Noakes: medical, scientific worlds watch as HPCSA decides his fate


By Marika Sboros

South African scientist Prof Tim Noakes could know by the end of March if his regulatory body will fail in its last-ditch attempt to find him guilty. And this time round, global medical and scientific communities are watching.

The HPCSA has appealed its Professional Conduct Committee’s comprehensive not-guilty verdict for Noakes in April 2017. The charge was unprofessional conduct for a single tweet in 2014. In it, he said that good first foods for infant weaning are LCHF.

Noakes’ legal team: (l to r) Adam Pike of Pike Law, Dr Ravin ‘Rocky’ Ramdass and Michael van der Nest (SC).

Noakes’s lawyers have filed a cross-appeal including for costs. Their grounds are that the HPCSA has acted in bad faith throughout. They also say that the HPCSA is a statutory body and therefore the law offers it no protection against “bad behaviour”.

The appeal was held in Pretoria from February 21 to 23 before a committee that the HPCSA appointed. The Committee Chair, advocate Justice Mogotsi, reserved his ruling till “some time before the end of March”.

Groundhog Day

For the defence, advocate Michael van der Nest (SC) covered the law and ethics as they applied to the case against Noakes. Advocate Dr Ravin “Rocky” Ramdass looked at the law and scientific claims made against him.

From the HPCSA’s side, it was Groundhog Day. Advocate, Ajay Bhoopchand gave nothing new in grounds for appeal. Instead, he claimed that the Professional Conduct Committee had erred on “matter of law and facts”. Therefore, the HPCSA believed that its Appeal Committee would come to a “different decision”.

HPCSA Appeal Grounds

In his appeal grounds, Bhoopchand repeated the pillars of his claims that Noakes:

  • Had a doctor-patient relationship with the breast-feeding mother on Twitter;
  • Acted as a medical doctor, not a scientist;
  • Gave medical advice without consulting the mother or her infant;
  • Gave advice that was “unconventional” because it was not evidence-based and went against the country’s dietary guidelines;
Advocate Ajay Bhoopchand

The problem for Bhoopchand was that HPCSA failed to prove all those pillars. And with that, he fell straight down legal rabbit holes

Bhoopchand claimed that the onus was no longer on the HPCSA to prove a doctor-patient relationship. He said that the Professional Conduct Committee had made a “spectacular error” in finding that the HPCSA had onus.

His reasoning, as he later gave it, was that a doctor-patient relationship was immaterial or irrelevant. It was also irrelevant whether Noakes gave advice or information. And he claimed that the absence of a patient or victim, in this case, was no proof that Noakes did not act as a medical doctor.

He also, and somewhat bizarrely, I though, claimed that if the defence had only made it clear from the outset that there was no doctor-patient relationship, the case would have terminated.

Bhoopchand’s focus on a doctor-patient relationship led Appeal Chair advocate Justice Mogotsi to ask why it was even in the charge. After all, Mogotsi noted, breastfeeding mother, (Pippa Leenstra, the putative patient in this case) had not lodged a complaint or testified.

Keto fears resurge

And again, ketogenic diets loomed large in the HPCSA’s case against Noakes. Yet, as the defence once again noted, the charge against him says nothing about advising a ketogenic diet.

Strydom was president of the Association for Dietetics in South Africa (ADSA) when she lodged the complaint against Noakes that set off the trial against him. She had claimed concern that the public could have interpreted Noakes’s tweet to mean a ketogenic diet. She described it as “unprecedented” advice to put a healthy baby on a ketogenic diet. (Noakes had tweeted LCHF foods, not a ketogenic diet.)

Ramdass highlighted extensive evidence of ignorance on the part of Strydom and all the HPCSA’s experts about ketosis. All appeared to conflate it with ketoacidosis. Ketosis is a perfectly natural bodily state. Ketoacidosis is a rare, potentially fatal and seen mostly in type 1 diabetics.

All also showed ignorance about the vital role that ketones play for infant brain development and growth, he said.

Ramdass took pains to emphasise that all the HPCSA’s experts had conceded that LCHF aligns closely with South Africa’s paediatric guidelines. Thus, if Noakes’s tweet really were wrong, then the paediatric guidelines were also wrong.

Still, Bhoopchand insisted that the potential for harm from Noakes’s tweet was there. “We bore onus to show potential for harm and we did,” Bhoopchand claimed.

Muddled public health messages

Even if the Appeal Committee accepted that Noakes’s tweet was not medical advice, it was a “public health message”, Boopchand now claimed. (Mogotsi commented that Leenstra had made it clear that Noakes’s tweet was not advice. In a later tweet, she wrote: “Too much conflicting information.”)

Bhoopchand claimed that the millions, possibly even billions, of Twitter users around the world could have read Noakes’ tweet. And the “message” he gave on it was “wrong”.

In effect, Bhoopchand attempted to argue that anyone who read Noakes’s tweet could have been his “patient”. And that a public health message was not that different from “advice”.

