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December 11, 2018

International Day of Disability 2018

International Day of Disability is celebrated annually on the 3rd of December. It is the culmination of a month's worth's of activities as it falls on the last day of Disability Rights Awareness Month. This year, the South African federation for Mental health elected to have community-based care as its focus for the occasion. To this effect we have issued a press release. Read it here:

International Day of Disability takes place annually on the 3rd of December. It is an opportunity to engage in activism surrounding the rights of people with disability and to raise awareness surrounding the need for their rights to be realised. While a single day of the year is hardly enough to scratch the surface, it heralds the prospects of making a start in advocating for the rights of people so-situated. People with psychosocial and intellectual disabilities are especially vulnerable as their disabilities are often not well-understood and methods of assisting them are not clearly defined in the minds of the state or society.

An important place to begin is to hold government accountable for the execution of its mandate. The state is the primary duty-bearer when it comes to providing the care and support these individuals need both to survive and thrive. Government is responsible for creating structures that allow people with disabilities to lead dignified lives. Unfortunately however, the state has prolifically and chronically failed people with disabilities, leading to social exclusion and poverty. This was evidenced in the Life Esidimeni tragedy and a spate of deaths and assaults of and by psychiatric patients in hospitals across the country, as well as within the community, as the state did not have adequate structures in place to ensure the safety of these individuals. Stripped of even the slightest bit of dignity, such individuals languished up to a point where crises arose, but by then it was too late and state intervention was meaningless.

South Africa has a comprehensive legislative and policy framework for people with psychosocial and intellectual disabilities With the Constitution, Mental Health Care Act, Mental Health Policy Framework and Strategic Action Plan 2013-2020 and White Paper on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, there is a clear path towards the realisation of the rights of these individuals. Unfortunately the prescripts of these instruments remain largely unimplemented, with the effect that people with psychosocial and intellectual disabilities remain in limbo, often no better off than what they were before these frameworks came into place.

Government has also failed to hold disgraced former Member of the Executive Council (MEC), Quedani Mahlangu, accountable for the deaths of the 144 people in the Life Esidimeni tragedy. These mental health care users died under her watch and no visible action has been taken against her thus far. The African National Congress (ANC) has continued to protect her, even re-electing her to their Provincial Executive Committee earlier this year. Gauteng Deputy Chairperson, Panyaza Lesufi, defended her re-election in an interview, indicating that a) the fact that Mahlangu was no longer an MEC, b) that she was no longer a member of the provincial working committee of the ANC, c) that an inquiry had been held surrounding Life Esidimeni, and d) that the ANC had acted on the recommendations of the Health Ombudsman, was an adequate series of steps taken to hold her accountable. SAFMH maintains that Mahlangu ought to be made to take responsibility for her actions and inactions by the ANC doing more than shuffling her around the ranks of the party. It is truly disheartening that, to date, this has not been the case at all.

One of the essential elements that has been highlighted in policy and legislation is the need for deinstitutionalisation. Deinstitutionalisation occurs when mental health care users are, where possible, removed from the hospital environment and sent to live in communities. Mental healthcare services are then decentralised to provide care at community level. Despite supposed commitment to this process, its execution has largely been a failure. The reality is that, in some provinces there are simply no facilities at all for people with mental disabilities to go to outside of hospitals. In Gauteng, where the Gauteng Department of Health supposedly implemented deinstitutionalisation, this resulted in 144 people losing their lives as they were transferred to non-governmental organisations (NGOs) that were not adequately equipped to care for them and left many people in a state of wanton and tragic neglect. Some of these organisations had their licenses issued to them unlawfully, and others did not receive proper subsidies. Life Esidimeni amounted to a situation worse than Marikana and on par with incidents such as the Sharpeville Massacre and the Soweto Uprising. The state was warned by professionals, civil society and families that the transfer of the patients would have disastrous results, but the warning was cast to the wind and tragedy ensued.

Whilst Life Esidimeni is a poignant example of the state’s failure to take responsibility for mental health care users, it is sadly not the only example. With inadequate infrastructure, a lack of beds, a lack of qualified health care practitioners, inadequate security, stockouts of medications, confusion as to roles and responsibilities of stakeholders such as health care professionals, emergency service technicians and the police in involuntary admissions and human rights abuses happening frequently, a number of hospitals in the country have been identified as facilities in crisis. Despite increased budgetary allocation for mental health for the 2018/2019 financial year, nothing is changing and we are not seeing a purposeful upscaling of mental health services.

Mental health care users are among South Africa’s most disenfranchised members of society and it is unfortunate that our government acts in constant dereliction of duty towards them. The time to act is now, and fast. The South African Federation for Mental health (SAFMH) calls upon the state to urgently intervene and to make full use of its resources in prioritising mental health.

Contact Details

Nicole Breen

Project Leader: Information and Awareness

South African Federation for Mental Health

This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.

011 781 1852

072 2577 938

Last modified on December 11, 2018