Fact checking Iqbal Survé's bold bio leaves more questions

Cape Town - Proof of controversial media boss and businessman Dr Iqbal Survé’s widely trumpeted background is hard to find.

Survé is currently embroiled in a dispute with the equally controversial Gupta family over shares in Independent Media, South Africa’s largest English language newspaper group. In it he adopts the moral high ground in claiming, as his company’s website does, to be “one of the most influential businessmen and philanthropists on the African continent”.

Yet it appears that Survé may have fabricated a great deal of his background. In particular, there seems no independent evidence of his major claim to fame: that he was the personal friend of, and physician to, former president Nelson Mandela.  

In response to questions last month from Fin24, Survé maintained that this close relationship did exist. However, he wrote: “To let you into a little secret, I have been busy with my autobiography over the last few months and you will appreciate that I do not want to spill all the beans and keep some facts out of the public domain to ensure the success of my autobiography.”

Saying he needed some two months to reply to our queries and wanted sight of the draft of any article, he added: “My biography will provide much insight with detail including documents and photographs and personal stories told by many of the people that I was privileged to positively impact on their lives.” 

Survé was given a three-week extension to respond to detailed questions and responded last week, maintaining that his close, personal and professional relationship with Mandela did exist.

In his response last week, Survé maintained that he did not owe any explanation to anyone about his relationship with Madiba. “Our relationship, both personal and professional, is not one I wish to flaunt publicly,” he wrote. 

'Close relationship with Madiba'

Yet, on many occasions, Survé has highlighted this claimed relationship. For example, he told a group of Cape Times staff shortly after the death of Madiba: “[Mandela] said to me, just before he got ill, ‘Iqbal, are you still the same?’. I said to him: Tata, I am still the same. He said: ‘Now I can go’.” This was reported in the Sunday Times on December 15 2013.

In interviews with journalists and academics published in newspapers, magazines and by the Harvard Business School, Survé has frequently - and publicly - proclaimed a close personal and medical relationship with Mandela. In a “cover personality” interview by Leadership magazine published on July 18 2012, he was asked who had inspired him, and is quoted as saying: “It is almost a cliché by now, but you have to say Mandela, especially due to all the personal interaction I have been blessed to have with him.”

However, journalist Paul Vecchiatto notes that when working for Business Day, he jokingly remarked to Survé: “Just because you shook Mandela’s hand doesn’t mean you took his pulse.” This because, despite a wealth of publicity, there is no available evidence for this claim.

The Leadership interview notes that Survé was “part of the team of doctors that cared for Robben Island prisoners, including Nelson Mandela”. It is a claim repeated to Harvard Business School academic Professor Linda Hill and researcher Emily Stecker and published by the Harvard Business School (paper 9-407-019) on March 14 2008.  

This was elaborated on in a half-page feature in the Survé-controlled Business Report of February 13 2014, jointly written by “leadership expert” Adriaan Groenewald and then Business Report editor Ellis Mnyandu. It notes: “Some may say his [Survé’s] claim to fame is that he was Nelson Mandela’s medical doctor both on and off Robben Island.” The features was headed: “The man who wants to change the world”, and was billed as the start of  a “Leadership Platform” series.   

Junior medical student at time of Madiba's release

But Mandela, a prisoner of the apartheid state, left Robben Island in 1982 for Pollsmoor Prison when Survé was a junior medical student at the University of Cape Town. However, in his recent response, Survé says his promised autobiography “will cover extensively my relationship with Madiba on his release from Robben Island”. It would also include “attending to him at the famous rally on the parade until the time my family and I spent with him just before he passed on”.

But he would not divulge any details: “You will have to wait for the details in my biography (sic) since I have no wish for it to be scooped by anyone.” Yet there is no readily available photographic or other evidence of Survé at the “famous rally” on Cape Town’s Grand Parade after Mandela’s release from Victor Verster prison. If he was there, he was invisible.

On hand, however, was Dr Mamphela Ramphele who accompanied Mandela after the rally to the Bishopscourt residence of then Archbishop Desmond Tutu. Concerned that he should have a medical check-up after the excitement of the day, she called in her friend, Swedish-born Dr Ingrid le Roux. From that day, she became Mandela’s medical port of call whenever he was in Cape Town.

Ramphele has no recollection of Survé being involved with Mandela, either then or subsequently. Le Roux remarked last week that she had never heard of Survé.  

According to insiders, the Nelson Mandela Foundation (NMF) also has no information about any close relationship between Survé and Mandela. And Zelda la Grange, Mandela’s personal assistant and the person closest to him for 18 years, told Fin24 in an interview last month that she had no knowledge of any such relationship.

What is on record is that Mandela’s personal physician and friend for more than 20 years was Johannesburg-based Dr Michael Plit, now aged 79 and currently recovering from a serious illness. He became Mandela’s primary physician after the former president moved to Johannesburg in 1992 and remained in this position until he retired in 2011, shortly before Madiba moved to his home in Qunu in the Eastern Cape.

In discussions with his daughter, environmental law specialist Dr Lisa Plit, Mike Plit recalled that Dr Nthato Motlana probably advised Mandela on which doctors to include on his initial medical team. Apart from himself, these were John Barlow, Michael Kew and Louis Geselter, with Dr Peter Friedland called in later.  

On his extensive travels, during and after his presidential term, Mandela was also usually accompanied by a doctor. In her memoir, Good Morning, Mr Mandela, La Grange refers to a “Dr Charles” being the most frequent traveller with Mandela. He is Charles Niehaus, who is currently in Britain. 

