Two faces of Qedani Mahlangu: meek and belligerent

Contrition turns to arrogance as former MEC buckles at Life Esidimeni hearings

28 January 2018 - 00:02 By KATHARINE CHILD

Dressed in funeral attire, a contrite Qedani Mahlangu started the week at the Life Esidimeni hearings by apologising, speaking in hushed tones and meekly empathising with families who lost loved ones in a disastrous relocation of 1,700 psychiatric patients.
By Thursday, her demeanour had changed; she had become belligerent, accusatory and defiant. She was unable to recall major milestones in the ill-fated move of 2016 in which 143 people died and that led to her resignation as Gauteng health MEC.
Family representative Andrew Petersen said the pressure of the hearings had caused Mahlangu's "true colours to show".He added: "My pastor always said, if you squeeze a toothpaste tube, you will get toothpaste coming out."
Flanked by two bodyguards, Mahlangu left the hearings each day about 30 minutes after proceedings had ended, possibly to avoid facing families and protesters who have labelled her a "murderer".
Her attitude contrasted sharply with that of the man she has blamed for the tragedy, former head of department Barney Selebano. He greeted family members of those who died, shook their hands and ended his testimony by being prayed for by the Rev Joseph Maboe, whose son Billy was among those who died.
When Mahlangu ended her testimony on Thursday she was given a chance to apologise again, but families walked out of the tent in Parktown, Johannesburg, where the hearings are being held, singing Senzeni Na? (What have we done?). Her apology and explanations had not convinced them.
"Clearly this did not go according to plan and for that I sincerely apologise," she told the hearings this week.
There are still no clear answers why the tragedy happened. The staff blame Mahlangu and she blames them.
She said officials "lied" to her about beds for patients at NGOs, withheld information about the lack of food at NGOs and even kept from her the news of deaths.
"With the information at my disposal at the time, I had the sense my team knew what they were doing," Mahlangu said.
She placed all blame on Selebano, saying she would only accept "political blame" but not "personal blame".
When she kept talking about "we", Lilla Crouse, an advocate representing the survivors, countered: "I am not talking about we. I am talking about you. You're the politician. You must give guidance."Mahlangu hit back: "No, this is we. There is no you. There is no decision made by one person ... Things are not individualised in government."
Selebano has said he feared Mahlangu and felt he had to follow her instructions. Other officials said they had written Mahlangu a letter about their concerns.
When retired deputy chief justice Dikgang Moseneke, who heads the hearings, told Mahlangu that Selebano had said he was scared of her, she was incredulous.
She asked why staff members she had seen in the lift, in corridors and meetings needed to write her a letter detailing their objections to the move - a letter of which she has no recollection.
"They had unfettered access to me," she said.
Mahlangu also forgot a lot. Asked by Adila Hassim, an advocate for Section 27, about the pivotal court action that allowed the Life Esidimeni move to go ahead, Mahlangu said she only remembered "something like that".
Mahlangu's reputation of ruling by fear is not new. In 2012, as MEC of economic development, she fired the Gauteng Gambling Board because it refused to move offices. The board took her to court and the Supreme Court of Appeal accused her of being "indignant and playing the victim".
The court found she acted "in flagrant disregard of constitutional norms" and "expressed displeasure" at her "high-handed actions".
At the hearings this week she again upset lawyers.
Asked by Hassim about a typhoid outbreak at an NGO, Mahlangu rambled: "When I was in hospital ... they thought I had typhoid ... I don't know how you get typhoid."
On Thursday, Crouse, usually soft-spoken but firm, snapped: "Maybe if you stop fiddling and listened to my question ... you could answer ... Please look at me when I speak to you."
By the end of the week, with all officials involved having testified, there was still no clarity about the reasons for the relocation.GONE
Barney Selebano
Was the Gauteng head of department when the move took place. Suspended last February on full pay. Resigned on January 15 before his internal disciplinary hearing was complete. Appealed the ombudsman's report and lost, fought his subpoena in court to avoid testifying at the hearing and lost. The South African Medical Association has asked the Health Professions Council of South Africa to revoke his medical licence.
Makgabo Manamela
Suspended on full pay last February. Widely believed to have been the official who pressured NGOs to take in more patients despite food shortages. Resigned this month. Appealed the ombudsman's report and lost, tried to postpone her appearance at the hearing and was subpoenaed twice to attend.
Dianne Noyile
Owner of NGO Siyabadinga, operated with a fraudulent licence. She cared for 76 patients from Life Esidimeni with just two junior nurses and no food or medical supplies. Nine people died under her care.
Dorothy Franks
Owner of Anchor NGO. Cared for 72 patients, five of whom died. After patients were removed from her care, she continued drawing money on social security cards for more than 20 of them, including some who had died. Was paid R600,000 in subsidies after her NGO was closed.
Ethel Ncube
Owner of Precious Angels NGO. Cared for 58 patients, 18 of whom died. Families claimed patients had to take turns eating because of a shortage of spoons. Signed for paupers' burials for some dead, pretending to be related.
Levy Mosenogi
Gauteng health department chief director of planning, policy and research. Implemented the relocation project, calling it "rushed". Apologised for not going above MEC Qedani Mahlangu's head when she didn't listen to him.
Hannah Jacobus
Social worker. Admitted writing false licences for NGOs (including ones where patients died) under pressure from then head of Gauteng mental health services Makgoba Manamela.

This article is reserved for Sunday Times subscribers.

A subscription gives you full digital access to all Sunday Times content.

Already subscribed? Simply sign in below.

Registered on the BusinessLIVE, Business Day or Financial Mail websites? Sign in with the same details.

Questions or problems? Email or call 0860 52 52 00.