Dr Vejay Ramlakan, Nelson Mandela's personal physician and former surgeon-general of the SA National Defence Force.
Dr Vejay Ramlakan, Nelson Mandela's personal physician and former surgeon-general of the SA National Defence Force.

Freedom fighter Dr Vejay Ramlakan’s last mission was to share Mandela’s final years with the world

By Opinion Time of article published Aug 29, 2020

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Marlan Padayachee

Durban - In his profound and prophetic last words, Dr Vejay Ramlakan signed off: ‘’Undoubtedly, Madiba will meet us on the other side and check that we contributed to the greatest cause of all: the liberation of humankind. If some complain that he set an impossible standard, Madiba would probably reply with a smile: ‘’It is impossible until it is done.’’

When his publisher hastily pulled his book off the shelves from high-end book stores countrywide and cancelled en-bloc all the personal pre-launches of Mandela’s Last Years three years ago, this episode quietly pained and hurt Dr Vejay Ramlakan and put his distinguished military career and medical credentials under the country’s spotlight.

The 245-page book, sub-titled, The True Story of Nelson Mandela’s final journey, by the head of his medical team, Vejay Ramlakan, is among the finest books I have read and reviewed from the who’s who of the epic liberation war against apartheid South Africa.

On Thursday, as the country battled with the Covid-19 challenges amidst a plethora of problems around the coronavirus pandemic – at the heart is the multi-million rand fraud and tender malfeasance over the procurement of personal protective equipment also involving high-ranking ANC officials - Ramlakan, died of a heart attack in hospital, aged 62.

Ramlakan did not speak openly about the episode over the aborted book, but he shared with me how this had cost him hundreds of thousands of rands, and as well as litigation cost and legal representative fees at the probe by the statutory watchdog, Health Professions Council of South Africa (HPCSA), which took place in Pretoria last year.

He finally died fighting to restore his struggle-era, military and medical reputation – his last mission.

Books on the inside story of the ANC’s bitter struggle against white minority rule and the multitudes of mainly highly covert, intelligence-driven and underground operations aimed at running amok with the apartheid administration to force the racist regime to the negotiating table – from London to Lusaka – have been written by some of the distinguished freedom fighters. Durban-born Ramlakan ranks among this pantheon of political-revolutionary story-tellers.

His book resonates with the behind-the-scenes drama within the inner-sanctum of the world’s most admired political prisoner-turned-president from hospital wards to field hospitals and the numerous flights by air ambulances to Johannesburg and Qunu and back – several times.

A quietly spoken guerilla-trained military strategist of fewer words, but unbelievably energetic in his full-of-action demeanour and discipline with clock-work precision and protocol, Ramlakan’s final mission – self-publishing Mandela’s Last Years on his own terms – was a work in progress until he was faced with a disciplinary hearing by his medical peer organisation.

Marlan Padayachee with an autographed copy of Dr Vejay Ramlakan's book, Mandela's Last Years. Picture: Supplied

I first got wind of Ramlakan’s anti-apartheid political activities when the special branch police raided in his rented house up the street in my home town of Merebank in the 1970s. He was recruited into the ANC’s outlawed military wing Umkhonto we Sizwe in 1977 and underwent training in Swaziland.

His wife, Sandy Africa, a teacher, was also arrested in the swoop and held like Ramlakan and a few others in solitary-confinement detention. Her mother and mother-in-law brought the activist couple’s toddler, Rosa, daily to prison to be breast-fed by Africa.

Since then, I have tracked this love-across-the-colour-line political romance over the years – including interviewing Africa and Ramlakan’s family regularly while Ramlakan served his sentence on Robben Island for his role in the ‘’Operation Butterfly’’ mission.

He was integral to Operation Butterfly – an assembly of cadres – tasked with destabilizing Durban and the border towns.

In the days leading to détente, Ramlakan was promoted to the South African National Defence Force when MK was fused into the integrated army in 1994. However, he recounted how a single incident – the Frelimo Rally – became a turning point in his life.

As president of the Medical Students Representative Council from the University of Natal, he led a march to Currie’s Fountain to join in the celebration of Frelimo’s Samora Machel’s toppling of the Portuguese colonial power in Mozambique: ‘’As I was walking with our students towards the stadium, a group of policemen jumped out of their vehicles and began attacking us with sjamboks and batons. I was very lucky, I slipped through their hands and escaped.’’

The police brutality and surveillance that disrupted the political gathering led to the detention of several Black Consciousness leaders, who were later sentenced to Robben Island.

