Graça Machel vs Dr Vejay Ramlakan

HPCSA to hear complaint laid by Nelson Mandela's widow against her late husband's physician

Today, Monday, Dr Vejayand Indurjith “Vejay” Ramlakan is scheduled to appear in a hearing before the Professional Conduct Committee of the Health Professions Council of South Africa (HPCSA).

This is as the result of a complaint made by Graça Machel that Ramlakan abused HPCSA ethical rules by breaching doctor-patient rules of confidentiality in his book, Mandela’s Last Years: the story of Nelson Mandela’s final journey, by the head of his medical team.

Judge Jeremiah Shongwe is set down as chairperson of the six-person tribunal. If the tribunal finds against Ramlakan, he could inter alia be struck off the medical register.

In July 2017, Ramlakan’s book was published by Penguin Random House South Africa but then “voluntarily” withdrawn from circulation by the publisher (there was no court order), ostensibly because the “Mandela family” had not given Ramlakan permission to publish the book and especially much of the material contained in it. See my story herelet me also note that I have submitted an affidavit, as part of Ramlakan’s legal papers, on “matters of public interest [that should be allowed to be] covered by reporters and commented upon by journalists and other opinion makers”.

Ramlakan, a medical doctor, was from 1977 a member of Umkhonto we Sizwe, spent five years imprisoned on Robben Island and, having been promoted to the rank of Lieutenant General, served as the Surgeon General of the SANDF, in which position he was appointed overall head, after former President Nelson Mandela retired, of the “C” team, which was responsible for the late president’s health care.

Ramlakan is at pains to point out in his papers that the “C” did not mean the team was “third” in line in terms of expertise and/or status, but merely that it was designated, in military parlance, the “Charlie” team.

Machel alleges that Ramlakan published at least seven “types” of information in the book (e.g., “our family’s interaction with the medical team and my husband”) that were a “flagrant breach of the ethical duty of confidentiality owed by Dr Ramlakan to his patient, President Mandela”; that he did not seek consent from her, Machel, who is “President Mandela’s next of kin” nor from the “executors of the estate of President Mandela”; and that the book was an even “more egregious” breach of confidentiality because Ramlakan did so “for profit”.

It is common cause (generally known) that permission to write the book was given to Ramlakan by Phumla Makaziwe Mandela, 64, Madiba’s daughter from his first marriage to Evelyn Mase. Additionally, the late Winnie Madikizela-Mandela also supported publication of the book.

It can be expected therefore that there will be extensive legal argument from Ramlakan’s defence team, headed by Piet Louw SC, relating to the precise meaning of the terms “next of kin” (section 35 of the Constitution) versus “spouse”, especially in the South African context; the rights of executors of a deceased’s person’s estate; and also the extent to which a medical practitioner may divulge information “where it is justified to do so in the public interest”.

It can also be expected that Ramlakan’s arguments regarding who had the “right” to give him permission to publish the book will result in even more ventilation of the alleged rifts in the Mandela family.

For this reason, the lawyers representing Machel have requested that the enquiry be held in camera – that is, that the media or other people not be allowed to attend. This issue will could take up a great deal of the first day of the proceedings.

As noted above, Penguin Random House South Africa withdrew Ramlakan’s book from circulation without being legally ordered to do so – it did so, it wrote, “out of respect for the late Mr Mandela’s family”. As far as can be ascertained there were no complaints then or since about the withdrawal of the book by any of the country’s freedom of speech watchdogs or commentators.

Penguin Random House is also the publisher of Pieter-Louis Myburgh’s recent Gangster State: Unravelling Ace Magashule’s Web of Capture and said in a statement on 5 April that “We will continue to stand by the author of Gangster State, and we will continue to stand up for the freedom to publish without political pressure”.

The executors of Madiba’s estate are George Bizos SC, former Deputy Chief Justice Dikgang Moseneke and former Eastern Cape High Court Judge President Themba Sangoni.

Judge Shongwe was the principal Supreme Court of Appeal judge who on January 19, 2018 effectively awarded Mandela’s Qunu home to Machel after Winnie Madikizela-Mandela had sought to get ownership of the property (see here).