Kesaveloo Goonaruthnum Naidoo (Dr Goonam) was born in 1906 in Durban. She grew up in Grey Street, with three brothers and three sisters. Along with her siblings, she attended the Tamil school Sathia Gnama Sabbai before attending school in English. At the young age of 11, she became a pupil teacher, earning a salary of 10 shillings.
Her parents, R.K. Naidoo and Thangatchee Naidoo, were well connected in Natal and she grew up surrounded by prominent Indian people such as M.K. Gandhi, Monty Naicker, Strinivasa Sastri and M.L Sultan.
She was bright, ambitious and independent, so eventually persuaded her father to allow her to train as a medical doctor. As there was no medical school open to Indian women in South Africa, she went to Scotland on 8 March 1928 to study at Edinburgh University.
She returned home in 1936 and set up a practice in the Grey Street Complex in Durban. She changed her name from Naidoo because of its caste connotations, and became known as Dr Goonam. During one of her visits, a child allegedly remarked “Oh mummy, the coolie doctor is here”, which led to her inherited name, which was also used as the title of her autobiography: Coolie Doctor.
Dr. Goonam then became involved in the Natal Indian Congress (NIC) and was one of the main organizers of the passive resistance campaign of 1946. This campaign protested against the Asiatic Land Tenure and Indian Representation Act or “Ghetto Act” that limited the land available to Indians and restricted their franchise. She led the second batch of resisters on 22 June 1946.
Through her involvement in the Passive Resistance campaign, she developed close political relations with Dr. G. M. Naicker and Dr. Yusuf Dadoo. On 29 June 1946, Dr. Goonam was sentenced to six months with hard labour, in addition to the week she had been sentenced to under the Riotous Assemblies Act. However, after four months the sentence was suspended.
In total, Dr Goonam was imprisoned 17 times for her political activities and is considered one of the pioneers of female Indian resistance. She was also later elected as Vice-President of the NIC, as she had deputised on behalf of senior members on several occasions.
After further harassment from the Security Branch, Dr. Goonam left South Africa to live in England, where she lived in exile thereafter. Dr. Goonam also worked in other countries such as India, Australia and Zimbabwe.
Dr. Goonam returned to South African in 1990, and voted in the first democratic elections in 1994.
Dr. Goonam passed away in 1999.
• Gerhart G.M and Karis T. (eds) (1977) From Protest to challenge: A documentary History of African Politics in South Africa: 1882-1964, Vol. 4 Political Profiles 1882 ”“ 1964. Hoover Institution Press: Stanford University.
• Grimmet, N. “Dr. Goonam”[online] Available at: www.durban.gov.za [Accessed 27 July 2009]
• Voices of Resistance: Dr. K. Goonam Oral History Interview [online] Available at: scnc.ukzn.ac.za [Accessed 23 July 2009]
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