A sick note that ends on a sick note

Andrew Donaldson on Zuma's weaponising of his feeble medical excuses to target Karyn Maughan


I WONDER if readers are familiar with the tune Just Dropped In (To See What Condition My Condition Was In)? A fuzzy slice of psychedelic pop, it was a top ten hit in the US for a few weeks in 1968 for the First Edition, a group that featured future country star Kenny Rogers. 

With lyrics like “I got up so tight I couldn’t unwind/I saw so much I broke my mind”, it is very much a product of the Sixties and perhaps it should have stayed there, a mild curio lost in that era of great social upheaval, if not outright confusion. 

But recent developments concerning Jacob Zuma now call the song to mind as a journalist faces private criminal prosecution for just dropping in to see what condition the former president’s condition was in.

His doctors have for months stressed that is not the finest of conditions, although they have not said much more than that. 

To the untrained observer, though, it does appear a wildly unstable condition, careening from life-threatening debilitation to unhinged mania, all in the flash of a lie. One moment he’s at death’s door, and the next he's champing at the bit and wants to be ANC chairman, leading the party back to Gupta glory through sheer stupidity. Is he out of his mind, or just off his meds? 

Consider his “criminal” action against News24 specialist legal reporter Karyn Maughan and state advocate Billy Downer for allegedly making public details of his baffling and “confidential” medical condition. This clearly is another tactic to sabotage Downer’s long-running efforts to prosecute the fraud case in which Accused Number One is, uh, the principal accused.

This mysterious condition was first presented in February 2020 as an excuse for Zuma not attending his Pietermaritzburg High Court fraud and corruption trial.

Though it had greatly puzzled lawyers and vexed commentators at the time, it was in effect a modest and unconvincing debut: a crumpled sick note from a doctor at 1 Military Hospital who simply diagnosed his patient’s medical condition as “medical condition”. ___STEADY_PAYWALL___

This did not convince Judge Dhaya Pillay. She expressed reservations about the note’s vague nature and the fact that its dates appeared to have been crudely altered. As such, it did not adequately explain Zuma’s non-attendance, and while the former president may indeed have been ill, there was insufficient evidence before the court to prove this.

Clearly a healthier sick note was needed and, indeed, one duly appeared 18 months later. 

Written by one Brigadier Mcebisi Mdutywa of the SA Military Health Service and addressed to prison and prosecuting authorities, it stated that on 28 November 2020 the former president had been “put under active care and support after he suffered a traumatic injury”. The brigadier further advised:

“This is to inform you that Mr Zuma has been admitted to hospital as of 06 August 2021. He is undergoing extensive medical evaluation and care as a result of his condition that that needed an extensive emergency procedure that has been delayed for 18 months due to compounding legal matters and recent incarceration and cannot be delayed any further as it carries a significant risk to his life. The medical team is actively monitoring his progress and will inform you soon as to the prognosis and outcome thereof through a medical report.

“We trust that the court processes will accommodate this urgent health program such that we can be able to work swiftly to restore his health. The minimum proposed period of care is six months during which periodic reports will be communicated to advise on possible availability of any further engagements on your end.”

Thus a sick note that ends on a (sic) note. 

But the document was handed in to the court and, as such, is part of the public record — although Zuma claims otherwise, alleging that Downer had acted in a criminal manner by leaking a “confidential” document to Maughan who, likewise, had committed a criminal act by reporting on it.

The thing is, for all its verbiage, Mdutywa’s letter reveals nothing of his patient’s condition. There is no description or identification of the “traumatic injury” he supposedly suffered and no information about this “extensive emergency procedure”.

How is it possible, we non-legal types ask ourselves, that “confidential” details could have been leaked if there were no such details in the first place?

The mystery deepened. As a result, public interest in the Blesser’s failing health soared and the rumour mill was ratcheted into overgrind. 

There was talk of poisonings by estranged wives. Some said the Soviet-era procedures he’d undergone in Havana and elsewhere were too antiquated and doctrinaire for his brand of 21st century nativist populism, and that the leeches visibly recoiled upon introduction to the patient. There were even grim murmurs of vampires and zombies.

But the truth of the matter may, alas, be far more prosaic. A report by Marianne Thamm in Daily Maverick suggests that details of uBaba’s condition can be found in papers first lodged with the Pretoria High Court. 

In December, that court ruled in favour of an action brought by the Democratic Alliance, the Helen Suzman Foundation and AfriForum, and declared that the decision by Arthur Fraser, the National Commissioner of Correctional Services, to grant Zuma medical parole and free him from prison where he was serving a 15-month sentence for contempt of court was illegal and that the convict should go back to jail. The case is now before the Supreme Court of Appeal. 

While much of the medical assessments provided by Fraser in defence of his decision are heavily redacted in the documents, there is mention of Zuma’s “life-threatening cardiac and neurological events”. 

