Contested Legacy: Marking the 50th Anniversary of Professor Christiaan Barnard’s Pioneering Heart Transplant (Part 2)

Barnard & child 50th invite

This is an excerpt of a paper on Barnard’s legacy in South Africa and my own implication in that legacy. (Part 2/4)

In this paper, I tell the stories of Barnard, Hamilton Naki, Basil Brown, three South Africans whose stories can tell us much about legacy, celebrated legacy, disputed legacy, fraught legacy, enduring legacy.


Normal medical science in an abnormal society

As a student, Barnard was open to communist influences, supporting the Student’s Socialist Party while at university on issues like the discrimination faced by coloured medical students who, for example, were excluded from post-mortems on white patients. His concern did not extend, however, to criticism of the coloured preference status of the Western Cape, which precluded African people from staying – and therefore studying – in Cape Town or its universities.

It is difficult to appreciate his detachment from the political events unfolding right on his doorstep.

In one of the few references to a significant political event, in South Africa: Sharp Dissection, Barnard ascribes the deaths of 67 people during the Sharpeville Massacre to “a South African explosion of inter/group tension”.

He was coy about the 1976 uprising, but his attitude is indicated very clearly in referring to the uprising as the “South African township rioting”.

Nelson Mandela’s arrest and incarceration on Robben Island – some 20 km off the coast of Cape Town – elicited not a single mention in his writings. He paused at one stage to reflect on PAC leader Robert Sobukwe, whom he met (ostensibly treated, according to some writers) in hospital as he recovered from lung cancer in 1977, about a year before Sobukwe died. Can it be, however, that medical professionals are so aloof from the world outside of their hospitals that they can only conceive of a political issue (person) when it (he) lands up in their hospital wards?

Even closer to home, Barnard ignored the devastating impact of the political turbulence on the university and hospital which employed him. According to current dean of the medical faculty at UCT, Prof Bongani Mayosi, Professor Raymond “Bill” Hoffenberg’s banning in February 1968 for his anti-apartheid activities and move to exile shortly thereafter constituted the harbinger of the changing fortunes which UCT would encounter in years to come. The political repression and unrest of the 1970’s had a further significant impact on the department, with a major exodus of staff following the 1976 Soweto uprising of school children against Bantu education and the apartheid government’s responses.

His attitude towards detention without trial – including the deaths in detention of Imam Haron from Claremont and Steve Biko – rankles most. His view was that detention was a necessary restraint on political freedom given the sophisticated measures used by “terrorists” which could not be dealt with by traditional methods.

Closer to home, his own silence regarding the government’s treatment of colleague Bill Hoffenberg, banned and silenced a day after Barnard performed his second transplant at Groote Schuur in February 1968, was especially odious. Days later, the Port Elizabeth-born anti-apartheid activist would leave the country of his birth on an exit visa to become an acclaimed endocrinologist in London. Hoffenberg and Barnard worked closely together within the hospital-university complex and Hoffenberg was on duty when Barnard and hospital authorities pressured him to authorise the brain dead status of the second donor to be identified as part of the nascent heart transplant programme at Groote Schuur.

Barnard’s friend and member of the executive committee of the Cape Provincial Administration responsible for health matters, LAPA Munnik, was among the first people to be called by Barnard on the Sunday morning of the Washkansky surgery. Munnik then called the then administrator Dr JN Malan who in turn informed the prime minister, BJ Vorster.

It would have been unthinkable for the Afrikaner politicians not to be alerted to this momentous medical milestone achieved by a fellow Afrikaner.

Vorster, whom Munnik described as “a good friend of Chris Barnard”, later hosted a private dinner for the transplant team. Barnard maintained a close relationship with Vorster, advising him of particular international speaking invitations and reporting back on discussions with foreign leaders.

It is entirely plausible that Barnard maintained the good relations opportunistically. He enjoyed the support of the apartheid state both while qualifying and during his tenure as a surgeon and head of the cardiac unit at Groote Schuur Hospital, during research stints and promotional sorties abroad.

The momentous Washkansky transplant, establishing SA’s eminence in the medical world, was an essential antidote to the negative publicity the country was attracting because of legalised apartheid, the general injustices faced by the black majority and the crackdown on the leadership of the resistance movements.

Barnard’s first heart transplantation was recorded in a special edition of the SA Medical Journal, with the government buying up 10 000 copies to use in its propaganda war globally and at home.

Within the month that he performed his transplant, Barnard was in Washington DC, meeting the South African ambassador to the United States, Pik Botha. Botha was effusive in his praise of Barnard and the “great thing” he had done for South Africa, encouraging Barnard to talk to and meet as many people as he could, spreading the message “not only of the heart transplant” but of the country’s “cosmopolitan society”.

By the early 1970s, the National Party was politically confident and cash-flush enough to ramp up its propaganda assault on the sensibilities of international audiences. Operating at the highest level of the National Party government, Barnard was central to this “psychological and propaganda warfare” programme.

Tiffs with his former friends and close associates Diederichs and Nico Malan over his public utterances presaged his later permanent falling out with the government, but not before he had played a significant role in trying to “tell a good story” about the country internationally.

Political Philosophy

In South Africa: Sharp Dissection, (allegedly ghost-written and sponsored by Eschel Rhoodie’s Information Department), Barnard attempted to set out his political views succinctly. The book is a short read. The cover image is of Barnard holding a black toddler. It is an enduring image which has been widely used and is also the image used for the main commemoration event at UCT and GHS in December 2017.

Barnard’s view was that the country was changing too slowly, given what was happening in other countries and in the attitudes and aspirations of black South Africans. But nowhere is Barnard’s pseudo-liberalism more evident than when he argued it was not the institutionalisation of racial discrimination by the National Party in South Africa that should be given attention, but “the degree of institutionalisation of racial discrimination”. This attitude of course is an enduring legacy of the verligte wing of the NP which merged into the various iterations of the Democratic Alliance.

The prescription of the United Nations of “one man, one vote” a “euphemism for black rule” would amount to complete capitulation by white South Africans and would not be accepted by them, nor he suggested by “the thinking Indian and Coloured people”. And, in any case, “pleurism” (generally used by the apartheid government to point to highlight presumed cultural differences between black African groups) would ensure that one man one vote would be a recipe for bloodshed and chaos. Echoing the National Party’s prior and ex post facto justification for bantustans, Barnard lays claim to the dubious statements that “Black population groups such as the Tswanas or the Xhosas welcome separate development” and that “only in a Zulu state would the Zulu king, the Zulu culture and language come into its own”.

“Through no fault of the black man, the white man is best equipped to run South Africa. This in no way implies that the black man is inferior or the white man superior,” he said.

Reflecting on the inequality of an illiterate white man having the right to vote while a black academic with a string of degrees behind his name was denied the vote, Barnard then proposed his (or, the Information Department’s) most bizarre idea: All eligible voters would receive a basic vote at the age of 18 and this right would be supplemented by additional votes based on aspects such as educational or professional achievement, foreign travel, earnings and military service.

Contested Legacy: Marking the 50th Anniversary of Professor Christiaan Barnard’s Pioneering Heart Transplant (Part 2)

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