Bhoopchand considered the suggestion that the aspect of “public concern” was not part of the original charge to be “inexplicable”.

Shifting onus of proof

And just as he did in his closing argument, Bhoopchand compared Noakes’s case to “Dr Death”, apartheid era cardiologist Dr Wouter Basson. As a more recent example, he cited the Esidimeni hospital scandal. Van der Nest responded just as swiftly. Both comparisons were “wholly inappropriate”, he said. (In closing argument he called the Basson comparison  “insulting”.)

In both cases, people died, Van der Nest said. No one died as a result of Noakes’s tweet. And despite claims to the contrary, the HPCSA had not proved even the potential for harm.

Dietitian Claire Jullsing Strydom

The HPCSA was just seeking to avoid the consequences of failing to prove the foundation of its case. It had made the doctor-patient relationship foundational to the charge against him.

“Once you make something foundational, the onus is on you to prove it,” Van der Nest said.

Strydom and all the HPCSA’s expert witnesses had conceded under cross-examination that there was no such relationship.

Once the HPCSA failed to prove a foundational claim, “that should have been it”. It should have accepted that it had no case, Van der Nest said.

Grounds for cross-appeal

Instead, it carried on prosecuting Noakes. It was thoroughly disingenuous to suggest that if Noakes had pointed out the HPCSA’s weaknesses in its case earlier, that it would have terminated the case.

In grounds for cross-appeal, Van der Nest agreed that  HPCSA rules do not make explicit provision for cost awards in disciplinary hearings. However, neither the Health Professions Act nor the rules preclude the Professional Conduct Committee from awarding costs.

He also argued that there was uncontested evidence that HPCSA had acted in bad faith throughout. It had “no sustainable case” against Noakes from the outset, he said.  And as a statutory body, the HPCSA did not enjoy legal protection from “manifestly bad behaviour”.

The list of that bad behaviour was long and made a “very poor picture”. It began with the HPCSA’s Preliminary Committee of Inquiry and was just “the tip of a very big iceberg”.

The  Preliminary Inquiry Committee chair was Wits University head of medical bioethics Prof Amaboo  “Ames” Dhai. Uncontested evidence on the record shows that Dhai and a committee member indulged in “highly irregular” behaviour.

Van der Nest said the HPCSA should also have seen that Strydom was a “disgruntled dietitian“. She saw Noakes as a threat to her livelihood, he said. (Strydom is a dietitian in private practice. Thus, she has a business to protect.) She used his tweet as a pretext to get the HPCSA to prosecute him.

Celebrity on trial

In her letter of complaint to the HPCSA, Strydom called Noakes a “celebrity”. Van der Nest said that Noakes is not a celebrity but rather is a world-renowned scientist.

His world ranking as a scientist by the National Research Foundation is A1 for authority in both exercise science and nutrition.

Yet the HPCSA consistently ignored Noakes’s expertise in nutrition. Ramdass called it  “unfathomable” to claim that Noakes was not qualified to give dietary advice.

Van der Nest also noted that none of the HPCSA’s experts against Noakes came close to Noakes’s ranking. NorthWest University nutrition professors Hester Vorster has a B1 rating and Salome Kruger a C1. Paediatrician Prof Ali Dhansay, Stellenbosch University psychiatry professor Willie Pienaar and Strydom have no rating at all.

He pointed out that the HPCSA had not challenged any of Noakes’s evidence or that of his four experts. It was trying to avoid the consequences by “shifting ground” again. It moved from claiming harm from Noakes’s tweet. And the HPCSA now claimed that anyone reading it could have misconstrued it to mean a ketogenic diet.

The HPCSA had not charged Noakes with giving vague, ambiguous, uncertain advice. That was a “Johnny-come-lately” addition to the charge.

“The charge was specific,” Van der Nest said. “As a prosecutor, if you charge someone with giving unconventional advice, you must be able to say why it is unconventional

HPCSA ‘loses its way’

He also questioned why the HPCSA had used the word “unconventional” in the charge.

“Since when do we charge people for being unconventional?” Van der Nest asked. “To move forward, science needs scientists who are unconventional.”

For the Appeal Committee to make a decision reversing the not guilty verdict, it would have to make a scientific finding that Noakes was wrong about LCHF, he said. The Appeal Committee was empowered to make that finding. However, it did not have all the science before it, to make the finding.

The HPCSA had “hopelessly lost its way” in prosecuting Noakes, he said. There were also constitutional implications. The Constitution guaranteed the right to freedom of expression, including for scientists. Thus, this was an issue not just for Noakes, but for millions in South Africa who express their opinions, Van der Nest said.

Especially worrying was how Strydom managed to get “the might and machinery of a state body” to prosecute Noakes.

The defence’s argument for costs was straightforward, he said. Thus, if the HPCSA had exercised its statutory function fairly, it would not have to pay costs.

“If you litigate against a member without good reason, the (Health Professions Act – under which the HPCSA is regulated) does not limit the Professional Conduct Committee’s ability to make a cost order.”

