/ 27 November 2014

Analysis: Tempers flare at Dr Death hearing

Doc in the dock: Dr Wouter Basson is hoping he will be allowed to continue practising as a cardiologist.
Doc in the dock: Dr Wouter Basson is hoping he will be allowed to continue practising as a cardiologist.

“Are we going to have to listen to this nonsense?”

With these words, an angry and irritated advocate Jaap Cilliers stormed out of the conference room at the Villas Luxury Suite Hotel in Arcadia, Pretoria, on Wednesday.

Mark Heywood of the social justice organisation Section27 was attempting to convey the views of 230 health professionals and 32 civil society organisations during a hearing to determine the fate of one of South Africa’s most controversial medical figures: cardiologist Wouter Basson.

The health professionals and nongovernmental organisations had signed two petitions for Basson – dubbed Dr Death – to be struck off the medical roll because of his participation in the apartheid government’s chemical and biological warfare programme, Project Coast, which he headed from 1981 to 1992.

In December last year, the Health Professions Council of South Africa (HPCSA) found Basson, represented by Cilliers, guilty of unprofessional conduct. Basson currently runs a successful private medical practice in Durbanville, north of Cape Town.

  • For an update on Thursday’s proceedings read this

Heywood vs Cilliers
During the hearing to determine what punishment the cardiologist will receive, Heywood’s task was to present evidence in aggravation of Basson’s sentence. This could range from a mere fine to being banned from practising as a doctor.

Heywood presented 19 slides – 14 of which were dedicated to explaining why Section27 was the appropriate organisation to present the petitions. The slides focused on Section27’s achievements thus far, such as rulings in its favour in landmark court cases.

Heywood’s submission prompted an increasingly frustrated Cilliers, when he returned to the conference room, to ask: “Is this a PR exercise? Is this man qualified to speak about medical ethics when he is not a medical professional himself?”

Cilliers then glared at Heywood and threw his hands into the air.

“I’m warning you,” Cilliers announced to the tribunal, as a po-faced Basson focused on his phone, “if you go ahead with allowing Heywood to be a witness and present the petitions, which are not at all based on the verdict of the HPCSA, as they refer to my client as a ‘murderer who caused irreparable harm’, we will go ahead and apply to launch our own petitions that will counter these views.”

Cilliers’s “warning” was particularly apt: Basson’s legal teams have in the past succeeded with strategies that have helped to cause this hearing to drag on for almost 14 years.

Not that this was on Heywood’s mind when he stared icily back at Cilliers and responded: “I think the senior counsel doesn’t fully understand the right that the Constitution gives us to express our opinions. I’m a consumer of healthcare services and have the right to speak.”

Cilliers removed his spectacles and wiped his brow. “Do you want me to respond to this nonsense?” he sighed.

As all of this unfolded, a group of people who consider themselves to be Basson’s “victims” sat at the back of the room.

Lethal substance
Heggie Mohale (81) was one of them. During a Truth and Reconciliation Commission hearing in the late 1990s, she heard that apartheid security agents had injected her son Oupa with a substance that killed him. Oupa was 27 at the time and a member of the ANC’s armed wing, Umkhonto weSizwe.

Mohale remains convinced that Basson was responsible for manufacturing the substance that made it possible for her son’s interrogators and torturers to “kill” him. Throughout the HPCSA hearing, she wore dark sunglasses. “I don’t really understand what’s going on at this hearing,” she said softly.

“I just want my son’s bones.”

After the day’s hearing, the Mail & Guardian approached Basson for an interview, which he’d agreed to the previous week.

But his only comment was: “I’m sorry, Jaap [Cilliers] says he’s going to donner me if I speak to you and you can see that Jaap is bigger than me. This whole hearing has now become senseless and stupid.”