South Africa


No way to witness the sickness: The mystery of Jacob Zuma’s health

Former South African president Jacob Zuma (Photo: Getty Images / Christopher Furlong)

When former president Jacob Zuma failed to appear in the Pietermaritzburg High Court on Tuesday for a pre-trial discussion regarding his corruption case, his lawyers’ claims that Zuma was seriously ill fell on sceptical ears. A mysterious sick note produced to this effect failed to convince Judge Dhaya Pillay, who issued a warrant of arrest stayed until 6 May 2020. Where in the world is Jacob Zuma — and what exactly is wrong with him?

“I heard some people saying he was spotted at the chess tournament but he is so weak that he couldn’t even play. Why didn’t you ask me how I feel? Why write something without asking me? What’s wrong? Because I have all my strength. I’m perfectly fine.”

Those were the words of former president Jacob Zuma on 27 December 2019, captured on camera by eNCA addressing supporters in isiZulu near his home of Nkandla, KwaZulu-Natal.

On 29 December 2019, Zuma would post a “Happy Holidays” message on his Twitter account showing him grooving along with the Umlazi Gospel Choir.

Some six weeks later, however, Zuma is now said to be so ill that a form produced by his lawyers has him booked off sick from 6 January 2020 — less than a fortnight after his Nkandla appearance — to 30 April 2020.

The sick note, pictures of which have circulated on social media, is mysterious. It is stamped by One Military Hospital in Pretoria and appears to be signed by one Dr ZK Motene. It provides no information on the nature of Zuma’s illness, stating only: “Layman’s diagnosis: Medical condition”.

Daily Maverick previously confirmed via telephone that a Dr ZK Motene is employed by the Presidential Medical Unit at One Military Hospital. The doctor in question appears to be Dr Zakes Kagiso Motene, author of a memoir titled The Journey and also the founder and chairman of Tsogo Afrika Investment Holdings. Attempts to contact Dr Motene on Tuesday were unsuccessful.

Zuma’s lawyer Daniel Mantsha expressed outrage in court on Tuesday at the scepticism of the NPA and Judge Dhaya Pillay in response to the medical document, calling it “absurd” that a certificate from a military hospital should be doubted.

Mantsha also defended the lack of detail on the document on the grounds that the health of a former president is a “matter of national security”.

The Pietermaritzburg High Court is the second body in recent weeks to receive scant information on the health of Zuma. The Zondo commission investigating State Capture has also been informed that the former president cannot attend proceedings due to a “serious medical condition” which has to be kept confidential.

One factor which is consistent is that Zuma told the Zondo Commission that he was receiving treatment from a military doctor, whom Judge Raymond Zondo was due to meet to be privately apprised of Zuma’s health status. No update has since been forthcoming on this meeting.

The Zondo commission was simultaneously informed that the reason Zuma could not attend inquiry proceedings from 27-31 January was that he would be receiving medical treatment overseas.

Zuma was also a no-show at the Zondo hearings between 11 and 15 November 2019 on the grounds that he was “ill”. According to IOL, the Jacob Zuma Foundation confirmed at the time that the former president had been admitted to a Durban hospital shortly beforehand for an unknown ailment.

Zuma’s son Edward would later tell News24: “He is out of hospital, but has been instructed to rest because doctors say he is overworking himself”.

Tabloid Sunday World has reported twice in recent months that Zuma has been receiving treatment in Cuba: first in early December 2019, and again now. The December report appeared to be lent credence by photographs circulating on social media at the time which seemed to show Zuma photographed on a flight back to South Africa, although the dates of the pictures could not be confirmed.

On 15 January 2020, meanwhile, Zuma’s lawyers informed the NPA ahead of this week’s Pietermaritzburg court date that the former president would be absent because he would be receiving medical treatment in Cuba.

The NPA responded the following day with a request for medical evidence of Zuma’s condition and treatment, which was ignored by Zuma’s legal team until Dr Motene’s document was produced in court on Tuesday. It was on the basis of the unreliability of Zuma’s sick note that state prosecutor Billy Downer asked Judge Pillay to issue a warrant of arrest for Zuma.

Judge Pillay complied, but with the warrant stayed until Zuma’s next scheduled court appearance on 6 May 2020 — meaning that the former president cannot be arrested unless he fails to attend the May hearing without sufficient evidence of his illness presented in court.

Legal experts have said that the judge has the discretion to determine what would constitute substantive proof of Zuma’s ailment, but one option would be to summon the doctor treating Zuma to testify.

If Zuma is indeed currently undergoing treatment in Cuba, he would not be the first statesman to do so. In 2012, Venezuelan president Hugo Chavez underwent cancer surgery in Cuba: a move attributed both to the well-documented excellence of the Cuban healthcare system and to the fact that the “hermetic” nature of the island would prevent details of his treatment being leaked to the media.

The Sunday World has claimed that Zuma chose Cuba on the grounds that he did not trust South African doctors and believes his condition stems from long-term poisoning: an allegation that the NPA said in September 2019 it would not prosecute due to lack of evidence.

Poisoning allegations have swirled around Nkandla for at least six years, centring on Zuma’s wife Nompumelelo Ntuli-Zuma. Ntuli-Zuma, better known as MaNtuli, told Newzroom Afrika in October 2019 that she had been subjected to “five years of hell” after State Security Minister David Mahlobo — she alleged — orchestrated the poisoning claims against her.

The idea that Zuma might sincerely believe he is being slowly poisoned to death is not far-fetched. As Zuma’s own testimony before the Zondo commission made clear, with the accounts of former comrades such as Mo Shaik, the former president has a deeply conspiratorial and paranoid bent, likely fostered by his years as the ANC’s head of intelligence underground.

What is less plausible, however, is the manner in which Zuma’s apparent bouts of illness and required hospitalisations have coincided so conveniently with occasions on which the former president has been scheduled to face various forms of music. On that front, questions must be asked of the apparent collaboration of medical officials — starting, perhaps, with Dr ZK Motene. DM


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