Therefore, the Professional Conduct Committee erred in not awarding Noakes costs as part of its not-guilty finding.



  1. If the HPCSA’s appeal fails, then surely heads must roll at that institution? Shocking abuse of power, I hope Prof Tim Noakes gets awarded costs.

    • Hi Nicki, it is unlikely that any heads will roll unless the law intervenes to hack them off. In 2015, the health minister set up a government task team to investigate the HPCSA after complaints. The task team found the HPCSA to be riddled with corruption from the top down and its 3 top executives to be unfit to hold office. All 3 declined to stand down. Evidence from a PAIA (Protection of Access to Information Act) request that Prof Noakes’s attorney Adam Pike made to the Association for Dietetics in SA (ADSA) shows collusion at the highest level between the HPCSA and ADSA. No heads have rolled at either organisation over that. Corruption still endemic in South African institutions. All we can hope is that our new president, Cyril Ramaphosa will indeed root it all out, as he has promised.

  2. It is blatantly obvious to any objective observer that this is a witch hunt by the HPSCA against one of its own members.
    I would like to know, once Dr. Noakes has again been proven innocent of the absurd charges against him, what is going to be done to
    a) determine why the HPSCA is victimizing a world-class scientist? We have a right to know the facts.
    b) to take legal action against all of those who have been party to this embarrassing travesty?
    c) to ensure that we get a competent, objective HPCSA who look after the interests of the public instead of pursuing witch hunts against their members?
    d) to ensure that this cannot ever happen again?

  3. It is blatantly obvious to any objective observer that this is a witch hunt by the HPSCA against one of its own members.
    I would like to know, once Dr. Noakes has again been proven innocent of the absurd charges against him, what is going to be done to
    a) determine why the HPSCA is victimizing a world-class scientist? We have a right to know the facts.
    b) to take legal action against all of those who have been party to this embarrassing travesty?
    c) to ensure that we get a competent, objective HPCSA who look after the interests of the public instead of pursuing witch hunts against their members?
    d) to ensure that this cannot ever happen again?

    • Where do HPCSA get funding from? Big Pharma and Big Food Business? His team must go after them for millions for spurious and trumped up charges that had no foundation , and sue them for millions! An example needs to be made of these corrupt corporates. Also Medical Practitioners paying subs must without their subs till the management of this corrupted organization is changed!

      • Hi Gus, HPCSA is using medical practitioners’ subscriptions to fund this trial. They are the ones who should complain – loudly! Many apathetic. Would do well to remember Pastor Niemoller?

  4. Even if exhausting, the dietian Strydom did South Africa a lot of good with her complaint. It focussed the attention of many concerning the benefits of the ketogenic diet. I often wonder if she had the same results that Prof Noakes had with diabetic patients. Must add I have never heard patients singing her praises unlike in Prof Noakes case. Have never heard of her before this pathetic incident either.

  5. Now, all of a sudden, the HPCSA have until the end of March to give it’s verdict? Is that because they need to spin the thing into something that resembles intelligence or do they need to find a willing zealot to pay off?

    • Don’t think so. The chair suggested it would be end March at the latest. All panel members have busy practices. Need time to read all the documents and make time to meet and discuss, I presume. My reading is that they will find in Prof Noakes’s favour – unless there is inside interference. Wouldn’t surprise me but it will be obvious.

  6. I cannot believe that these stupid HPCSA clowns are still allowed to practice. They clearly have lost the plot. I certainly would not trust any of their advice. If ever there was a captured bunch, these are they. Shameful. Time for a complete overhaul of health advice in South Africa. Fire this lot and start afresh.

  7. Here’s hoping for a sensible and final outcome, freeing the Prof from this exhausting and time-wasting drag on his intellect. Oh, and costing the HPCSA a boat load more money in costs! Thank you for your excellent reporting as always, Marika. [I’m reading Lore of Nutrition – very much enjoying it, in a frustrated, bang-my-head-against-a-brick-wall, kind of way!]

  8. Concise yet comprehensive summary of this sad descent into schoolyard bullying, -and that’s a mild opinion !

    As Professor Noakes is an ‘A1’ rated Scientist, – well above any of his enemies, his ‘Fall from Grace’ would be the snowballing ‘victory’ that automatically takes out every other ‘non-supporter’ of this cabal of Big Sugar / Processed Food Industries, their henchmen and Fellow Travellers.. There is too much $$$ and “Reputations/Ego” at stake to ‘not’ persist in this folly…

    Naturally, the intellectually myopic press are unlikely to extend coverage of this travesty, as they ignored the previous.
    Sadly, in Australia, we have the precedent already set, how they ignored Dr Fettke and his fate.

    (and they – newspaper & TV – wonder why their audience dwindles and accords them even less credibility !)

  9. Wow. Marika, thank you for writing so clearly this summary. I admire your skill to see through so many spoken words to the key points and appreciate the awesome work you have done during the past few years. It matters, a lot!

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