Wouter Basson's 9 000 heart patients

Wouter Basson, charged by the Health Professions Council with breaches of medical ethics as head of the apartheid government’s biological and chemical weapons programme, has succeeded in building a thriving private medical practice as a fashionable cardiologist in the upmarket suburb of Durbanville in Cape Town, writes Glynnis Underhill.

Basson’s office and accounts manager, Mariaan Basson, had nothing but praise for her boss, who recruited her when he opened his practice in Durbanville seven years ago. He had about 9 000 patients who depended on him, she said.

“Wouter Basson is considered one of the top cardiologists in the country. He is really a people’s person, and he is very thorough and really cares about his patients,” she said.
“His practice has grown by referral over the years.”

Mariaan Basson, who is not related to her employer, said he was the “best boss” to work for and that his patients loved him.

“He’s intelligent and values staff input. On average, he sees at least 16 patients a day,” said Basson.

The practice is based in a medical complex next to the Durbanville Medi-Clinic, a far cry from the secretive setting of Basson’s work while he served the apartheid military.

The son of a police colonel, he joined the South African Defence Force in 1975 after graduating as a doctor. He rose rapidly through the ranks, becoming a brigadier by the age of 30, when he was appointed to lead the army’s 7th Medical Battalion. But it is the role played during the National Party’s dirty war during the 1980s, as the head of the apartheid government’s secret biological and chemical warfare project, Project Coast, that has haunted him for almost 20 years and led to the current inquiry by the council.

Mariaan Basson said it would be terrible if her boss lost his licence and hoped that the inquiry went his way. “He means so much to his patients,” she said. “To stop the service he gives to them would hit them so hard.”

Asked if there were no concerns about his past in the military, Basson said: “That’s history. It is not part of him anymore. He had a job to do, but I don’t know that side of him.”

‘I just want to get back to my patients’

Just after American medical ethics expert Steven Miles was cross-examined on Wednesday at the Health Professions Council hearings in Tshwane Wouter Basson chatted excitedly in Afrikaans with his teenage son. They could have been talking about a rugby match, writes Katharine Child.

The relaxed demeanour of father and son, who both wore stylish black suits, was at odds with the more serious matter at hand. After all, the hearings would decide the professional fate of the apartheid-era military doctor who was charged with, among other things, the manufacturing of dangerous chemical weapons, weaponising thousands of mortars with teargas, distributing cyanide so soldiers could commit suicide if caught, and providing “disorientating substances to tranquillise people”.

As part of the professional conduct enquiry that will decide whether Basson’s medical licence should be revoked, Miles testified that Basson had, indeed, breached many international ethics codes when he used his “medical knowledge to destroy life”.

Using Basson’s testimony from the 30-month high court criminal trial in 2002 where he was acquitted of a range of charges, including murder, fraud, embezzlement and drug trafficking, Miles argued that Basson did the opposite of promoting health and saving lives as required by international ethics standards—a violation that if found true could see him lose his licence.

Miles used Basson’s own criminal trial testimony to describe how, when he ran Project Coast, the South African Defence Force’s chemical weapons and research unit, he accepted delivery of drugs used in chemical warfare, including “mandrax, nerve agent BZ, cocaine and ecstasy”, tested a “total of 24 different incapacitating substances” and oversaw the production of thousands of mortars filled with teargas.

But Basson’s attorney, Jaap Cilliers, ripped into Miles in the cross-examination and forced the expert to admit that he may not have been correct to testify that Basson had a single key to chemical weapons stores and that the key may not have been used for the weapons store at all.

Pre-hearing agreement
Cilliers, who successfully defended Basson in his criminal trial, also had evidence excluded from the hearing based on a pre-hearing agreement which stated that only a small part of evidence from the criminal trial was to be heard.

Miles had to cross out bits from his slide presentation to exclude evidence that was not supposed to have been included, eliminating information that Basson had obtained cocaine for chemical warfare, conducted chemical pyrotechnical tests and produced 17 to 18 tonnes of teargas.

But Miles stuck to the crux of his argument, underlining World Medical Association regulations which state that “medical ethics in times of armed conflict is identical to medical ethics in times of peace”.

Still, Basson appeared pleased with his attorney’s handiwork. “Do I look unhappy?” he said with a wink and a half-smile to the M&G correspondent at the end of Wednesday’s hearing.

Basson has always argued that he was acting as a soldier and was following orders and chose not to apply for amnesty at the Truth and Reconciliation Commission hearings.

Basson is unrepentant about the fact that the government, which also shelled out millions for his criminal trial, is also footing the bill for the current hearings. He told the M&G that the state is “contractually bound” to pay his legal costs for his hearing.

Ultimately, Basson seemed annoyed at the interruption the hearing had caused in his life when he should be back at work in Cape Town at his upmarket cardiology practice.

“I put this behind me 20 years ago,” he told journalists on Monday. “I just want to get back to my patients.”

If necessary the hearing could extend beyond Friday, according to Health Professions Council spokesperson Lize Nel, and be resumed at a later date.

Glynnis Underhill

Glynnis Underhill

Glynnis Underhill has been in journalism for more years than she cares to remember. She loves a good story as much now as she did when she first started. The only difference is today she hopes she is giving something back to the country.
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