Pretoria - In a victory judgment for the head of what has been described as the apartheid government's chemical and biological warfare project, Dr Wouter Basson, the committee members who presided over his disciplinary hearing, have to recuse themselves.
This was the order of Gauteng High Court, Pretoria Judge Sulet Potterill, who made it clear that Basson did not receive a fair hearing. The judge, in fact, went as far as to refer to the proceedings as “a comedy of errors.”
She found that there was bias on the part of the committee members of the Tribunal Committee that presided over the disciplinary hearing instituted by the Health Professions Council of South Africa (HPCSA).
Basson was in December 2013 found guilty on charges of unprofessional conduct. This related to the time when he headed Project Coast - the controversial chemical and biological warfare project conducted in the 1980’s.
Committee members Professors Jannie Hugo and Eddie Mhlanga, were in the middle of hearing evidence to punish Basson for unprofessional conduct, when drama broke loose.
A witness handed in two petitions in which people called for Basson’s name to be struck from the medical roll. One petition was from the South African Medical Association (SAMA).
It came to light that Hugo was a member of SAMA which called for Basson’s removal. When asked about this by Basson’s advocate, Jaap Cilliers SC at the time, Hugo admitted he was a member, but he refused to elaborate on this.
Cilliers asked him to recuse himself as he did not disclose his membership to a body which is calling for Basson’s axing. This was refused.
The committee instead decided to go ahead with the hearing and to call a second witness to testify against Basson for sanctioning purposes. This was in spite of the parties agreeing at the start that Basson would call only one witness and the committee one.
But the latter was not happy with their witness’ evidence as he made certain concessions in favour of Basson. The committee also refused a postponement so that the Basson-team could turn to the high court regarding the Hugo situation.
They went ahead with presenting the evidence of their witness, even though Basson and his legal team left the hearing.
When they later asked to cross-examine the committee’s witness, the committee refused.
“The cornerstone of any fair and just legal system is the impartial adjudication of disputes. This principle obviously applies to quasi-judicial and administrative proceedings, “ Judge Potterill said.
She remarked that Hugo never once disassociated himself with SAMA and thus the petition. The judge also said it was “astounding” that the committee refused to postpone the matter so that the Basson-camp could take the issues up with the high court.
She said the proceedings were irregular and unfair and illustrated a total disregard for the rights of Basson.
In conclusion, the judge remarked that this matter was a “comedy of errors” because it is serious for both the HPCSA and Basson, it has stretched over an “unsavoury” length of time and “now has not come to fruition.”
The effect of the judgement is that the HPSCA will have to start the proceedings from scratch if they elected to go ahead.
Basson, a cardiologist, is meanwhile practicing in Cape Town.