In the spirit of inclusiveness, it is important to speak to those disabilities that cannot be seen. Whether these conditions are officially recognised is neither here nor there. What is important, as with the interaction of society with visible disability, is to facilitate social integration, and equal treatment of people who suffer from mental illness. It is also important to recognise that there are mental illnesses not recognised as disabilities, since more weight is placed on those which are debilitating and terminal in nature. Those mental illnesses which also present physically receive more attention in society than others.

Closer to home, the plight of mentally ill patients is a permanent fixture in our news headlines as the Life Esidimeni saga continues to unfold. Briefly, 143 mentally ill patients died between 23 March 2016 and 19 December 2016.  The patients died after the Gauteng Health Department transferred them from the private Life Esidimeni facilities to unregistered non-governmental organisations. The Health Ombudsman noted that these patients died under unlawful and dignity-violating conditions, largely involving neglect. 

The persistent efforts of the officials in charge to avoid being held to account is indicative of the general attitude that society harbours when it comes to mental illness and other forms of disability. The tendency of society to mistreat and disregard the most vulnerable of its members has been evidenced through the Life Esidimeni tragedy. The arbitration hearing currently underway and being chaired by former Deputy Chief Justice Dikgang Moseneke, has revealed the horrors of being a mental health patient in the country. The fact-finding endeavour should not only be used as a means by which to find closure for the friends and families of those who died, but as a basis for criminal liability on the part of the Department of Health and its actors.

The Life Esidimeni hearings recognise the right to equal treatment of mentally ill persons. The right to be treated with dignity and with the necessary medical attention in medical centres, which are appropriately equipped and staffed. It can be hailed as a positive step in mental health awareness and recognising mental illness in all spheres of life as a legitimate health concern.

As the world changes, it is necessary to re-examine and re-interpret who a person with a disability is, and provide protection and empowerment rooted in constitutional values of human dignity and equality. After all, the Constitution envisages an inclusive society in which all South Africans enjoy an improved quality of life and are free to achieve their fullest potential.

By Rebecca Sibanda: Legal Assistant, Centre for Constitutional Rights