by Annemarie Paulin-Campbell

It is difficult to comprehend the low to which we have sunk with the Life Esidimeni crisis. How has a culture prevailed in which such appalling atrocities were allowed to take place? The stories shared by family members at the recent session of the arbitration process are shocking. To make matters worse, those directly responsible have deliberately dodged any responsibility and accountability.

Not only did 141 patients die as a result of the move from Life Esidimeni to other NGOs not equipped to care for them, but patients and their families were treated in ways which can only be labelled a gross violation of any normal standards of human dignity and respect. According to reports at the arbitration, 59 patients still remain unaccounted for.

Some workers in the NGOs, could see the disaster unfolding, but testified that they felt they had no choice but to follow orders from above. At the higher levels of leadership, former Gauteng MEC for Health, Quedani Mahlangu, claimed that the Esidimeni tragedy wasn’t her fault. She said that it was not her job to visit organisations before patients were transferred into their care.

Mahlangu has not yet returned to South Africa to appear at the arbitration (originally there were claims she was writing exams at a UK University). Her lawyers have said she would only be able to appear in late January. Earlier this week, news broke that she has been suspended without prejudice by the Global Banking School in London due to the nature of the allegations against her. It is deeply disturbing that she does not seem to consider it critical that she return immediately to answer the allegations against her.

This whole situation is indicative of what is happening in our South African society at the moment. People in positions of leadership are being allowed to get away with murder. The culture of impunity runs very deep.

How does one’s conscience become blunted? In spiritual terms the attraction to wealth, status, and power can quickly erode a sense of compassion and responsibility. As corruption begins to happen in small ways it creates a new societal culture in which things that were unthinkable become normalised.

An example of how this works, is the ‘broken window theory’ of James Wilson and George Kelling. In a neighbourhood, if a window is broken and not fixed, people decide that it is acceptable to live like that. Soon, more windows are broken and, after that, even bigger damage becomes the norm. Researchers linked the ‘small’ issue of the unfixed broken windows, to subsequent occurrences of serious violent crime. In theological terms we say that ‘sin builds upon sin.’

Malcom Gladwell, author of The Tipping Point, outlines a phenomenon where an idea, a new trend or a social behaviour suddenly reaches a tipping point and spreads like wildfire. His well-researched theory suggests that behaviours and messages are contagious. When they reach a certain degree of saturation they catch on like an epidemic. We need a new tipping point to shift the culture of impunity. With the publication of Jacques Pauw’s book, now at the top of the global bestseller list, perhaps we are seeing one beginning to take place.