The backlash about former surgeon-general Doctor Vejay Ramlakan’s book on Nelson Mandela’s final years may not yet be over, as a possible 10-year prison sentence hangs over his head.
In writing Mandela’s Last Years, Ramlakan would have been bound, as a member of the SA National Defence Force (SANDF), by laws including the Defence Act, the Protection of Information Act (PIA), which replaced the Official Secrets Act in 1982, and the Minimum Information Security Standards (Miss).
He would have signed a declaration of secrecy informed by the PIA.
“I understand that I shall be guilty of an offence if I reveal any information which I have at my disposal by virtue of my office and concerning which I know or should reasonably know that the security or other interests of the republic require that it be kept secret,” the form states.
It goes on to state: “…said provisions and instructions shall apply not only during my term of office, but also after the termination of my services with the department” and lays the signatory open to a fine of R10 000 or up to 10 years’ imprisonment, or both if the breech is serious enough.
Publisher Penguin Random House withdrew the book from print, with Mandela’s widow Graca Michel threatening to sue.
The book also caused the SANDF and the Health Professionals’ Council of South Africa (HPCSA) to distance themselves from it.
And while the South African Medical Association (Sama) doesn’t have any teeth to sanction Ramlakan, the SANDF and HPCSA – the statutory body for doctors – certainly do.
SANDF spokesperson Brigadier-General Mafi Mgobozi appeared unable to answers questions sent to him regarding any pending sanction against Ramlakan.
The same applied to HPCSA communications manager Priscilla Sekhonyana. Miss was approved by Cabinet in 1998 as the national information security policy and “applies to all departments of state subject to the Public Service Act 103 of 1994 or any other department that handles classified information in the national interest”, according to the State Security Agency.
This makes it unlikely that revealing Mandela’s personal medical records, while being of interest to some of the public, would be in the public interest unless there had been egregious medical malpractice.
It’s not an assertion Ramlakan makes and, in death, as in life, doctors have a sacrosanct duty to respect doctor-patient confidentiality. Sama chairperson Dr Muzikisi Grootboom said this week that “In the no longer used Hippocratic Oath, it refers to secrets in the doctor-patient relationship as being ‘holy’”.
“Perhaps of greater relevance is the Geneva Declaration, used by most doctors in their oath taking, which contains the line ‘I will respect the secrets that are confided in me, even after the patient has died’.” – email@example.com