By Mfundo Ndlela and the Student Division Transformation Subcommittee
On Sunday, the 5th of February 2017, City Press released an article titled Precious angels’ hell on earth. It described one of many deeply concerning stories about Precious Angels in Atteridgeville, Pretoria which was identified as one of the illegally operating NGOs in the Ombudsman report, and has been notoriously named a death trap by various media platforms. What was most disturbing about the article was its opening line, where the writer states: “the presence of white patients at the NGO… caused concerned neighbour to dismiss thoughts of alerting health inspectors to the facility where 20 mentally ill patients died.”
Many alarming questions come to mind for the PsySSA Student Division Equity and Transformation subcommittee, when reflecting on the neighbour’s statement:
The first, and to some extent, – somewhat obvious – how many other NGOs had ‘neighbours’ who might have thought the same? In our own opinion, given that apartheid segregation laws forced physical segregation that can still be seen in contemporary South Africa, the pertinent questions we should ask is: why was the ‘neighbour’ not concerned with the presence of white patients in a black settlement? What was it about the presence of white patients that made the NGO legitimate?
Have the institutions we have inherited only reiterated the fact that white administered institutions are superior to those administered by black bodies? Again, although uncomfortable and to a certain influenced by our own biases, these are the kinds of questions that influenced our opinions.
In referencing Frantz Fanon’s Black Skin, White Masks, it seems as though the juxtaposition of the races has instigated a psycho-existential complex that still seems to resonate within the black community in South Africa. The fact that a concerned neighbour believed that white patients implied a legitimate NGO, makes us question our move away the colonial mindset of assimilating whiteness to goodness. We…as the Student Division Equity and Transformation subcommittee are of the opinion that, it is a belief still imbedded in many of the Western influenced practices that are used in contemporary South Africa. It would be naïve of us – as a subcommittee whose direction has been an attempt to interrogate colonial influences in psychology – to completely ignore the racial dimensions involved in the Life Esidimeni tragedy. In a statement made on 14 September 2016, PsySSA acknowledged the fact that many of the patients moved from Life Esidimeni to the NGOs were from socioeconomically disadvantaged families, many of them previously marginalized by the system itself.
Essentially, the demographic of the patients who died at the hands of these ill-equipped NGOs were those from black communities.
Yes, our government failed (as referred to in the Health Ombudsman report) in that they went ahead with deinstitutionalization, ignoring the cries from concerned mental health care professionals and organisations. The fact that PsySSA condemned the process from its inception proves the fact that proper consultation did not take place with mental health care professionals, like itself, and other mental health care organisations, like the South African Depression and Anxiety Group (SADAG) and the South African Federation for Mental Health. For the Student Division Equity and Transformation subcommittee, the aforementioned racial dimensions illustrate the need for a decolonised attitude towards mental health in order for meaningful transformation to take place.