Durban-born doctor and anti-apartheid activist, Kesaveloo Goonaruthnum Naidoo (1906- 1999), was the first Indian woman in South Africa to become a doctor. Despite being a trailblazer, traversing, repressive norms of the time, and ultimately offering much-needed reproductive healthcare to Asian and African women, she faced much racial discrimination by virtue of her skin colour in the ever-racialised apartheid landscape.  

An ambitious scholar and pioneer of Indian resistance

Dr Kesaveloo Goonaruthnum Naidoo was born in Durban in 1906 and grew up in Grey Street with her parents and siblings. A keen scholar all her life, she became a student-teacher by the age of 11 and earned a salary of 10 shillings. She was a bright and ambitious child and soon decided that she wanted to attend medical school. However, discriminatory South African laws meant that she could not do so as an Indian woman and she left South Africa for Edinburgh on the 8th of March 1928 to study medicine. Today marks 93 years since the start of her journey.

Eight years later, in 1936, she returned to Durban and set up a medical practice in Grey Street. It was here that she changed her name from Naidoo to Goonam and began to participate in political activism. Dr Goonam joined the Natal Indian Congress and soon become a vice-chairperson for Non-Europe Unity Movement. She grew close to other prominent activists, including Dr Yusuf Dadoo. Dr Goonam was actively involved in the 1946 Passive Resistance Campaign, which sought to resist the repressive laws of the Asiatic Land Tenure and Indian Representation Act, 1946. These laws aimed to limit land and property that was available to Indian citizens and prohibited them from occupying or owning any property without an official permit. For her involvement in these protests, Dr Goonam was sentenced to six months in prison, with one week of hard labour. Upon sentencing, she stated:

I plead guilty and ask the court to impose the maximum sentence permitted by law. ….. In occupying the resistance camp, I was protesting against that oppressive and pernicious law recently enacted against my people who had no part in framing it. The Act spells disaster, ruin and a state of semi-serfdom to our people who contributed greatly to the prosperity of this country. South Africa, we are reminded frequently, is a democratic country…. I am here to vindicate this interpretation of democracy.”

Dr Goonam was imprisoned 17 times throughout her life for her anti-apartheid activism, and she continued to participate in political meetings and activities.

Life in exile and return to South Africa

By 1978 she decided to go to into exile in the United Kingdom after facing threats by the security police and fearing for her life. She went on to offer medical support to Indian refugees in Uganda and Kenya and also lived in Australia and Zimbabwe. In 1990, with turning political tides and new-found hope in South Africa, she returned to the country of her birth and participated in the first democratic elections. In 1991, she published her autobiography entitled “Coolie Doctor” and reflected upon how she defied the odds to achieve her professional dream and became increasingly more politically active.

 

Dr Goonam’s Autobiography. The title references the racial discrimination and slurs she experienced.

Dr Goonam was a community-orientated activist who paved the way for women and those shunned by the apartheid state. A pioneer who fought for democracy and freedom, she is a true Durban hero and did all of this whilst being a single mother to three children. Dr Goonam Street in the Durban Central Business District honours her poignant legacy, and in 2019 Edinburgh University named a newly created PhD building after her. 

Images courtesy of Press Reader, Goodreads, and CAS.