Psychiatric patient deaths spark scandal in South Africa

In this photo taken Wednesday, Feb 1, 2017 in Pretoria, South Africa's Bertha Molefe cries during an announcement of mentally ill patients who died after being transferred to non-governmental facilities allegedly operating with invalid licenses. Molefe's daughter, Sophia, was one of nearly 100 patients who died last year in South Africa's most developed province. (AP Photo)

JOHANNESBURG — The deaths of nearly 100 psychiatric patients last year in South Africa's most developed province have prompted anger at government officials who transferred the patients to non-governmental groups allegedly operating with invalid licenses.

While President Jacob Zuma on Thursday expressed condolences to the families of the dead, some opposition leaders said the president was ultimately responsible for the scandal. They called for the resignation of David Makhura, the premier of Gauteng province. The Democratic Alliance, South Africa's main opposition party, planned a candlelight vigil late Thursday outside Makhura's office in Johannesburg.

The province's top health official has already quit.

Only one of the deaths was linked to a mental illness, while 93 other patients died because of dehydration, diarrhoea and other conditions that could have been treated, according to a health watchdog report. It cites reports that some non-governmental institutions were overcrowded and lacked enough food and staff.

The health department in Gauteng had transferred nearly 1,400 patients from a licensed facility to cut costs.

Gauteng includes the capital, Pretoria, and the nation's commercial hub, Johannesburg.

Zuma's office said the president thanked health ombudsman Malegapuru Makgoba for the report on the deaths, noting that it will help the government "ensure that such a tragedy does not recur in the health sector."

The report said some state mental health workers had been concerned about the transfer of the patients, and became frustrated because they felt their leadership was not listening to them. Some workers broke down with emotion while being interviewed, it said.

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Follow Christopher Torchia on Twitter at www.twitter.com/torchiachris

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