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This is an extract from ‘Blood Money’ by Suzanne Belling, the story of the quest for the release of paediatric oncologist Professor Cyril Karabus.
Enter Dr Iqbal Survé, quietly and unobtrusively, save for the news reporters who managed to uncover his involvement and who had what laymen call a “scoop”, but what subeditors mark as “exclusive”. And Iqbal knows a great deal about the press, having acquired Independent Newspapers last year.
He is also founder and chairman of the Sekunjalo Group, which has a private investment holding company, a private equity fund and a public subsidiary. Sekunjalo hasmore than 130 investments, primarily in Africa – mainly in the oil and energy sector, mineral resources, defence, telecommunications and power.
But he comes into Cyril’s story primarily as a doctor who was tutored by the paediatric oncologist at UCT and who remembers the professor “more for what he wrote than as the person, because that’s how medicine works”.
His role in helping Cyril was underscored by his position as chairman of the Graduate School of Business at UCT and one of the six governors of the University Foundation.
There is a lot that has been, and can be, written about this man, who treated Robben Island prisoners under the apartheid regime, including his iconic, prized patient, Nelson Mandela.
“I looked after him for 10 years. That’s why I’m called the ‘Struggle doctor’. That’s why I know everyone.”
He “looked after” Mandela until he was freed. “When he became president, the surgeon-general and the military treated him.”
Iqbal’s daunting CV is surpassed only by the man himself, who is even more impressive. Yet he has one overarching quality that sets him apart from others: he may be a humanitarian, he may be a philanthropist but, above all, his caring approach is intensely personal.
Iqbal is a good friend of Dr Max Price, vice-chancellor and principal of UCT and also a medical doctor.
Max had been in constant touch with Sarah Karabus, who had asked for the vice-chancellor’s help with a problem “that didn’t seem as if it was going to be solved”.
Max told Iqbal that although Cyril was retired, technically he still fell under the auspices of UCT.
“I knew Cyril was an expert in the oncology area of paediatrics and, when Max asked if I minded if Sarah called me, I said, ‘Of course not’.”
After asking Max what he could do to help, Iqbal was told: “You’re very influential with the government here in South Africa. You could put pressure on the government and, secondly, you have lots of connections in the Middle East.”
Iqbal explains that he is chairman of the South Africa-Saudi Arabia Business Council, an official council between the two countries.
“I’m appointed by our president and my counterpart co-chairman is appointed by the king,” says Iqbal.
Sarah did indeed call him the next day, “when the situation was quite dire. I think Cyril was out of jail already but there didn’t seem to be any realistic chance of his being released from the UAE.”
Iqbal told Sarah he would speak to Dirco (Department of International Relations and Cooperation) Minister Maite Nkoana-Mashabane, who is a close friend, as well as the two deputy ministers, Ebrahim Ebrahim and Marius Fransman.
“The South African government later issued a protest note about Cyril’s incarceration. The minister strongly supported the release of Cyril – very strongly, I can tell you. Very, very strongly.
“She spoke to her counterpart in Abu Dhabi and eventually, unusually for us, issued a démarche, which is the strongest diplomatic censure, other than removing an ambassador. Of course, I’m not in government, but I have the relationships – I always have to emphasise that, because people sometimes get confused. I also spoke to the UAE ambassador, who gave me the official line – ‘it’s the legal system’, (and) that he was found guilty… As far as they were concerned, it was just that Cyril was found guilty.”
Iqbal remembers Jen and the family becoming quite desperate, as they were in regular contact with Cyril.
“Their mood and his mood were completely different. I felt so sad for Jen. I was hoping Cyril would express some emotion, because I knew what the family was experiencing. I was being called at that stage about every single thing that was happening. As I said at a press conference, the (Karabus) family became my family.”
Then, in January, Iqbal went to the World Economic Forum meeting in Davos, Switzerland. It was nothing out of the ordinary for the doctor-turned-top businessman. He was used to accompanying all the presidents of South Africa – Nelson Mandela, Thabo Mbeki, Kgalema Motlanthe and Jacob Zuma – to the UAE, Buckingham Palace, the United Nations General Assembly and state banquets in the US and other countries.
“I’ve lived in the palaces and have been the only businessman to do so when I accompanied a president. I’ve managed because of my relationship (with them) as a doctor, not as a businessman.”
His previous visits to these important forums had never involved another agenda, such as Iqbal now had. “I thought, ‘Here’s an opportunity for me to speak to the members of the UAE government who are in Davos’. In fact, I was invited by the Emirates government to a very specific dinner, as it’s customary for them to invite selected people. There were a few global CEOs, millionaires and people like that at the dinner. I was speaking to the Minister of the Interior and he had two deputy ministers or advisers with him – it’s very difficult to work out what they are in the UAE.
“I then said to him, ‘Look, can I have a private chat with you about a matter relating to South Africa?’ So we went aside and spoke. He was well informed about the (Karabus) matter… And, of course, he gave me the official position – the government must allow the law to take its course and there’ll be a process of appeals, all sorts of things like that.
“Also, that there was nothing he could do because it was a matter for the courts of the UAE, not for the government. So I said to him, ‘Forget about the legalities of the situation, whatever’s legally right or wrong. This is a 77-year-old man who’s given his life to the public sector. He’s a good man. Sometimes in medicine things happen, doctors make mistakes. I’ve made mistakes in my time as a doctor. But you don’t start off wanting to make the mistakes – they happen when you’re busy healing someone.’
“The point I was trying to emphasise was that I’m not an expert in legal matters and I appealed to him to release Cyril on humanitarian grounds. Or pardon him. And the minister said it wasn’t something they would consider, because if they did it for Cyril, they’d have to do it for everyone.
