Life Esidimeni Inquest: Journal of a grieving sister

Life Esidimeni Inquest: Journal of a grieving sisterChristine Nxumalo with a picture of her late sister Virginia Machpelah. PHOTO: Mark Lewis/Life Esidimeni Advocacy Project
Comment & Analysis

The Life Esidimeni Inquest that started in July has been postponed until 15 November. This is the fifth postponement, meaning another agonising wait for family members of the deceased. The Inquest is crucial to determine who should be held criminally liable for the deaths of 144 mental healthcare users in 2016. Below, one of these family members, Christine Nxumalo, shares some extracts from her journal on the Inquest proceedings, the long wait, and dealing with grief.

Christine’s sister, Virginia, was among the Life Esidimeni mental health users who died during the tragedy. Virginia died on 17 August 2016 and her daughter Shanice passed away on the first day of the arbitration hearings. She was 21 years old. According to Christine, she succumbed to a broken heart.

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There are many nights I find myself waking up with intense anxiety and pain and all I can do is write down my feelings and thoughts to cope with the rest of my day and my life. These are some of my thoughts jotted down in October 2021, which has now become one of the most painful months in my life.

4 October 2021

The inquest is postponed yet again. This time until 15 November 2021.

This month has been incredibly difficult for me. I am not sure why. Every year since my sister’s death and, more so, my niece’s, I have been struggling. This year has been like the knife that has been stuck in my heart was pulled out and shoved back in at a different angle. The pain of carrying this is now even more excruciating.

I am not sure if the Life Esidimeni Inquest is responsible for evoking such painful and intense emotions and memories, but I feel it. Every day.

Now just imagine… If the same delays [as with the Inquest] and technicalities and concerns applied to the Gauteng Marathon Project, also known as the Life Esidimeni Tragedy, the lives of many of our loved ones may have been spared? Since the start of the Inquest, proceedings have been postponed five times already. If there were these types of brakes put on the rushed move from the Life Esidimeni facilities, how many lives would have been saved? How many do you think? It is difficult to not think like this because our loved ones died… They died in the most painful way, in unfamiliar places surrounded by strangers who did not care for them as people and for their rights to health, their human rights, and their rights to justice.

As families, we want ethical and untampered justice… Justice that is not tainted by technicalities. But as South Africans, you got to love our democracy where the perpetrators have equal rights, if not more at times than the victims. It is enough to drive you out of your mind, especially when you are the one seeking justice as the actual victims or victims’ families. I feel betrayed by the system.

It is easy to lose hope and to give up. More so if you are among the seemingly ‘invisible’ in South Africa. It seems as if the vulnerable in the country is often ignored because so little is done for them. Even after the Life Esidimeni Tragedy and now as we are in the grip of the COVID-19 pandemic, no interventions for those living with mental health conditions and disabilities are discussed or raised in any of the national and provincial feedback updates by Provincial Health MECs, the Premiers and the Health Minister.

This, while research shows and experts state that there is a rise in reported mental health conditions due to the impact of COVID-19 on individuals and families. I shudder to think how mental healthcare users in mental health facilities are coping, not being able to see their loved ones.

All this raises my own anxiety. I can’t sleep and when I do, I wake up to feelings of helplessness. It feels as if we have no choice but to depend on a system that does not care and does not grasp the fact that people with mental health conditions, whether they’re in mental health facilities or not, are people too and that they too deserve attention and focus, and that the Life Esidimeni tragedy happened, and we are still grieving.

7 October 2021

I am anxious about tomorrow. It will be Shanice’s birthday and the day after is the day she passed away. How does one cope with such intense emotions? Such pain and still go on about their life? Not forgetting my late big brother’s birthday on 10 October.

I am seriously struggling. The pain never goes away and the events of her birthday and the day she left us keep playing in my mind- non-stop.

My kids are watching Shanice’s favourite movies, telling her favourite jokes. That’s how they comfort themselves. This pain is so real and so unbearable. I don’t wish it on anyone.

8 October

I am so emotional and so sad today because I miss my niece, Shanice Machpelah. I miss her so much, it hurts.

Happy birthday my meisiekind en ons is en sal nog altyd lief vir jou wees en ons mis jou verskriklik. Nuwe kouse in die toilet… ek weet jy lag saam. Die kinders lag ook saam.

(Happy birthday my girl. We love you forever and miss you so much. New socks in the bathroom – I know you’re laughing with us. The kids are laughing too.)

9 October

Four years ago, on 9 October 2017, was the day after Shanice’s 21st birthday and the first day of the arbitration hearings.

That morning, Shanice Machpelah and my son Darnell were supposed to join me at the hearings but chose to stay home instead and watch the proceedings on television.

I was anxious and was sitting in the third row next to Cassey Chambers, waiting for the arbitration proceedings to begin. Minutes into the proceedings, my phone started buzzing with messages and calls from Darnell and hubby which, of course, I could not answer, but I responded on WhatsApp.

Justice Dikgang Moseneke during the arbitration hearings earlier. PHOTO: Joyrene Kramer

After a while, I decided to answer the calls. I remember turning to Cassey and saying I must go. I had to push through a tightly packed room. All I remember is me running to the car and driving like a maniac with my hazards on, praying and calling emergency services and WhatsApping my neighbourhood groups asking for help. What followed is still too painful to write down. I got to my baby after she already passed away.

The pain of that memory is as intense and heart-wrenching now as when the doctor broke the news of her passing to me.

I believe she died of a broken heart. The build-up to the arbitration must have weighed heavy on her and we were not even aware.

I remember days before Shanice’s death we attended a counselling session and in that session, she said she did not want counselling before because she was afraid she would break down and be unable to put herself back together again.

Honestly, looking back now, the signs were there, but we missed them.

10 October 2021

Today is my big brother’s birthday. Eugene (Pappa) Macphelah is the best big brother in this entire world. He was stabbed to death in May 2008 at our family home in Kimberley – an incident both Shanice and my sister (her mother) witnessed. I feel like we’ve had so much loss over the years, but we go on. We must. One foot in front of the other towards justice, towards closure.

And so we wait…

The sheer number of lawyers involved in the Inquest with the prospect of more being added to the mix simply means that the cross-examination process is going to be a very lengthy process. It has become clear that it will run into the new year.

The road has been so long emotionally. Most people understand the pain of losing a loved one or know someone who has lost someone, but what makes it difficult for me is the lies, the arrogance, the ‘I don’t care attitude’ of those who were involved and the wait.

It has been five years since Virginia’s passing. Not a day passes by with me not thinking of her and this quest we are on. It has been emotionally and physically exhausting and intensely painful, also at work. I’ve had difficulties at work and am being shunned because people see me as difficult and a trouble maker and say they do not want to work with me because they feel they cannot trust me – All for speaking up for my sister and all who passed in this tragedy.

But my joy comes from the fact that their anguish for not wanting to work with me has nothing to do with me, but rather that I stand my ground for what is right.

I thank God that I have people like the Family Committee members, the other bereaved family members and Cassey Chambers from SADAG, who help me with my anxiety and depression.

I must see this to the end. My peace will come. My family’s peace and healing will come, but until then we must soldier on, unapologetically.

*The Life Esidimeni Inquest is expected to resume on 15 November.

**READ HERE how the events unfolded since 2016.

NOTE: SECTION27 is representing family members of the Life Esidimeni Tragedy. Spotlight is published by SECTION27 and the Treatment Action Campaign but is editorially independent – an independence that the editors guard jealously. The views expressed in this article are not necessarily shared by Spotlight.

*This article is part of Spotlight’s special series on mental health.