The patients were moved after the provincial health department in Gauteng ended a contract with a psychiatric hospital in 2015. / Photo: AFP

A judge ruled on Wednesday that the negligence of two South African officials was to blame for the deaths of psychiatric patients after they were transferred to unlicensed facilities in 2016.

In a tragedy that has gripped the country for years, at least 144 mentally ill people died after being moved from a psychiatric hospital to non-governmental organisations and other facilities in an apparent cost-cutting measure.

They died from causes such as pneumonia, dehydration, diarrhoea and food aspiration.

The patients were moved after the provincial health department in Gauteng, where Johannesburg and Pretoria are located, ended a contract with Life Esidimeni psychiatric hospital in 2015.

'Regrettable' deaths

In her ruling, Pretoria High Court judge Mmonoa Teffo said that the provincial health minister at the time, Qedani Mahlangu, had ended the contract "despite numerous expert advice and warnings from professionals.

"Her conduct led to the regrettable and unfortunate deaths, some of which could have been avoided," the judge said.

Mahlangu, who resigned in 2017 after the release of a report into the deaths by the Health Ombudsman, the country's health watchdog, said she was misled.

The investigation found that more than 1,300 patients were hurriedly transferred from Life Esidimeni to 27 poorly prepared facilities that were compared to "concentration camps."

'Kept in the dark'

The patients' families were kept in the dark about the move, some only finding out after they went to visit their relatives.

The 2017 probe found that the centres failed to provide the severely ill patients with enough food and water, leaving some of them severely malnourished, underweight and in some cases dying from dehydration.

In her ruling, the judge also blamed the then provincial head of mental health, medical doctor Makgabo Manamela.

She "created the circumstances in which the deaths were inevitable," Teffo said.

Demanded justice

Families of the people who died have demanded justice for the tragedy.

Speaking to local broadcaster ENCA after the ruling, Andrew Pieterson, whose uncle died, said he felt vindicated by the ruling but wanted to see justice.

In 2018, the South African government said it would pay each family R200,000 ($11,000) to compensate for emotional trauma, psychological injury and funeral expenses.

Yet some families have not been compensated the full amount, Pieterson said.

"The health department will formally and publicly respond after it has studied the judgement and its implications," the health ministry's spokesperson Foster Mohale told AFP.

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