The Tragedy Of State Patients – Still Kept In Prison

Karen de Kock, MPL

DA Northern Cape: Provincial Spokesperson of Health

The case of Isak Coetzee, a mentally-ill patient who has been declared unfit to stand trial but who has been kept in jail for four years as an awaiting trial prisoner, is tragic. Even more tragic, however, is that Coetzee is not alone.

For years already, the Democratic Alliance has been trying to highlight this grave human rights violation which, in the province, can be directly attributed to the fact that the Northern Cape Health Department has time and time again failed to make proper temporary provision for the mentally ill. In this regard, the new Kimberley mental hospital remains half-built due to delays caused by court cases regarding the contract. Meanwhile, the West End hospital, which is currently functioning as the province’s mental hospital, has allocated only 12 of the 100 beds at the facility, to state patients. As a result, the majority of state patients are still being kept in prison.

Other than the lack of beds, there are also only two state psychiatrists in the Northern Cape and the province still doesn’t offer proper 72-hour observation services in the districts. This in turn translates into an unnaturally long admissions waiting list for psychiatric assessments. This in turn also hampers the finalization of court cases. All of the above is in contravention of the spirit of the Mental Health Care Act of 2002.

The DA has raised this issue in parliamentary questions and the media, and we reported the matter to the Human Rights Commission. The DA even spoke to the MEC for Health, Mxolisa Sokatsha, and recently wrote him a letter warning him that his department is opening itself up for more legal disputes. To date, however, provincial government is still dragging its feet to rectify this serious injustice.

The DA can only attribute the lack of action in this regard to a lack of political guidance. This, as the province returned approximately R275 million worth of unspent funds to national treasury in the previous financial year, despite provincial treasury trying to ascertain from the Health Department whether they could rather use the money for the maintenance of infrastructure. It surpasses the DA’s understanding that the health department did not think it suitable to allocate the unspent funds to the upgrading of the West-end Hospital.

It is the DA’s view that we simply cannot wait for the new mental health hospital to be completed. Progress is painstakingly slow and the rectification of the previous contractor’s faults is consuming the project. The DA does not foresee that this hospital will be completed by early next year, or any time soon for that matter. We only hope that now, with added pressure from parliament following the expose on Coetzee’s situation, the provincial department will seek to reprioritize its funds and make the upgrade of the West End facility an urgent project. The human rights of the mentally ill must also be protected.

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