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[OPINION] The ANC must act against reprobates within its ranks

In March this year, President Cyril Ramaphosa went for one of his ‘lifestyle walks.’ Gauteng Premier David Makhuru and former Johannesburg Mayor Parks Tau joined Ramaphosa on that 5km walkabout in Soweto. While their presence was unremarkable, it was the presence of former Gauteng Health MEC Qedani Mahlangu, who was also walking alongside them all, that caused controversy. And rightly so.

Let us cast our minds a short way back to the Life Esidimeni tragedy.

If we are searching for a story which indicates the state’s callous disregard for the most vulnerable in our society, then we need look no further than the tragedy that left 143 patients, many of them mentally ill, dead. These patients had been transferred to NGOs once the Gauteng Department of Health had terminated the public-private partnership with Life Esidimeni hospital.

What happened to them thereafter was the subject of a report by Health Ombudsman Malegapuru Makgoba. That report recommended an arbitration process that was presided over by former Deputy Chief Justice Dikgang Moseneke. There was no one better suited to deal with the raw emotion, as well as the complexity of what happened to these vulnerable patients.

The stories are heart-wrenching, with some patients loaded onto the back of vans as they were being transferred to 'NGOs' clearly not equipped to deal with the patients assigned to them. On a few occasions, Mahlangu seemed missing in action when called to testify before Moseneke. Her arrogance was astounding as she tried to evade the hearings because of her “studies in England”.

When she eventually appeared before Moseneke, his frustration was palpable. She spent much of her testimony trying to evade responsibility for what happened on her watch and continued to spin a web of deceit when questioned. Her modus operandi was to shift the blame onto health officials. After some penetrating cross-examination by advocate Adila Hassim on behalf of the victims’ families, Mahlangu eventually offered them an apology. That was too little, too late. Their relatives are dead. That’s the cold, hard truth.

The Life Esidimeni scandal stands equal to Marikana in its disdain for the victims and their families and in the scale of death at the hands of the state. It is democracy’s shame.

Listen to Lying in State: The Life Esidimeni Tragedy, an EWN podcast on the Qedani Mahlangu and mental health

When asked about his curious choice of walking partner, Ramaphosa defended the decision by saying (and his words are worth quoting verbatim), “Qedani Mahlangu, like any other South African, is a person who must be treated as a citizen of this country. She is a comrade and whatever we have done, it does not mean we have to treat people with hatred and rejection and with total disdain. She is just a human being like all of us are.”

Ramaphosa added that the ANC was serious about disciplining its members given that Mahlangu was hauled before the Gauteng ANC’s provincial integrity committee.

“You must never think that we sweep things under the carpet, particularly in this new era… Going to subject herself to the integrity committee of the ANC in the province shows that this ANC we are dealing with is not the ANC that will run away from problems, we will deal with problems head-on...”

Clearly, Mahlangu did not feel chastened enough to hang her head in shame and eschew appearing in public – even a few months after her disastrous testimony. Worryingly, Ramaphosa also said that Mahlangu had been held to account since she had appeared at the arbitration and had resigned. Some would say she came off lightly. During the hearings, she displayed nothing but arrogance and careless disregard for the most vulnerable in society. She showed us that she either does not understand or does not want to understand, what true accountability is. That testimony, played on a loop on news channels, should have been more than enough to end her political career.

Yet, this week we learned that Mahlangu, instead of being shunned by the ANC’s Gauteng provincial leadership, has in fact been elected to its provincial executive committee. It is unclear what is more astounding - Mahlangu standing for election, or her being elected by her ANC comrades. Needless to say, the ANC has sought to justify the appointment, the same way Ramaphosa defended Mahlangu in March. ANC Gauteng deputy chair Panyaza Lesufi dithered when asked about Mahlangu’s election. But why are we surprised? This is the same party that could not find its spine during the Zuma years, pussy-footed around the allegations of domestic violence against its MP Mduduzi Manana and whose deputy secretary-general Jessie Duarte said recently that Tony Yengeni was ‘wrongfully convicted’ of fraud in 2003.

Ramaphosa made a clarion call for society to rally behind him in fixing our desperately broken country. As citizens, we understand the need for political compromise, but there are limits to our understanding when someone like Mahlangu finds herself not in the political wilderness but rather elevated to lead. What ethical credibility does she have? None - that is the plain answer.

If the ANC wants to win an election convincingly in 2019 and wants to be ‘fit for purpose’ in restoring the economy, then it needs to act decisively against the reprobates within its ranks. The time for talk is long gone. Its dysfunction impacts us all - and with dire consequences.

Judith February is based at the Institute for Security Studies. Her new book, 'Turning and Turning: exploring the complexities of South Africa's democracy' published by Pan MacMillan will be released in August. Follow her on Twitter: @judith_february