Months after his book was ‘’banned’’, Ramlakan approached me to rewrite and revise the original book. I spent a week at a safe house in Johannesburg on this privileged assignment.

Over seven days, he commuted from his well-appointed home in Pretoria to the safe house where he ran his post-retirement office – with two woman aides – the other a Zimbabwean who formatted the new texts, chapter by chapter, as it was being rewritten and edited with the author’s interrogation and fact-checking.

During these private briefings, Ramlakan shared a myriad of issues, opinions, wisdom and also strategy to turn around the corruption-stained country he gave his life for, and how he refused to drop his guard as Mandela’s personal physician.

In the mid-morning sunshine, the confidential tete-a-tetes often drifted into a garden protected by high-security walls.

His absolute dedication to his famously charming and yet fiercely stubborn commander-in-chief was a full-time, 24-hour job for Ramlakan, something that he conceded may have estranged his wife from him.

Completely unknown to the outside world – particularly the media frenzy and the paparazzi craving for any scrap of information on Mandela’s failing health – Ramlakan made it his personal mission to ensure, almost at all cost, to keep his political guru alive and one day tell the world the inside story.

‘I felt duty bound to share these last years, months, days and final hours with the world – Mandela would have wanted me to tell this story so that we can restore his legacy,’’ he confided.

He headed the Charlie Team, code-named ‘’C’’, that was specifically charged with the task of treating the former president under very strict medical protocol and vigilance.

The book reveals the pressure and personal anguish and anxiety that went with the delicate 24-seven job, day in, and day out, for months on end, and how the medicos jealously guarded and threw an iron-curtain around Mandela – at times protecting him from his family members and a preying photographer.

Once Graca Machel found out about the contents, she swiftly issued a press statement, distancing herself from the book and threatened to sue the author and the publishers.

Apparently, Machel claimed that Ramlakan was not given permission to write a book.

Once Mandela’s Last Years was released and publicized, Machel threatened lawsuit and reported Ramlakan to the Health Professions Council of SA. She accused him of unethical conduct and of violating her husband’s dignity by disclosing his medical records in his book without prior consent, according to the charges.

However, Ramlakan denied this. He showed me a signed copy of a letter of authority from Mandela’s daughter, Makaziwe Mandela, giving him permission to publish a book.

‘’Mandela was always the subject of public interest and once he retired from public life, that interest grew amidst all the false claims and rumours in the media and elsewhere about his health, and medical treatment and the months leading to his death,’’ Ramlakan told me.

‘’I just wanted to set the record straight about Mandela’s last years. I believe I wrote the book with respect and family support … it completes the story of Mandela and reveals a man who has shown immense courage throughout his life and until the end of his own life – fighting for the freedom of millions of South Africans.’’

Last year Ramlakan was to appear before the six-member tribunal, chaired by Judge Jeremiah Shongwe, arising out of Machel’s complaint that Ramlakan had allegedly abused HPCSA ethical rules by breaching doctor-patient rules of confidentiality in his book.

However, in his acknowledgements, Ramlakan concluded: ‘’My colleagues in the military dominated my life in those years, firstly in the guerilla ranks and then in the new defence force. Without the support of the Mandela family, it would have been impossible to write this book. Thank you all for all the kind words, in the most difficult of circumstances, over the years.’’

He stayed loyal to Mandela right up to the minute the Old Man’s coffin was lowered into a grave in Qunu in December 2013.

The sad passing way of Dr Vejaynand Indurjith Ramlakan – a son of poor, working-class parents from Chatsworth, Durban, shocked the political, military and medical worlds: many took to social media, bidding farewell – writing Hamba Kahle Umkonto on Facebook – as the ANC government prepares for his journey’s end with his coffin draped in the colours of the official flag and the ruling party.

On the final day of my special assignment, I left the safe house with a coaster that read: Keep Calm and Carry On; and an autographed copy Mandela’s Last Years written in his trademark doctor’s scriptwriting style: ‘’To my comrade and soldier-in-arms and fellow revolutionary who shall continue the long walk/road to freedom – 11 August 2018 – signed Vejay Ramlakan.

* Marlan Padayachee specialized in reporting on the politics of the anti-apartheid struggle and resistance movements – including sports - both across the home front and exiled locations from London to Africa; and in the 1990s he was Independent Newspapers’ political and foreign correspondent. He now works as a media strategist, publishing editor and researcher.

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