Down in Cape Town there’s a small, very discreet and most definitely low-profile outfit called Ronin. It operates from an undisclosed location and its trainees hail from all over the world – a good portion from the “special” echelons of the British army.
A ronin is a samurai warrior whose master has died and who has failed to follow the code of the samurai by committing harakiri. A ronin took up either a life of crime or hired himself out as a bodyguard to wealthy merchants. South Africa’s Ronin trains bodyguards.
Ronin’s “participants in training” arrive in 16-strong batches from all over the world – including Britain, the US, Denmark, Sweden, Italy, Germany and France – to take Ronin’s five-week R59,000 course in close protection training. There are even a few South Africans. But it’s the associated six-week Remote Medic course (R70,800) – an upgraded medical emergency first aid course – that has flushed Ronin out of the shadows to tell of its long-running war with government’s regulators, the Health Professions Council of SA.
Ronin, with two ex-special forces instructors on its staff of eight, is headed by a 007-type named Timothy Irvine-Smith, or Advocate Timm Smith, as he’s known (he added a second “m” to Tim to be “different”). There’s a fuzzy framed photo on his office wall showing him in bodyguard mode behind Queen Elizabeth during the British monarch’s 1995 tour of South Africa. That year he also started Ronin, in partnership with the former SA cricket captain Kepler Wessels (who is no longer involved).
|Left to right: Timm Smith, Queen Elizabeth and then-British Foreign Secretary Douglas Hurd|
Smith, 42, a divorced father of two, was admitted to the Eastern Cape Bar in 1994 but practised as an advocate for only six months. He was trained in close protection overseas by the legendary Dennis Martin of Royal Protection fame. Martin, with various old pals from “the regiment” (Special Air Services) runs CQB Services (for Close Quarter Battle techniques). Smith survived the training and on his return to South Africa set up shop as a bodyguard. The “best client I ever had” was the late Sanlam chairman Marinus Daling.
In a way, Smith is the father of South Africa’s flourishing close protection industry. In the early days of the new Rainbow Nation, the police recruited him to help integrate the close protection staff of the ANC with that of the old guard. Smith remains a reservist captain with SAPS, but says his dealings with government agencies are not for discussion. He wrote the national standards and authored the national certificates in close protection, laying down for intelligence, defence, police and in the private sector, the requirements for a professional bodyguard.
Ronin’s first close protection course, in 2001, was exclusively for soldiers leaving the British military. These Brits, including some Special Air Services (SAS) types, still form the backbone of Ronin trainees – their course fees paid by Britain’s defence department as part of its military resettlement programme to ease soldiers into civilian life.
But the modern bodyguard needs to be more than a gung-ho James Bond. Smith explains: “You also need some sort of Florence Nightingale skill. However good your goon in a suit is, he must also be capable of defending a client from things like a heart attack, falling down the stairs, electrocution, choking on a chicken bone at a banquet. There is a legitimate expectation that a bodyguard can intervene in an effective and professional medical manner when a medical emergency erupts.”
Smith signed up and personally completed South Africa’s three short courses for emergency care: Basic Ambulance Assistant (BAA); the Ambulance Emergency Assistant (AEA)/Intermediate Life Support (ILS) and advanced Critical Care Assistant (CAA)/Advanced Life Support (ALS)and registered as a paramedic with the Health Professions Council (HPCSA).
For Ronin’s trainee bodyguards he wanted to add a Remote Medic course incorporating the basic and intermediate short courses. He hoped in vain. He sought health council accreditation in 2006. He’s still seeking it. Why? Because the HPCSA is committed to ending all three of these short ambulance courses in favour of a two-year National Diploma in Emergency Care and a four-year Professional Bachelor’s Degree in Emergency Medical Care. Both have already been introduced.
To many, the new training makes sense. The old Basic Ambulance course takes just under five weeks and, at a cost of around R6,000, has been offered by a wide range of adult education colleges. Over the years, it’s been dangled before young job-hunters as the key for entry to ambulance service careers. But the stark truth is that the HPCSA found itself – as at March 2012 – with no fewer than 49,771 BAA’s on its register, most of them unemployed.
The HPCSA tells Noseweek that over the past five years, an additional 28,940 jobless BAAs were de-registered because they couldn’t afford the annual HPCSA registration fee (currently R526). The entire spectrum of South Africa’s emergency medical services, public and private, consists of just over 13,500 personnel, of whom 9,720 are BAAs.
