Retired Lieutenant General Vejay Ramlakan, who headed the SA Military Health Services team that cared for former President Nelson Mandela, may face time in prison for publishing a book relating to the events prior to Mandela’s death, as he breached doctor-patient confidentiality by making his medical information public.
The book “Mandela’s Last Years: the true story of Nelson Mandela’s final journey, by the head of his medical team” was launched on 18 July (Mandela Day) but withdrawn on 24 July after complaints and threats by Mandela’s widow Graca Michel threatening to sue Penguin Random House.
Ramlakan headed the SA Military Health Services team that cared for Mandela before he died on December 5, 2013. As Surgeon General of the South African National Defence Force (SANDF), Ramlakan had access to the medical records of former heads of state, defence ministers, visiting heads of state and other high profile people. He retired early from the SANDF, at the beginning of 2015, when he held the post of SANDF Chief of Corporate Staff. He was Surgeon General, in command of the SA Military Health Service, from 2005 until 2013.
The executors of Mandela’s estate, Dikgang Moseneke, George Bizos and Themba Sangoni, recently stated that a complaint is being prepared for submission to the Health Professions Council of South Africa (HPCSA) and later the Department of Defence.
“The executors will lodge a formal complaint with the South African National Defence Force over the unlawful conduct of one of its employees who, in his official capacity, was charged with the medical care of Mr Mandela. Third, the executors will lodge a formal complaint with the Health Professional Council of South Africa.”
Ramlakan should have been bound by several laws preventing him from revealing information about Mandela’s health and condition, including the Defence Act, Protection of Information Act and Minimum Information Security Standards act. The Protection of Information Act mandates members of the SANDF to keep secret information in the interests or security of South Africa. If violated, it opens Ramlakan to a fine of up to R10 000 or up to ten years in prison, or both.
Ramlakan said he was given permission from the Mandela family to write the book, but has not said who gave him the permission. Mandela’s granddaughter Tukwini Mandela told the Sunday Times that she knows who gave permission for the book, but would not say who it was.
The Department of Defence (DoD) has distanced itself from the book, with a statement issued by DoD head of communication, Siphiwe Dlamini, saying that “The DoD wishes to explicitly state that all views expressed in the book are those of the author and do not in any way or manner represent the DoD and the South African Military Health service (SAMHS). The SANDF’s policy on ‘patient/doctor confidentiality’ is in force and as such, the views and patient/doctor engagements expressed in the book have not been sanctioned by the senior cadre of the DoD and the SANDF respectively.”
“Irrespective of the contents of the book, all doctors are reminded of their ethical responsibilities to patients, regardless of who they are. The core ethical tenet of the doctor-patient relationship is the principle of confidentiality” said Simonia Magardie, Head of PR and Communications, South African Medical Association (SAMA).
Mandela’s ex-wife Winnie Madikizela-Mandela and the Nelson Mandela Foundation have distanced themselves from Mandela’s Last Years, with the Foundation saying the book is biased and contains information that is not true.
Ramlakan has a somewhat chequered past, with his involvement in caring for Mandela and the upgrades to President Jacob Zuma’s Nkandla homestead resulting in his early retirement in 2015. Ramlakan states in Mandela’s Last Years that his duties to Mandela caused him to miss appointments, resulting in then chief of the SA Army General Solly Shoke sending him a written warning over his performance. According to Netwerk24, Ramlakan was also involved with other conflicts with his bosses while in the SANDF and in November 2014 Shoke asked Ramlakan why he should not be dismissed.
Ramlakan’s involvement in Nkandla apparently included overseeing the construction of a helipad, clinic, living quarters and handling security installations. The clinic cost R12 million; the helipad R10 million and accommodation for military personnel R126 million.
Ramlakan refused to testify in an SANDF enquiry into alleged offences and wrongdoing committed by SANDF members involved in the upgrades at Nkandla. Allegations are that Ramlakan went ahead with the military components at Nkandla without approval from the defence force.