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Zuma’s ‘ life-threatening emergency’ again spotlights the weaponising of medical testimony

Former president Jacob Zuma’s transfer from jail to hospital over an undisclosed “life-threatening emergency” that his lawyers say will also affect his ability to attend court and stand trial on corruption charges, again puts the spotlight on sometimes vague and uncorroborated medical evidence in judicial proceedings, as well as issues of patient confidentiality, writes MedicalBrief.

In 2009, Schabir Shaik, a close associate of Zuma, was sentenced to 15 years, also in connection with the arms deal that Zuma faces trial on. After serving less than three years of his sentence was paroled on the uncorroborated testimony of his doctors that he was terminally ill and remains well and active to this day.

This week Zuma’s lawyers told the KwaZulu-Natal High Court (Pietermaritzburg) that the former president’s medical practitioners had diagnosed him as having an undisclosed life-threatening emergency that will require a “minimum proposed period of care of six months” of hospital care outside of prison. Zuma was last jailed for 15 months for contempt of court.

The  High Court was advised that Zuma was too ill to attend court and Judge Piet Koen gave the former president’s doctors until 20 August to submit a detailed report on his medical condition. In terms of an order granted by Koen on Tuesday (10 August), a medical practitioner appointed by the state will be given access to Zuma – apparently now in hospital in Pretoria – to assess his fitness to attend court and stand trial on corruption charges linked to the arms deal, reports legal writer Tanya Broughton on TimesLIVE.

The report handed in said Zuma had suffered a traumatic injury in November last year. It had gone untreated because of his court appearances and incarceration and was now a life-threatening ‘medical emergency’ which could take up to six months to be dealt with.

In submissions before Koen during the virtual hearing, Advocate Wim Trengove, for the state, said: “We are completely in the dark as to the justification for the postponement regarding his condition. The doctor’s letter does not identify the medical condition at all, and it’s hard to understand how this medical crisis has been dragging on for 18 months.”

Advocate Dali Mpofu, for Zuma, said he consulted with his client over the weekend and had met his doctor. “We are all in the dark. He (Trengove) knows the exact medical condition is a matter of confidentiality. Did he expect the doctor to go into detail? We didn’t. … I would have thought the fact that the problem existed for 18 months is exactly the reason why it is exacerbated now, especially since the incarceration of the accused,” Mpofu said.

He noted Zuma’s medical condition had worsened since his incarceration. The parties agreed to an order that a full medical report would be provided by 20 August and that a doctor appointed by the state would be given access to Zuma to assess him. The matter was adjourned until 9 and 10 September. However, before that date it was agreed Koen would be informed if Zuma was well enough to attend court and the ‘special plea’ would be heard. If not, and the state disputed his medical condition, doctors from both sides would appear in court, either in person or virtually, to give evidence and be cross-examined.


Daily Maverick writes that Koen said he would consider the logistics around hearing medical evidence virtually, although both Mpofu and Trengove agreed that an in-person hearing would be preferable. “If it is to be by way of a virtual hearing, my concern is to ensure the integrity of the process. I want to ensure that they testify in a room where there is some sort of oversight to ensure the integrity of the process,” he said. Koen suggested that each legal team could nominate a representative to sit in the room where the doctor is testifying, to ensure that there is no interference. The lawyers agreed to consult and provide the court with a joint letter, suggesting the best course of action on the format of the hearing.


News24 reports that in an unsigned affidavit served on Zuma's lawyers and the High Court on Monday, Prosecutor Bill Downer made it clear that the state wasn't satisfied with the “vague generalities” contained in Brigadier-General Dr Mcebisi Zukile Mdutywa's submissions. Following Zuma's hospitalisation last week, Mdutywa wrote to the head of the Estcourt Correctional Services centre to inform her that Zuma had been ‘put under active care and support after he suffered a traumatic injury’ on 28 November 2020.

Mdutywa, who leads the SA Military Health Service's Presidential Medical Unit, then formally informed prison authorities and the National Prosecuting Authority in KZN that Zuma had been admitted to hospital last week and was “undergoing extensive medical evaluation and care”. This, he said, was “as a result of his condition that that needed an extensive emergency procedure that has been delayed for 18 months due to compounding legal matters and recent incarceration and cannot be delayed any further as it carries a significant risk to his life”

“The medical team is actively monitoring his progress and will inform you soon as to the prognosis and outcome thereof through a medical report,’ he said. “We trust that the court processes will accommodate this urgent health programme such that we can be able to work swiftly to restore his health. The minimum proposed period of care is six months during which periodic reports will be communicated to advise on possible availability of any further engagements on your end.”

Mdutywa's submissions strongly suggest that Zuma, who is eligible for release on parole after less than four months, will not be moved back to jail any time soon, writes News24.


TimesLIVE article – Zuma’s team has 10 days to reveal what his mysterious health issue is (Restricted access)

News24 article – SANDF medical boss: Zuma’s life is at 'significant risk', will take 6 months to treat him (Restricted access)

Daily Maverick article – Court agrees to postponement application, calls for Zuma’s doctor to submit affidavit (Open access)

Daily Maverick article – Zuma battling mystery condition for 18 months, court hears – state wants its own doctor to examine him

See more at MedicalBrief archives:

Why the courts are sceptical about sick notes

SANDF backs off from Zuma sick note investigation

Why has Zondo been so slow to meet Zuma's doctors?

HPCSA 'must investigate' doctors who backed Schabir Shaik's medical parole

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