What hope for any newly-qualified BAA of getting a job, let alone the 40,000-odd jobless already on the register. (And what broken dreams for many of the additional 28,940, whose parents may have scrimped and saved to have their child graduate from the Basic Ambulance Assistant/Basic Life Support course, only to be kicked off the HPCSA register for being unable to pay its annual fee.)
Smith agrees that the old practice of crewing ambulances with Basic-level employees who may have had just five weeks’ training, is insufficient. But he still wants to include both the basic-level and the far more useful intermediate-level courses in his Remote Medic course. Trouble is, you need to have the Basic before you can take the “correct level” Intermediate.
“We don’t want to contribute to the glut,” he says. “We want to train complete bodyguards.”
After three years of unsuccessful battling for accreditation with the HPCSA, Smith launched a flank attack on the health professions body. He introduced a Remote Medic course at Ronin, cutting out the health council entirely by bringing in an alternative – the Ship Captain’s medic’s course, accredited by the SA Maritime Safety Authority (Samsa). All sea captains are required to take this training to give them some level of medical competence to meet crises at sea – putting up drips, suturing, giving injections… much the sort of basic, hands-on stuff that Ronin’s bodyguards need to know. An added attraction was that Samsa’s membership of the International Maritime Organisation opened up work opportunities in its 186 member countries.
Today the Ship Captain’s course, together with the UK-accredited Ambulance Technician course, makes up Ronin’s Remote Medic course.
“The HPCSA went ballistic,” says Smith. “They said you can’t let outside foreigners physically touch patients.”
Smith’s association with the hard men of Britain’s SAS was clearly known to the HPCSA which sought police back-up before venturing on to Ronin turf for a surprise inspection. “They thought I was some kind of scary guy,” laughs Smith.
If Smith’s inclusion of the Ship Captain’s medic course infuriated the Health Professions Council, the SA Maritime Safety Authority (Samsa) was thrilled to see its nautical training adapted for Ronin’s bodyguards.
“I found it refreshingly different and decidedly challenging,” enthused Samsa’s Captain Dave Colley. So much so that Colley ordered a review of the accreditation of several other institutions that were offering Ships Captain’s training.
The HPCSA’s rage at the thought of Ronin’s trainees actually touching local patients is ironic. For 11 years, Ronin’s medics-in-training have been doing just that with Ronin’s advanced paramedic ambulance, which operates free of charge around Cape Town over weekends with the Metro Ambulance Service – and has been a lifesaver to some 5,500 mostly indigent patients.
|Ronin's free ambulance service attends a Mandela Park boy after he fell off a ladder while painting his mother's house. The HPCSA objects to Ronin providing para-medic services without its full accreditation. Ronin's ambulance service has been operating for 11 years.|
In May last year a high court judge ordered the HPCSA to reconsider Ronin’s application for accreditation and apply its mind to the merits. It took them until August 31 this year, when Ronin’s latest letter of intent to apply was rejected, for being “non-compliant with accreditation criteria”.
Timm Smith maintains that Ronin complied totally. “But they still just refuse to let us apply. They’ve either failed to apply their minds or they have a hidden agenda. What value was the court order?”
He has now reapplied and says if he’s not allowed to proceed by the end of the year, he will take the council on review and institute contempt of court proceedings.
The HPCSA doesn’t comment on its long-running battle with Ronin, but its senior PR manager Bertha Peters-Scheepers says: “The public has a right to receive quality health care from all health-care professionals falling under the ambit of the council.
“Since 2002 the HPCSA has been engaging various stakeholders, including the Department of Health, to align the emergency care profession to that of other health professionals.”
Peters-Scheepers says the 28,940 de-registered practitioners over the past five years was “a huge concern for the board.”
“It is also unacceptable that the bulk of EMS providers have just three to four weeks’ [sic] basic training to attend to critically ill and injured patients.
“The council needs to ensure that the public are in capable, properly qualified and well-trained hands in any emergency situation. The new diploma and bachelor’s degree qualifications have the essential clinical practice components, ensuring the graduate can deliver optimum patient care in any emergency situation,” says Peters-Scheepers.
In the meantime, the short course training remains in place, pending a decision by Health Minister Dr Aaron Motsoaledi on HPCSA draft regulations to end it. When it finally closes down, existing BAAs can however remain on the HPCSA register and continue to work at that level.
Comments Timm Smith: “They may be allowed to continue in work, but putting an end to vocational short-course training to Intermediate (AEA) and Advanced (CCA) levels will mean the end of the career path and professional development for 9,720 working BAAs and 7,539 working AEAs.”
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