Gauteng Premier David Makhura warned opposition parties of using the deaths of Life Esidimeni psychiatric patients as 'political football' following an attempted disruption by the EFF during his State of the Province Address (SOPA) on Monday.
Shortly after Gauteng Provincial Legislature Speaker Ntombi Mekgwe officially opened the event in Randfontein on the West Rand, EFF MPLs stood up and asked that she allow them the platform to have a debate about the Esidimeni matter on an urgent basis, before Makhura's address got underway.
They said the rule of freedom of expression allowed them to bring the motion.
Mekgwe rejected the motion and said the debate on the Esidimeni tragedy had been tabled and would be debated at the date which had been agreed upon.
As he took to the podium to begin his address, Makhura asked the packed hall to acknowledge the presence of some of the members of the Esidimeni families' committee.
He said the province was working closely with the families in implementing the remedial action outlined in Health Ombudsperson Professor Malegapuru Makgoba's report, which was released earlier this month.
Makhura said his department and the families had held a healing session in Pretoria at the weekend, where families were given the platform to vent and address both Makhura and Health Minister Aaron Motsoaledi.
Among the matters raised by the families was the plea that the deaths of their loved ones not be turned into a political matter.
"At the healing ceremony, families made an impassioned plea that as we mourn the tragic death of the mental health patients and take decisive corrective action, politicians and political parties must be advised not to use this tragedy as a political football because this prolongs their pain and anguish.
"I hereby appeal to this House to honour the wishes of the families. This is my humble appeal," Makhura said.
He reiterated his "deep regret and profuse apology" for the deaths and repeated his previous statement of implementing all the recommendations in consultation with the families and a team of mental health experts appointed by Motsoaledi to assist.
"I will spend the remainder of my term over the next two years, to ensure that there is restorative justice and healing for the families and take every executive action possible to restore confidence in our public health system," Makhura said.
There have been multiple calls for Makhura to step down as Premier for his role in the deaths of the patients. This after claims by the DA that he ignored repeated warnings and pleas to take decisive action against the moving of the patients by the then-Health MEC Qedani Mahlangu and her department from Life Esidimeni to 27 unlicensed NGOs.
"I would like to state categorically that the decision to transfer Life Esidimeni mental health patients to NGOs was not made in consultation with the provincial executive council," Makhura said on Monday.
"The executive council and I would have never approved a plan to outsource mental health, a primary responsibility of the state to care for the vulnerable in society, to NGOs. What is even worse is the fact that such NGOs didn't meet appropriate standards and legal prescripts."
He said Mahlangu and her department had repeatedly claimed that there were enough beds in the public healthcare facilities due to the number of new hospitals and community health centres in the province.
The provincial executive council did not interfere in the appointment or retention of service providers by departments as this was against the law, he said.
He said he had always told MECs and HODs reviewing contracts with service providers that they should never compromise service delivery, especially for the most vulnerable groups which depend entirely on the state for their wellbeing.
"Cost considerations can never override the imperative of the quality of care," he said.
Moving the patients from Life Esidimeni to those NGOs had done just that, he said.
"At the very least, the department should have placed all patients in public health facilities or retained the services of private facilities in case there was no sufficient space in the public sector.
"As the head of government, I am deeply aggrieved by the extent to which those responsible for this tragic and ill-fated transfer of patients to unlawfully operating NGOs, have tried to hide the facts from me, the minister of health and the health ombud," he said.
Makhura said that following the healing session with the families at Freedom Park on Saturday, it was agreed that memorial stones would be erected at the park to honour those who had passed on.
A "wide-ranging" inspection and condition assessment would also be held at all centres of care that treated the elderly, people with disabilities, and children. This would be done for centres operated by the public, private or NGO sectors, he said.
"It is our responsibility as the state to care for the weak. Every institution that provides services to the most vulnerable must meet appropriate standards. We cannot wait for another tragedy before we take wide-ranging action," Makhura said.