On Saturday, President Cyril Rhamaphosa took the oath of office and committed to turning words into actions. Echoing the unifying spirit of Nelson Mandela, he pledged to address the country's challenges – including corruption. He acknowledged the country’s vast problems, including poverty, corruption and unemployment and called on citizens to unite behind efforts to build on the gains achieved in the country’s 25 years of democracy.
Now that President Ramaphosa has been formally inaugurated, we wish to issue a fervent call to himself and his offices. First of all, we urgently plead that mental health be prioritised. For too long mental health care users have been left to languish, unable to transcend the poverty traps and social exclusion in which they find themselves. This leads to an affront on their constitutional rights and various patterns of systemic disadvantage. Mental health care users are a vulnerable demographic and require a specialised response from the state if their rights are to be respected and protected. The mental health care system as it stands is woefully inadequate for the needs of the people who require these services and this has to change.
The Sustainable Development Goals and the National Development Plan provide a clear path towards bringing the rights of mental health care users to fruition, and the legal framework consisting of the Constitution and enabling legislation and policy such as the Mental Health Care Act and Mental Health Policy Framework and Strategic Action Plan supposedly create a protective shield against human rights violations. Unfortunately poor implementation of these instruments means that they often simply gather dust. This constitutes our second call- that the law must be put into practice. Third of all, we urge the president to spread the responsibility towards mental health care users across his entire cabinet. No one Department “owns” mental health and for too long it has been regarded as merely a health issue. This reinforces the outdated and unconstitutional medical model of care- something that has no place in our democracy. Finally we urge the president to actively engage with stakeholders in the mental health sphere. President Ramaphosa must at all times know what is happening on the ground and must be sensitive to the segment of his constituency that is made up of mental health care users. This looks set to be achieved by the creation for the Presidential Working Group on the Rights of People with Disabilities and it is our hope that President Ramaphosa will constructively and continuously engage with this group.
The new presidential term heralds many golden opportunities to improve the lot in life of mental health care users. It is up to the President to lead the charge for the realisation of the rights of mental health care users. Ke nako Mr President, ke nako.