Kathrada: I don't know him personally

After moving to Qunu, Mandela’s primary healthcare was in the hands of military doctors, headed by Dr Zola Dabula and the then surgeon-general, Dr Vejay Ramlakan. They also consulted with two other doctors, Paul Williams and Pravin Manga.

In the Harvard papers, Survé also claims Rivonia trialist Ahmed - “Kathy” - Kathrada as a mentor. Confronted with this, Kathrada noted: “I don’t think I have ever been a mentor to anyone. I don’t know the man personally.”

Survé also maintains, in the Leadership article and elsewhere, that he is a “Fellow of the Prince of Wales’s Business and Sustainability Programme”. In his response last week he amended this to “an inaugural Fellow” who had “been honoured by being invited by HRH The Prince of Wales (Prince Charles) many times to Highgrove as a Fellow of the programme”.

But there is no such fellowship. The programme referred to is part of the Cambridge [University] Institute for Sustainability Leadership that does award fellowships. There are only two South African Fellows of the CISL, Bob Scholes and Richard Calland, both professors at the University of Cape Town. 

However, Survé is an alumnus - a graduate student of the programme. The CISL headquarters in Cambridge confirms that, between 2005 and 2007, Survé was a speaker and faculty member of the programme, but not a Fellow. And letters have been written asking him to desist from using such a title. 

This is explained politely in the response from Cambridge: “We have previously asked Dr Survé to correct the way he has presented his association with the Programme to make clear he is an alumnus, not a Fellow.”  

The CISL also confirms that all of the approximately 500 South African graduates - alumni - of the programme are invited annually to tea with Prince Charles “if they can afford to travel there”.

Another accolade claimed by Survé is that he was given an award in 1989 by Amnesty International as South Africa’s “Struggle doctor”. But Amnesty headquarters in London reports that they have no record of an award being made; that so far as Amnesty is aware, only one South African, Nelson Mandela, was ever presented with an Amnesty award.

However, Survé insists that this award was because he played “a leading role in setting up a trauma counselling centre for victims of torture and detention”. Two chapters in his promised autobiography would include how he, with others, set up “an Emergency Services Group (ESG) nationally”.

This is news to several doctors and psychologists who worked with and helped establish anti-apartheid groups such as the ESG and the Organisation for Appropriate Social Services. Survé is remembered as one of a number of young doctors “who were around at the time”, but one who played no particular role.  “Perhaps he embellishes minor activities and turns them into major contributions,” notes one of the “struggle doctors” of the late 1980s.

There is much the same reaction to his claimed success as a “mind coach” to various sports teams, including the national soccer team, Bafana Bafana. The most laudatory mention is in the Leadership article: “Through psychological intervention and confidence building, he [Survé] miraculously turned Bafana Bafana around. That year (1996), the team won the Africa Cup of Nations.” 

Mind coach claim

Written by journalist Robbie Stammers, it adds that after his success in changing the fortunes of the national soccer team, Survé “was pursued (against his will, he admits) by the Indian Cricket Board to motivate its country’s team”. It quotes Survé as saying: “It was a wonderful time in my life. The problems were not about skill; it was all about mindset, and I developed a system approach based on self-belief - and it worked!”

The report continues: “Leadership looked into this, and factually Dr Survé is right. Bafana Bafana won after his input for a record two years, culminating in the Africa Cup of Nations glory; the Indian team, hoisted by young Sachan (sic) Tendulkar, became the best cricket team in history; the Springboks won the most momentous World Cup in our national sporting history. Could the fact that he was firmly entrenched and involved in each of these be a mild coincidence? I find it very unlikely.”

Last week Survé stressed that his results in assisting Bafana to “adapt to international soccer.... were phenomenal”. He also mentions his “success” at “Africa Games, with the national woman’s hockey team at the AAG and others”.

Bafana did win the 1996 Afcon cup, but then team captain Neil Tovey has no knowledge of Survé. Players such as Shaun Bartlett concur. “I wish we had had a mind coach,” Bartlett noted in a text response to Fin24. 

However, according to a leading sports medicine official Survé was, for a time, the team doctor to the national side after it was readmitted to international soccer in 1992. And he was part of a medical team headed by Dr Ismail Jakoet that attended the All Africa Games in Zimbabwe in 1995, where he was allocated to the hockey team. 

Indian cricket authorities are also puzzled at Survé’s claims about assisting their national team. When Sundar Raman, the leading figure in Indian cricket administration, was asked via email about Survé he replied bluntly: “Never heard of.”

To follow up questions about a “mind coach”, Raman pointed out that the Indian team had used “psychological aid” to assist in the team’s performance. The West Indian cricketer, author and psychologist, Dr Rudi Webster, was one and Matthew Horne, from New Zealand, another. Survé wasn't mentioned.

But he did mention visiting India in an August 28 2014 interview with Chantel Erfort, editor in chief of his community newspaper group. In it he details “some meaningful experiences” he had in that country where he reportedly “qualified as a mahout” which he described as being “someone who rides an elephant bareback”.

This seems to be one of many elephants in the room when it comes to published claims by Iqbal Survé. As a man who now controls South Africa’s largest English language newspaper, group it should be beholden on him to provide clarification.

* Terry Bell is a political, economic and labour analyst. Views expressed are his own. Follow him on twitter @telbelsa.

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