More specifically, there is concern about “potential surgery” for a “potentially development of a malignant condition arising from a high grade ileocecal and colon lesion exists”. (sic)

This is the murky province of the proctological, an area where transplants are ill-advised; there is a very real risk, say the experts at the Slaughtered Lamb (“Finest Ales & Pies”), of the arse rejecting the recipient. 

Of more wholesome interest, perhaps, is the affidavit from Estcourt Correctional Centre warden Nompumelelo Radebe. It was she who first reported Zuma’s deteriorating health shortly after his incarceration in July 2021:

“… I noticed that Mr Zuma does not make up his bed or clean his cell as expected. I escalated the matter to the Acting Area Commissioner … who then reported the matter to the Regional Head of Corrections within the Province. [He] engaged Mr Zuma on the registered concerns, particularly his failure to make up his bed and cleaning of the cell. Mr Zuma indicated that he was not feeling well and that he often feels weak and unable to make up his bed or clean his cell. Emanating from the engagement with Mr Zuma , the Regional Head: Corrections guided the nursing staff to assist in making up the bed and the cleaning of the cell and that they should monitor Mr Zuma’s health condition on a daily basis.”

Which is pretty much the story of his political career: far from making his own bed and lying in it, others do the job for him and then suffer the consequences.

The Stalingrad counter-offensive

Considering the glacial pace in which Jacob Zuma’s own criminal matter has proceeded over the years, there is some surprise at the unseemly haste in which he now wants Karyn Maughan and Billy Downer hauled before the beak. 

In terms of the summons issued by Accused Number One, both are to appear in the Pietermaritzburg High Court on the morning of Monday, 10 October. To this end, Zuma has reportedly put down a security deposit of R90 000 at the court.

This is peanuts, Downer has countered, and not nearly enough. In papers before the court, the state advocate suggested an extra R1-million would provide a more appropriate deposit, this being the amount necessary to “provide security that is sufficient to meet the probable costs which may be incurred in respect of my defence” should Msholozi’s private prosecution fail.

Downer has engaged the services of a senior counsel and two juniors. According to a News24 report, the senior advocate will be charging R54 000 a day and R5 400 an hour, while the combined charges of the junior counsels would come to R45 000 a day and R4 500 an hour.

What’s more, Downer wants the security deposit handed over in cash or provided with a bank guarantee. The obvious reason for this being that, a little more than a month ago, the curator of the looted VBS Mutual Bank had been granted an execution order regarding uBaba’s outstanding debts with the institution.

“I have no confidence,” Downer said, “that the private prosecutor will in future be able to settle the costs incurred for my defence in the absence of the security that I require.”

My own feeling is that the veteran prosecutor is being too lenient and is entering the fray with insufficient representation. What is required in a case of this stature is not three advocates but a whole bar of the bastards and he should accordingly up his security deposit demand to at least R15-million. This, commentators feel, would give that allegedly lesioned colon an appropriately robust workout.

Maughan, meanwhile, is hoping the matter won’t even get to court. She’s launched an urgent application to have the case dismissed, Zuma interdicted from from pursuing further private private prosecutions against her and a costs order. 

The summons issued against her was, she argued, “unlawful, vexatious and an abuse of the process of court”.

Her prosecution is understandably seen as an attack on press freedom, and it is encouraging that many in civil society have rallied to her defence. The SA National Editors’s Forum, for one, has expressed its “disgust” at the summons, stating that it was clearly an act of intimidation “intended to silence Maughan”.

There are fears that this could be a case of permanently silencing the reporter. It is one thing to discourage critical journalism, but quite another to encourage physical attacks on journalists to shut them up.

Maughan has said in court papers that, as a result of her coverage of the Thief-in-Chief’s legal hassles, she had been “repeatedly maligned and threatened, including by members of Mr Zuma’s family and his representatives at the Jacob G Zuma Foundation (‘the Zuma Foundation’)”.

Those driving the “torrent of social media abuse” have been identified, among others, as foundation spokesman Mzwanele “Jimmy the Racist” Manye and uBaba’s banshee daughter, the shrieking violet Dudu Sambudla-Zuma. 

The latter, for example, had posted a tweet on August 12, shortly after Maughan reported on yet another postponement of court proceedings, that referred to “journalists being beaten up in Sri Lanka together with the following threat: ‘@KarynMaughan Come Look Here’”.

In the course of her career, Maughan said that she’d been subjected to “varying degrees of criticism and vitriol”, something she’d learnt to tolerate by developing “a thick skin”.

“But in recent years, the general, often gender-specific abuse, has escalated markedly. The online and real abuse of women journalists has been an issue that has received attention from both international and local human rights bodies and press freedom organisations.”

Not enough attention, arguably. Hardened it may be, but a thick skin offers little in the way of defence against the bricks and bottles of the hate-filled mob. Our journalists need protection.