His Hands Stiffened by Arthritis, Christiaan Barnard Explores a Second Career in Television
“It seems to me that it’s not majority rule President Carter is asking for in South Africa, it’s black rule by a preselected minority—the one with the guns. I believe we have sinned in this country, but I also believe we are now more sinned against. We should be like the prodigal son. He was prepared to repent and his father took him back into the family. This is the situation that Carter, a man of Baptist faith, should understand.”
With his record as a foe of his country’s harsh racial policies, no one can accuse Dr. Christiaan Barnard, the renowned heart surgeon, of being an apologist for apartheid. Yet he is disgusted, he says, with the “mass of distortion and misinformation” on South Africa in the world press. To help counter this “profound worldwide ignorance,” Chris Barnard is turning into a multimedia star.
It has been more than 10 years since he astounded the world by performing the first human heart transplant. Today, at 55, the old charm remains: the toothpaste smile, the boyish mannerisms, the inner restlessness that made him a jet-set celebrity and often irritated his less flamboyant colleagues.
Now, however, his powerful surgeon’s hands are crippled by arthritis. Even a handshake causes him to wince in pain. Bemused, he sifts through piles of home remedies—nearly 800 at last count—sent to him by admirers around the globe. They urge him to try everything from alfalfa tablets to applejack brandy, from wearing magnetic bracelets to soaking his hands in brake fluid.
Barnard still performs open-heart surgery but only on special request. Most operations at Cape Town’s Groote Schuur Hospital are handled by his cardiac team, which includes his younger brother, Marius. Reluctantly, Barnard has decided to retire from active surgery by the end of this year.
He will continue as a professor at the University of Cape Town Medical School. But he is leaning toward a second career for which he has demonstrated considerable aptitude. Already the author of several books—a biography, a couple of novels, a political appraisal of South Africa—Barnard has added TV documentary films to his expanding repertoire.
“Whatever else I am, I’m a patriot,” he says. “Every time I go overseas I come back and think, ‘Thank God I can live in South Africa.’ If people demonstrate against apartheid, I’m with them. But if I see them demonstrating against South Africa, I can’t join them. It’s fashionable these days to hammer this country.”
In filming a report on South Africa for French TV (he has also been asked to do one for U.S. viewers), Barnard aimed at showing “the good and the bad, not just the bad.” A highlight was an interview with Afrikaner poet Breyten Breytenbach, a voluntary exile who broke South African law by marrying a Vietnamese woman. Breytenbach later reentered South Africa in disguise and was arrested under “antiterrorist” laws. He is serving a nine-year sentence.
“In France,” says Barnard, “I was told Breytenbach was being tortured and was sick and dying.” With special permission from the South African government, Barnard personally conducted a film interview in which the poet complained of his long sentence but conceded he was healthy and had been given a fair trial. Still, Barnard could not explain even to himself why Breytenbach was in jail. And during the filming, news came of another tragedy, the mysterious death of black leader Steve Biko while under police detention.
Barnard’s new visibility provokes an inevitable question: Is he headed for politics? “No,” he replies unequivocally, “there’s no way I can fit into party politics here. The [Afrikaner] Nationalists believe in white domination of the blacks. I don’t. The Progressives believe black and white can live together politically. I don’t.”
Since Barnard does not find black-majority rule acceptable either, what’s left? His solution may be termed political surgery in which the country would be divided into white-ruled and black-ruled areas. “It must be a realistic division,” he concedes, “so that we the whites give the blacks something they can live off and live for. It would mean sacrifice on the part of whites too—a resettlement program for whites as well as blacks.”
There is a time for togetherness and a time for splitting, argues Barnard, who is himself divorced and remarried (he has two children by each wife). “If the situation is best that we live apart, then let the world community give us a chance to evolve along those lines,” he pleads.
Political separation under the “Barnard plan” would not impose social segregation. Blacks, for example, would be permitted to move into white areas (and vice versa) and enjoy all rights except the vote. It’s only a matter of time “when blacks would be able to buy houses in Constantia [Barnard’s plush suburb] and swim where they want on the beaches.”
To critics less sanguine than he on racial progress in South Africa, Dr. Barnard cites the case of a hospital chief who vowed that “coloured” nurses would minister to white patients over his dead body. “He’s still alive,” Barnard notes wryly, “and my wards are totally integrated.”
Contrary to rumors, Chris Barnard, even at the height of his fame, never seriously considered taking his surgical skills elsewhere. “This is such a fantastic country,” he rhapsodizes. “In my films and in everything I do, I try to ask, how can we devise a just formula by which all this can continue—and everyone can share?”