JOHANNESBURG // It was an inspiring story about a man who became a symbol of resilience during the long years of apartheid - the secret black assistant who helped Christiaan Barnard, the world-famous surgeon, perform the first heart transplant in 1967. As the story goes, Hamilton Naki, a man with virtually no education from the rural Cape province, was denied the recognition that was his due by the racist social and political system. This narrative has become partly accepted as infallible, but according to those who were involved in the operation there is one problem with the tale - it is not true.
A new documentary about Naki and the transplant has sparked a backlash of accusations that history - always contentious when it is so raw, as in South Africa - is being manipulated. In Hidden Heart, which was just released in South Africa, Naki, who died in 2005, tells an interviewer that he was part of the team that operated on the heart donor. "I removed it," he said. "Only because the law of this country I was not allowed to do it myself."
His son, Sizwe, tells the camera: "He was black and that's why his contribution was not recognised the way he deserved." But the reality is somewhat different, according to Marius Barnard, Christiaan Barnard's brother, who headed the team operating on the heart donor. Dr Barnard described the film as "rubbish, a joke, it's a total distortion of the facts". "We did the heart transplant on the night of the 2nd to 3rd of December and the nearest he was to the theatre was in his bed in a black township six to eight kilometres away. Would you imagine a non-qualified person with no experience operating on a human being? Can you imagine a man with no surgical experience doing a transplant?"
Dr Barnard, now 81, did not support apartheid and become an MP opposed to the system. Angered by the film, he says he only wants to preserve the legacy and reputation of his brother, who died in 2001. "The people responsible should be ashamed of themselves," he said. "It's betraying one of the most significant events in medicine." Naki did achieve extraordinary things, given the circumstances of the time. Leaving his home village of Centani to look for work in Cape Town, he was employed as a gardener at the Groote Schuur hospital before being recruited as an assistant in the animal laboratory.
There he assisted as an anaesthetist in animal operations in the period before the heart transplant. Afterwards, as the department's reputation and training grew, he became a skilled surgeon, learning by observation and repetition and teaching techniques to junior doctors, particularly for liver transplants. Christiaan Barnard himself praised Naki's abilities, telling an interviewer in footage used in the film that Naki was probably a better surgeon than he was. "He was a very capable young man," he said. "Eventually he could do a heart transplant sometimes better than the junior doctors that came there."
Naki's role in training students was undoubtedly significant and his skills were highly valued despite the discrimination of the time - when black or coloured students were not even allowed to attend autopsies on white corpses. After the fall of the apartheid regime in 1994, which had used the transplant to great propagandistic effect, his part in the transplant was greatly expanded. Newspaper stories described him as "a clandestine hero" and he was awarded an honorary degree by the University of Cape Town and the Order of Mapungubwe, a South African medal, as a new mythology was created around the operation.
Cristina Karrer, the Swiss television journalist who co-directed Hidden Heart, acknowledges that Naki was not present the night of the operation, but insisted: "That was never the point for me." Nonetheless, while the film includes members of the team saying they do not recall him being there, other interviewees, including Naki himself, suggest that the matter was open to question. Naki, she said, was "a really good role model for this country". Instead of succumbing to the adversity he faced, he persevered and succeeded. Unlike many heroes of the struggle against apartheid, Naki does not appear in the South African school curriculum, she said.
"MK [the ANC's armed wing Umkhonto we Sizwe] are remembered, somebody who struggled against the views of his time and didn't give up, he doesn't get the same recognition," she said. "I think that's sad. It's a selective memory - you have your days, Youth Day for the Soweto Uprising, Independence Day is an iconic day, it's all connected to the struggle. If somebody is outstanding in another way which was also a struggle but not so heroic in that sense, then people do forget.