Every year the 3rd of December is commemorated as International Day of Persons with Disabilities (IDPD). As part of the Disability Month activities that have been taking place over the past few weeks, Government has been drawing attention to the fact that this year marks the 20th Anniversary of the Release of the White Paper on an Integrated National Disability Strategy and the 10th Anniversary of the Ratification of the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities. Although the fact that these policies have been part of the South African disability sector for many years now is indeed something to be celebrated, the SA Federation for Mental Health (SAFMH) feels it is important to acknowledge all the ways that these and other policies, like the Mental Health Policy Framework and Strategic Action Plan (MHPF), are not being implemented, and are currently failing persons with mental disabilities as a result.

On IDPD last year, which was declared a day of mourning for those who lost their lives as a result of the Life Esidimeni tragedy, SAFMH and the South African Mental Health Advocacy Movement (SAMHAM), delivered a report regarding the state of Mental Healthcare in Gauteng, specifically focusing on the issues that had unfolded with Life Esidimeni, to the Gauteng Department of Social Development. The aim of the report was to show how a better implementation of the MHPF was needed to improve the services and care offered to mental health care users. In the report, SAFMH made the some of the following recommendations:

  • Mental health services need to be prioritised and developed with an equal level of (high) importance across all provinces in SA, and across rural and urban areas
  • Services and resources at community level should be developed in consultation with mental health care users, their families, NGOs and other key partners to ensure that the development of such services are done in an informed and collaborative way
  • The prioritisation/resourcing/implementation/monitoring of the Mental Health Policy Framework and Strategic Action Plan at provincial level is essential, and provincial Departments of Health need to be held accountable for failure to do so
  • Savings generated through budget cuts in tertiary Psychiatric Care Facilities (such as what happened with the termination of the Life Esidimeni contract) need to be transferred to support community-based care
  • Government needs to address the widely pervasive shortfalls in resources needed to adequately facilitate deinstitutionalisation policy requirements
  • There is a need for NGOs to become more recognised as key partners in the delivery of mental health services and to be respected and treated as such. Government needs to recognise that without the upscaling of and provision of community-based services SA’s commitment towards deinstitutionalisation will never be realised
  • SA requires more consistent and more comprehensive subsidisation of community-based services, with adequate increases and timely payments of subsidies to ensure continuity in community-based mental health service delivery
  • There is a need for more family empowerment programmes to ensure that MHCUs who return to their homes are able to receive the support they require from their families and those family members are sufficiently equipped with the necessary skills to help them take care of mental health care users within their homes

Not only was there no response to the report or any of its findings or recommendations, but since then the scale of human rights abuses that mental health care users faced has was sadly highlighted in the Ombudsman’s report on Life Esidimeni, which was released two months after the SAFMH report.

Today the number of people known to have lost their lives as a result of the Life Esidimeni tragedy stands at 143, and with the arbitration hearings currently taking place, more disturbing details emerge on a daily basis of the gross neglect and abuse that the patients suffered at the hands of those who were responsible for their care. Despite the severity of these claims, those responsible for the project, such as former MEC Qedani Mahlangu, have been using every method to try an avoid testifying at the hearings.

Celebrating the existence of legislation and policies aimed at improving the lives of those living with mental and physical disabilities, while not prioritising the implementation of these legislations and policies, leads to a system that values the lives of persons with disabilities in word but not indeed.

Government has not been able to ensure that those responsible for the tragic and preventable deaths of Life Esidimeni patients face justice, nor has Government been able to ensure that the MHPF and other important legislation is implemented in a timeous and correct fashion. Until such important things start taking place, IDPD will remain a reminder of the horrific treatment and abuse that vulnerable persons with mental disabilities experienced because of Government’s lack of action.

SAFMH will continue to put pressure on provincial government departments to commit towards developing a plan to implement and monitor the allocation of resources for the successful implementation of the MHPF in all provinces. SAFMH will also be hosting the Movement for Global Mental Health Summit from 8-9 February 2018, which will provide mental health care users with the opportunity to share their experiences and lead the call for improved mental health care services in line with the Sustainable Development Goals.

SAFMH calls on Government to prioritise the implementation of legislation like the MHPF and the UNCRPD and to recommit to upholding the rights of persons with mental disabilities.

Statement from the South African Mental Health Advocacy Movement (SAMHAM) on IDPD–

We as mental health care users (MHCUs) have historically been living our lives in silence while decisions have been made about our lives without our participation. Our lives have value and our views and opinions matter, and we can help to create a society where people celebrate diversity. We want to see an end to the complete disregard for our fundamental human rights – when we speak, we demand to be listened to and when decisions are being made that affects us, we demand to be involved in making those decisions. Contrary to common beliefs, we as MHCUs can add value to society and we can achieve recovery to our full potential, provided our rights are respected and protected.



Marthé Kotze – [email protected]

Programme Manager Information & Awareness

SA Federation for Mental Health

011 781 1852