Who speaks for Madiba?
IN HINDSIGHT it was only a matter of time before someone overstepped the mark on the life – and in this case death – of Nelson Mandela. Former SANDF Surgeon General Vejay Ramlakan stands accused by the late icon’s widow, Graça Machel, and his grandson, Mandla Mandela, of having broken professional codes of conduct in particular doctor-patient confidentiality for having penned a memoir of the statesman and his declining medical health.
The book was billed as a bid to set the record straight over what was an extremely controversial chapter of Mandela’s life, with many feeling that the military health practitioners had been inept among a wealth of other concerns. It was said to have been written with the support of Mandela’s family. Except, obviously, not everyone’s support. The questions today are two-fold; the right to patient-doctor confidentiality and just who speaks on behalf of the Mandela family or, more pertinently, Nelson Mandela.
The policies around medical health confidentiality were always intended for lesser mortals, the problem is that Madiba was on the other end of the scale – there is incredible interest by the public in detailing the minutiae of his life. Whether that’s enough grounds to be considered public interest remains to be seen. Likewise, if the patient-doctor confidentiality was broached with the approval of his family – or at least one faction of the deeply riven clan – is this enough to protect the author, and his publishers, from any possible repercussions?
In the end, only the Health Professions Council of South Africa can rule on this definitively. It is an issue that needs clarity though, because the advent of social media has not only democratised how we interact with media, it has also thrown the very conventions around publishing, and protections we depend on, out of the window in the process.
The other issue is as simple; who speaks for Mandela and his legacy? It’s a thorny issue because Madiba is a brand, already commodified to a large extent and – as such – ripe for fatal tarnishing through unwise commercially-driven ventures.
Someone will have to grasp the nettle – but that will require the broader family actually speaking as one.