Dr Barney Selebano accepted responsibility for the Life Esidimeni tragedy and acknowledged that the deaths occurred as a result of negligent conduct by his department.
Selebano, the suspended head of department at Gauteng health, surprised many when he took responsibility for the “regrettable” deaths of around 143 psychiatric patients who died as a result of an ill-conceived plan to transfer them from long-time service provider Life Esidimeni care facilities to unlicensed and ill-equipped facilities run by non-governmental organisations.
“I take accountability. It happened under my watch. There is no way that, if you are a leader and something happens, and then you suddenly want to walk away from it,” Selebano told arbitration hearing into the tragedy on Wednesday.
It was his second day of testimony. He had previously gone to court in an attempt to have his subpoena set aside, citing the possibility of incriminating himself in disciplinary action that he is currently facing. His court application was dismissed on Monday and he testified on Tuesday.
Selebano admitted that the move was part of a “revenue enhancement programme” but denied that he knew it would result in fatalities.
“If I had known that there would be mortalities – I wouldn’t have guessed that – if I had known, then really that would have been unthinkable, that I would have gone on,” he said.
He did admit that his department had failed to follow advice.
“We did things wrong by not heeding to advice, by not listening to other people,” he conceded.
The inquiry also heard that he and senior officials had received more than one warning – in the form of legal action, media coverage and family and civil organisation complaints – that the consequences of moving the patients could be disastrous.
In addition, the department paid the Health Advanced Institute to look into whether Life Esidimeni provided value for money as a service provider. The report, which cost the department R400 000, revealed that Life Esidimeni provided value for money and was financially efficient.
Selebano was told by former Deputy Chief Justice Dikgang Moseneke, who is chairing the hearing, that he should have taken steps to avoid all harm even if he were not able to foresee the tragedy.
“The warnings came, but one wishes they could wind back the time and act differently. I am not defending it or saying we acted in the right manner, but the warnings were clear…although they never said there would be fatalities,” he told Moseneke.
Selebano named former Gauteng Health MEC Qedani Mahlangu, suspended head of mental health Makgabo Manamela, directors, chief directors, chief executive officers and deputy director-generals as part of the collective body of decision-makers who decided to go through with the transfer.
Manamela testified last week, but refused to take any responsibility for the tragedy.
Mahlangu is scheduled to testify in the new year.
Selebano will continue giving testimony on Thursday.