“I referred to the good relationship between the United Arab Emirates and South Africa. I explained that I was chairman of the council (South Africa-Saudi Arabia) and the region kind of falls under my umbrella. I eventually spoke to his advisers and had two more phone calls with him before I left Davos. Max Price was, in fact, in Davos with me. We did something called the ‘cultural affairs dinner’ together.
“I told Max I’d seen the UAE Minister of the Interior and that I’d come straight across from the dinner to the cultural evening because I wanted to go to it, and Max was quite chuffed. But he still said to me, ‘I’m so sorry to saddle you with this problem’.”
Iqbal was not optimistic after his meeting with the Emirati Minister of the Interior. Back in Cape Town, he met Sarah in a Claremont coffee shop and became more informed about the medical and technical issues surrounding Cyril, as this was a conversation between doctor and doctor.
“Things were getting out of control – nothing was happening. But the more I listened to Sarah, the more I became involved.”
Then Iqbal’s relationship with the royal family, “that extends to other areas”, kicked in.
“I said I’d see if I could open that channel, as I knew that the Interior Minister, although also from the royal family, was from another Emirate – Dubai – but it’s very tricky because the UAE is a confederation. Anyway, I called up the adviser to a prominent member of the Abu Dhabi royal family and told him the situation.
“Then I received a call back asking me to fly to the Emirates immediately.”
There was about a two-week period between Iqbal’s approach and the invitation.
“I organised the tickets quite quickly, thinking, ‘S***, I’ve got a lot of stuff to do! I have things planned.’ I had to cancel everything.”
He flew on an Emirates flight, but knew there was one thing he had to do before meeting the key member of the royal family who was supporting Cyril – and that was to see Cyril himself.
“So I visited Cyril in the apartment where he was staying, surrounded by all Elwin’s paintings – there were tons of paintings. And I said to him, ‘Look me in the eye and tell me what happened here. I need to know for myself.’ He took me, very logically, through the clinical records, this, that and the platelet counts that went up after the transfusion. I looked at this myself, sitting there with Cyril and two other people who came with me as part of my kind of delegation, and everything Cyril said made complete sense to me. And I could see in his face that this was a man who was telling the truth. Even without the medical proof, I could see it in his eyes. There was no reason whatsoever for him not to be telling the truth. That was enough for me.
“Subsequent to that, I met his lawyer in Abu Dhabi – Mohammed Al Sawan.”
Iqbal does not speak Arabic, but Mohammed, who has a good command of English, confirmed many of the issues, saying the legal system would take another few months and they should not worry about it – the process would happen.
“But what Cyril said to me that day was the thing that actually changed everything. Thank God I’d seen him, because, if not, I would have gone to the meeting that evening without vital information and the outcome would have been very different.”
Iqbal had told Cyril that his story made sense, but asked why the medical committee had then not ruled in his favour.
Cyril’s reply was, “Well, Dr Ahmed Abdulrahman, who I presumed was the chairman of the medical committee, actually called me over a month ago – on Monday, 11 February – and said they wanted to interview me in Dubai in two days’ time. I was very pleased to hear from them at last and keen to meet so that we could resolve the situation quickly. I’d arranged to go to Dubai on Wednesday, but on Tuesday evening I received an SMS from Abdulrahman to say that the meeting would be rescheduled and he’d let me know of another date. I never did hear from him again and he refused to answer any phone calls or messages from me.”
Iqbal was taken aback that the medical committee, which needed to rule on Cyril’s case, had not even interviewed the accused doctor. All this took place on a Sunday and that evening Iqbal had been invited to the palace for dinner.
“It’s a very different kind of palace: these palaces are opulent, but probably more like grand homes than palaces per se. As is customary with these kinds of casual dinners, we spoke about falconhunting, how the UAE had developed in 40 years from oyster diving for pearls into one of the world’s big economies. Then, of course, I broached the subject of Cyril, saying, ‘Why are you keeping this 77-year-old man?’
“I think the fact that I’m of Muslim background and I was arguing for a Jewish person was making quite a statement, which actually, funnily enough, made them listen more carefully to me. Not that the religion thing was ever an issue here – I was pleading Cyril’s case as a South African for a fellow South African. But I kept to the humanitarian line all the time, wanting a pardon.
“There was another chap sitting there, who was clearly well informed. He didn’t give me his business card so I couldn’t pick up his name, but he was really knowledgeable about the case. He came up with the same story about the legalities and I said that wasn’t my area of expertise. I’m a medical doctor and that’s my field. And I said (on my honour, these were my exact words): ‘No medical committee can prove what you’re saying because I’ve seen the records myself.’ I even explained the factors that cause your blood to clot, the platelet counts and other things…
“The guy had come up with a legal argument (I’m sure he represented the Interior Ministry) and I told him to convene the medical committee if he wanted to test what I was saying… Why do you want the man to wait another couple of months, years, before you convene this committee?”
Going into what Iqbal terms “quite an aggressive mode”, he reiterated, “ ‘The facts are that he’s not guilty of the medical aspect of this case. That’s what the court has to look at!’ Then, while all this was taking place, the big guy picked up the phone to someone. I don’t understand Arabic and didn’t know who was on the other end of the line – I just heard things happening, happening quite seriously. Afterwards we spoke about my own background.”
Ending the discussion, the member of the royal family said: “Doctor, we don’t talk about this any more. We eat.”
“My parting words were, “Will you seriously consider pardoning the professor?” And he replied, ‘Don’t worry, Doctor, don’t worry’. Then I understood the next day that the medical committee met and ruled that Cyril was innocent!”
And the Knight in Shining Armour left Abu Dhabi to go to Munich… But, although he had faced the dragon in its den, he had only won the battle at that stage. The war for Cyril’s freedom had not ended.
* Blood Money, by Suzanne Belling, is published by Jacana at a recommended retail price of R195.