The mid-year release and subsequent withdrawal of a book on the final days of former president Nelson Mandela’s life put the spotlight firmly onto the services provided by the Presidential Medical Unit (PMU) of the SA Military Health Service (SAMHS).
The book “Mandela’s Last Years” was authored by former SA National Defence Force (SANDF) Surgeon General Vejay Ramlakan, who is reported as having said he wrote it with permission from the Mandela family. The entire print order of the book was withdrawn from retail sales outlets following complaints by certain members of the Mandela family, including Mandela’s widow Graca Machel. The withdrawal also coincided with threats of litigation, some related to a potential breach of doctor/patient confidentiality. As head of SAMHS, Ramlakan was in command of the PMU and, according to publicity issued by publishers Penguin Random House ahead of the book’s release, was “the head of his [Mandela’s] medical team”.
In an effort to shed some light on the workings of the PMU, opposition Democratic Alliance (DA) shadow defence and military veterans minister Kobus Marais posed a number of questions to defence minister Nosiviwe Mapisa-Nqakula.
The PMU reports to Mapisa-Nqakula as part of SAMHS, she told him, adding it was funded as part of SAMHS’ Tertiary Military Health Formation for operational purposes.
The unit is staffed by 56 people – 42 in Pretoria, 12 in Cape Town and two in Durban.
Six are medical officers (doctors), three are professional nurses; four are paramedics; three are tasked with operations and planning; 24 are operational emergency care practitioners; three are emergency care technicians and the remaining eight are responsible for logistics, driving and clerical duties.
The PMU has 80 vehicles at its disposal made up of 34 sports utility vehicles (SUVs), 32 sedans, two bakkies and 12 ambulances.
According to the Minister “most PMU members who drive the vehicles in convoy (high speed vehicles)” have completed the national defence force’s driving and maintenance course as well as an SA Police Service advanced driving course.