South Africa

Tribute

Vejaynand Ramlakan (1957 -2020): Doctor, soldier, comrade and patriot

Vejaynand Ramlakan (1957 -2020): Doctor, soldier, comrade and patriot
Lieutenant General Vejay Ramlakan at the Waterkloof Airforce Base on December 7, 2014 in Pretoria, South Africa. Zuma awarded SANDF members with the first South African National Defence Force Mandela Commemorative Medals during a parade over the weekend. These medals are specially designed to honour members of the SANDF who played a significant role in taking care of the late Nelson Mandela during his last days or who contributed to the successful execution of the State Funeral of former statesman. (Photo by Gallo Images / Foto24 / Alet Pretorius)

For his unfailing contribution to the health and welfare of our country and the freedom of our people, we salute and honour the memory of Lieutenant-General Vejaynand Ramlakan – a father, a brother, a son of the soil, a comrade, a friend and a true patriot.

Former Surgeon General, Lieutenant-General Doctor Vejaynand (Vejay) Indurjith Ramlakan (DMG, MMS, MMB, Order of the Knights of St John) died on 27  August 2020, from a suspected heart attack. He was 62 years old.

Ramlakan, a consummate soldier and freedom fighter, headed the South African Military Health Service (SAMHS) from 2005 to 2013, and was later appointed as Chief of Corporate Services prior to his retirement in 2015. Dr Ramlakan served the dual professions he had chosen with absolute dedication – that of a military commander and strategist as well as that of a medical doctor. 

Born on 28 September 1957, Ramlakan came from a family of eight children that shared a loving home with their parents in Cato Manor, Durban. When the area was declared “white” the family was forcibly moved to the then newly-built apartheid township of Chatsworth, Durban. Noting such pervasive injustices from early in childhood and into his medical career that while black public hospitals were overflowing, white-designated hospitals stood virtually empty, only served to intensify his struggle for a just and equitable South Africa. 

At university, initially at the University of Durban Westville, and later at the University of Natal (Medical School) Ramlakan immersed himself in the struggle for freedom; serving on the Medical Students Representative Council from 1979 to 1980. Whilst he was still a junior medical student, he joined Umkhonto we Sizwe (MK) as an underground operative in 1977, receiving military training in South Africa and neighbouring Swaziland. 

Qualifying as a medical doctor in 1980, he initially worked in the casualty Department at King Edward VIII Hospital. During this period, he also served as vice president and general secretary of the Natal Health Workers Association (1981-1983). He was also involved in the founding of the UDF in 1983 and was a member of the Area Political Military Committee. He always recognised that for the struggle to be won, the involvement of communities was critical to this objective.

In 1985, he was part of Operation Butterfly, a joint internal and external politico-military structure to coordinate the underground African National Congress (ANC). It targeted identified persons, businesses and institutions that were deemed collaborators of supporters of the apartheid government. 

Surgeon-General Vejaynand Ramlakan (R) addresses a press conference on the state of health of Nelson Mandela at the Milpark Hospital in Johannesburg, South Africa on January 28, 2011.  (Photo by Gallo Images/Foto24/Herman Verwey)

At his trial in 1986, Ramlakan said that as a doctor, his first consideration and duty was to his patients. He would not permit considerations of religion, race, politics or social standing to interfere with this mission. He declared: I am no star-struck idealist, pipe-dreamer or angry young man. My motivations have been based on the scientific study of our society… No sentence is going to reform or rehabilitate me. No further repression is going to reform or rehabilitate our oppressed community… No sentence, however severe, is going to serve as a deterrent to any of us. Whatever form the sentence takes, there will always be more fighters to sentence until we achieve our final victory, until the people do govern.”

He took this fearless attitude, unyielding pursuit of excellence and unwavering ambition into all the roles entrusted to him in the democratic South Africa. He had a remarkable insight into identifying potential among young leaders and then inspiring the best out of them. In sentencing the Freedom Fighters at his trial, Judge Thirion said he took into consideration that Ramlakan had warned his trainees to be careful not to injure anyone. For his actions, Ramlakan and eight other members of Operation Butterfly were sentenced to periods of up to 12 years on Robben Island. Upon their early release in 1991, Comrade Chris Hani himself was there to welcome them.

At the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) in 2000, Ramlakan took responsibility for actions that could have resulted in damages to properties or injuries to persons that could have been involved in such guerilla attacks. Ramlakan’s defence is captured in the following extracts from his statements:

“I decided to involve myself in the struggle against apartheid and to do all that was within my power to overthrow the apartheid regime in 1976.…

“I decided to take up arms and join Umkhonto weSizwe as the armed wing of the African National Congress in the furtherance of that aim.”

In 2011, Ramlakan presented this conundrum of two apparent conflicting professions – that of a soldier, which can involve the taking of life and that of being a medical doctor which is to serve and heal – to the newly graduated medical specialists at the College of Medicine. 

The highlight of his distinguished career in the military was to serve as Surgeon General. His mission in this position was to provide World-class Clinical Care. Recognising that health was dependent on many social and other drivers of health, Ramlakan introduced policies aimed at improving physical health, strengthened educational programmes internally as well as with Institutes of Higher Learning, promoting and encouraging military health research. 

In the growing boom of the HIV and Aids pandemic in the mid-2000s, he brought together world experts including South Africa’s best at the first Military Health HIV Conference, charting a way forward for specialised care for military members affected by HIV. 

When national strikes affected health delivery at public hospitals in 2007 and 2009, Ramlakan deployed his military doctors to staff the public facilities. These efforts received great acclaim at the time. For the 2010 FIFA World Cup, Ramlakan was a critical member of the National Joint Operations Centre (NatJOC) in terms of medical operations during the event.

Ramlakan did not tolerate fools lightly. He read widely on many subjects and never attended any formal meeting without prior research and preparation. In order to ensure that history was not a single narrative of the former apartheid government, Ramlakan led a team to document this history of military health that included the contributions of liberation movements. This culminated in a lengthy book – The Fourth Dimension: The History of Military Health in South Africa. His personal written reflections on the Father of the Nation, Nelson Mandela, Mandela’s Last Years (later voluntarily withdrawn), had a mixed reception, and at the time of his death, Ramlakan was robustly defending the publication of the book at the Health Professions Council of South Africa. One of his recent personal projects was to document the biographical narrative, detailing the history of each of the 3,000 ex-political prisoners who were on Robben Island. While he worked hard in recent years to consolidate the database, the project remains one of his many unrealised ambitions.

For his unfailing contribution to the health and welfare of our country and the freedom of our people, we salute and honour the memory of Lieutenant-General Vejaynand Ramlakan, a father, a brother, a son of the soil, a comrade, a friend and a true patriot.  

Hamba Kahle Mkhonto. DM

Chris Naidoo is a former academic, and first black Chief Specialist in the SAMHS. Together with Vejay Ramlakan and others, they co-authored several national and international peer reviewed military health articles and coauthored the Book: The Fourth Dimension: the untold story of military health in South Africa

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