik-Schmidt said.

After her brother died‚ the owner of the NGO‚ only known as Elizabeth‚ called a cousin of his in Australia.

She called a cousin in England‚ who called Jamnik Schmidt's daughter in South Africa.

But it took three weeks for the news to reach Jamnik-Schmidt.

Luckily for Jamnik-Schmidt‚ Avbob funeral home in Krugersdorp had the body.

"It was horrible. He had been in a freezer for a month."

The autopsy Jamnik-Schmidt paid for showed her brother's lungs were compromised‚ the heart was compromised and the pathologist had described him as" emaciated".

Many autopsies of the victims are still outstanding‚ advocate Dirk Groenewald told the hearing on Monday.

In August‚ Jamnik-Schmidt visited the Masego home‚ where her brother had stayed and could not find his books and clothes she bought him. Elizabeth‚ the owner‚ said he arrived with nothing but the clothes on his back‚ she said.

"There was nothing for him to read. Was he sitting‚ staring into space? Is this how he spent the last days of his life?"

She has never reclaimed his identity book‚ which would have been used by the Life Esidimeni home to access his disability grant to help pay for his care.

Jamnik-Schmidt attended day two of the arbitration hearings after learning about them on Monday.

"I don't want an apology. It is too late‚" she said.

"The only thing that would satisfy me is they must resurrect him."

However‚ she is pleased about the hearings.

"Let's give them credit‚ where credit is due."

The social worker provided by the Gauteng department of social development told Jamnik-Schmidt that she is leading a task team "so this will never happen again".

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