94 mental health patients in Gauteng: A lesson for State parties to the CRPD – A classic case of a poor deinstitutionalisation process

Author: Patricia Mwanyisa
Consultant – Human Rights and Access to Justice

As South Africa took time to celebrate its annual human rights day on March 21, this year (2017) the deaths of the 94 patients in Gauteng Province in a space of under a year should not be forgotten. The provincial government of Gauteng took the decision to remove persons with psychosocial and intellectual disabilities from government health institutions to reduce spending on their healthcare. The implementation process was poorly planned, rapidly executed and chaotic.  The move had fatal and disastrous consequences as it not only contravened national and international law, but also proved cruel and inhumane. The record shows 94 lives were lost, families have been severely traumatised and a healthcare support system regardless of whether it was the most ideal or not was shaken to its knees.

Apart from violating domestic law – the National Health Act 61 (2003) and the Mental Health Care Act 17 (2002)) – as a State party to the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (CRPD) and the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR), among other international instruments, there are several frameworks that were contravened by South Africa. This case provides an opportunity for some serious learning for South Africa (SA) as well as other African States. Learning from previous mistakes is vital for progress. Focus should be directed on how to avoid making similar mistakes in the future. It is probably more important to provide guidance to State parties or governments when they have made mistakes as opposed to the naming and shaming – particularly after the fact. To be productive, however requires the state or those in power to accept responsibility, acknowledge their mistakes and be receptive to the guidance. Ultimately, objectively and substantively unpacking the critical aspects or points at which things went wrong in the Gauteng saga from an international human rights perspective would be beneficial for the planning and implementation of these types of projects or programmes in the future.

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