Vejay Ramlakan, a man who set his own path
Dr Vejay Ramlakan had set his own path as he led a life that took him from the streets of Durban to the highest office in the land as former president Nelson Mandela’s doctor for seven years.
Ramlakan had seen for himself the evils of the apartheid system and decided to join Umkhonto we Sizwe (MK) in the 1970s, later leading one of its units to fight the system.
Ramlakan was the commander of “Operation Butterfly”, a programme to develop an integrated political-military underground command structure in the greater Durban area and a campaign to destabilise the border regions of South Africa.
He said he had decided to join MK because he wanted to overthrow the apartheid regime.
At the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, he testified: “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 we Sizwe as the armed wing of the African National Congress in the furtherance of that aim.”
He has been described as an activist for most of his life. He joined politics at a young age. He attended school in Durban and went on to lead students at the University of Natal’s Medical School.
He led its student representative council from the late 1970s and joined MK’s underground faction in the Durban area during that period.
In the late 1980s Ramlakan was arrested and jailed on Robben Island and was released after the unbanning of political organisations in the country.
During the integration process in the early 1990s, he led the MK medical team into the integration of the new defence force.
After he joined the SANDF in 1994, following the democratic elections in that year, he rose through the ranks occupying different positions.
He became former Mandela’s medical doctor until his death in December 2013.
The book he wrote on Mandela in 2017 was withdrawn from the shelves after former first lady Graça Machel threatened to sue over it.
Defending the book, Ramlakan had said at the time it was not only about Mandela’s last days.
“The book is not only about the medical issues, the book is about the entire period of his last years and it focuses, initially, on a number of things that are already there in the public domain.
“When I look at some of the comments that have been made I can see, as you could see after reading the book, you walk away with heightened admiration for what he had been through and how he had managed to, right up to his last moment.”
After having occupied various positions in the South African Health Military Service and served for many years, Ramlakan resigned quietly in 2015.
The ANC described him as a selfless leader who served the organisation with distinction.
“Dr Ramlakan belongs to a coterie of distinguished freedom fighters who sacrificed their personal comfort for the liberation of the rest of South Africa’s people.
“We salute this outstanding activist of our struggle for liberation and dip our revolutionary banner in his honour,” said ANC spokesperson Pule Mabe.
Although Ramlakan had retired from the military health service, he remained involved in the political structures.
At the time of his death, he was serving in the national executive of the Ex-Political Prisoners Association.
Defence and Military Veterans Minister Nosiviwe Mapisa-Nqakula also extended her condolences.
She described him as a dedicated soldier who fought for the liberation of the country.
Mapisa-Nqakula and Ramlakan worked together when the former served as minister and the latter as surgeon-general of the SANDF. When he left, Mapisa-Nqakula was still in charge as the political head of the department.
United Democratic Movement leader Bantu Holomisa also had contact with Ramlakan when he was still Mandela’s doctor.
Holomisa said the former surgeon-general had done a sterling job looking after Mandela.
Other than showing his leadership at university, with MK, on Robben Island and after the integration of the former non-statutory forces and statutory forces, he led from the front and rose through the ranks of the army.
He was also given several medals in his honour for his contribution in the health services.
Holomisa said Ramlakan had also worked closely with SANDF surgeon-general Lieutenant-General Zola Dabula. They both served in the military health service for many years.