'We are not getting answers‚' says sister of Life Esidimeni victim

23 October 2017 - 14:20 By Katharine Child
Life Esidimeni. File photo
Life Esidimeni. File photo
Image: Google Photo

Christine Nxumalo‚ who lost her sister‚ Virginia Machpelah‚ in the Life Esidimeni debacle‚ says the arbitration hearings have not given her closure. The hearings were set up to give answers to families whose relatives died when they were moved from Esidimeni homes into ill-equipped NGOs.

But Nxumalo says: "Families are not getting answers‚" because‚ she believes‚ NGO owners have not been truthful. The lack of answers "makes me really‚ really angry‚" she added.

"Our families were sent to the slaughterhouse‚" said Nxumalo. Her sister Virginia‚ who had Alzheimer’s Disease‚ died after spending two months in an NGO called Precious Angels. Nxumalo does not know what led to her sister's death‚ and she has never met the owner of Precious Angels‚ who she says has been "hiding" from her.

Nxumalo has been waiting 14 months to get Machpelah's post mortem from police‚ and now faces a double tragedy – Machpelah's daughter‚ Shaniece‚ died the day the arbitration hearings started on October 9.

It was the day after Shaniece’s 21st birthday‚ and although her cause of death is unknown‚ Nxumalo is convinced that the stress of her mother's death played a role. A post mortem is still outstanding‚ although Nxumalo has already been told her niece’s death was from "natural causes".

On Monday‚ Nxumalo said that she had hoped to finally hear what led to her sister’s death last week‚ when Ethel Ncube‚ the owner of Precious Angels‚ testified. However‚ Ncube revealed very little that would be of comfort to her.

"We got nothing. All the officials‚ [including] Ethel Ncube‚ have not answered [questions]. What they are doing is protecting themselves‚" Nxumalo alleged. "I was hoping Ethel would say what has happened‚ not cry her crocodile tears."

Ncube did not give any clarity on how 20 people died in her care‚ but cried on the stand as she explained how the stigma of their deaths had affected her position in the Atteridgeville community‚ and how she was in debt.

She also used her apology to the families of victims to speak about her personal difficulties as the mother of a disabled child‚ until retired chief justice Dikgang Moseneke‚ the hearing judge‚ interrupted her and encouraged her to address the families.

Ncube had 58 mentally ill patients in two residential houses‚ no money from the department of health‚ and no experience dealing with the mentally ill or caring for adults.

Nxumalo said: "Obviously‚ she couldn’t feed people – she probably didn't even wash them." She now believes amnesty may be the only way to get to the truth.

"[The witnesses] are petrified they going to go to jail. Obviously‚ they are not going to admit they took part in the deaths‚" she said. Although she believed amnesty might reveal the truth‚ she wanted justice too. "It’s a catch 22".

Chief Justice Moseneke described amnesty in order to hear the truth as a competition "between truth and justice".

Nxumalo was sent an SMS the day her sister was moved from Life Esidimeni home‚ telling her that Machpelah had been moved to the Cullinan Care and Rehabilitation Centre. The number from which the SMS was sent didn't work‚ and Nxumalo could not trace her sister – who was not in Cullinan. She was at Precious Angels‚ a house in Atteridgeville.

Paramedics recorded that Machpelah died on August 15‚ but Ncube‚ the NGO owner‚ only called Nxumalo with news of her death on August 25. When Nxumalo tried to meet Ncube‚ she never arrived. Put You To Rest funeral parlour instead met Nxumalo. Machpelah's body was in Hebron in the North West‚ in a storage facility.

Nxumalo testified that Put You To Rest would not release her sister’s body‚ because they wanted to conduct a funeral and make money. Eventually‚ Nxumalo asked for a funeral quote as a ploy to confirm that they had the body‚ and used police to help her retrieve it.

She learnt that seven more bodies from Precious Angels were at the storage facility.

She wrote two letters to police asking them to investigate the death‚ but these went unanswered. Eventually‚ she was told by police that only MEC Qedani Mahlangu could order an inquest into deaths.

Nxumalo responded: "How can the MEC request this inquest? She is cause of this."

Mahlangu had ordered the shutdown of Life Esidimeni and the move of patients into unlicensed NGOs.