by Annemarie Paulin-Campbell

“Leadership is not about being in charge. Leadership is about taking care of those in your charge.” Simon Sinek.

These words resonate deeply for me in the light of what we have seen in recent days. Ninety four mentally ill patients died in Gauteng between the 23rd of March and the 19th of December 2016. This was the result of decisions made to reduce costs without any recognition of what this would mean for those individuals and their families. A government contract with Life Esidimeni was cancelled without appropriate arrangements being in place for the patients who would no longer be accommodated there. This was done despite the strong warnings against it by experts working with mentally ill patients. They cautioned that if this was hastily implemented, it would have disastrous consequences.

Patients were transferred to places far from their families, sometimes without their families’ knowledge. Others were moved into overcrowded facilities where staff were not trained or equipped to deal with their physical and emotional needs. The report indicates that some of the frail and disabled patients were transported in inappropriate and inhumane modes of transport. Malnutrition, dehydration, lack of necessary medication and poor care in often filthy conditions were recurring themes in the report. It is a heart-breaking tragedy.

One wonders what it says about our society that something like this can happen. Perhaps it goes much deeper than incompetence and inadequate structures. Perhaps it says something about the loss of a culture of care.

It seems that around the world we are being challenged by situations in which power is abused. This Esidimeni Mental Health crisis, the breaking news of how many children were sexually abused by priests in Australia, the situation of refugees globally and the recent pain caused by the Executive Order of President Trump in the USA.

To care for the most vulnerable is at the heart of what it means to be Christian. This includes the mentally ill, the homeless, the sick, the poor, refugees and migrants – those who tend to have little power and no voice. These are the people we need to speak out for. Jesus always spoke about the care of the widow and the orphan, those who were most vulnerable.

How do we build a culture of love and compassion? How do we develop leaders who care for those in their charge, rather than be caught up with the sense of power which leadership positions can give? How do we stay connected with the fact that the decisions we make will impact other people in ways which can either be life-giving or devastating? The greater our position of responsibility the greater the potential for damage or good. For structural changes to happen, there needs to be a conversion of heart for all of us. We must be aware that whether as parents, professionals or business people we all have a responsibility to take care of those in our charge; to ensure that they are treated with love and that their human dignity is respected.

This, and not the allure of power, profit or status needs to become the criterion by which decisions affecting human lives are made.