Dr Somalingum (Leslie) Ponnusamy was born in Durban on 1 September 1958. He was the youngest of four sons. The family resided in Sea Cow Lake and later relocated to nearby Kenville which remained the family home until 2013. The Ponnusamy family had a middle-class upbringing and were known for their generosity to others and assistance to the community.
Dr Ponnusamy attended the primary and high schools in the area before matriculating from Lakehaven Secondary in 1975. He joined the University of Durban-Westville (now the University of KwaZulu-Natal — UKZN) in 1976, the year of the Soweto uprising and participated in the students’ strike at the university in solidarity with the students of Soweto (Johannesburg, Transvaal – now Gauteng) and other townships around the country. This resulted in the university being brought to a standstill. The University, in cahoots with the apartheid state, retaliated by harassing those students who were striking. It was during this time that Dr Ponnusamy encountered members of the African National Congress (ANC). This coupled with early experiences of interacting with people of all races, affirmed his belief that South Africa required radical transformation from an apartheid state into a non-racial South Africa. Due to the prevailing political climate, the situation at the university and therefore Durban as well became untenable for him, and it became impossible to continue his studies at the University.
In 1978, he left his family behind and travelled to India to continue with his studies. He continued his interaction with the ANC and because of his involvement in the ANC, he was offered a scholarship by the Government of India to pursue his studies. His studies, over 10 years, took him to Udaipur and Madya Pradesh while continuing his involvement with the ANC Mission in India and the ANC representatives in India. He was active in promoting the South African Students Association in India with a focus on highlighting the injustices faced by the majority in apartheid South Africa. Dr Ponnusamy also mobilised students to participate in the activities of the ANC in India. Life in India was tough, and his parents tried to send money as often as possible, always on the lookout for someone travelling to India so that they could send their assistance to him and his comrades. In his fourteen years away from the family, he was only able to return once for a few days, much to the delight of his family.
In 1986, Dr Ponnusamy graduated with a Bachelor’s Degree in Veterinary Science and Animal Husbandry and continued to serve the ANC in New Delhi before he was deployed in 1988 to the ANC Headquarters in Lusaka, Zambia, where he practised as a veterinarian on the ANC farms. George Naicker was in charge of the farm and it was managed by Sahdan Naidoo. Dr Ponnusamy was responsible for approximately 1,800 head of cattle. He continued his political activities while becoming more active in the military wing of the ANC, uMkhonto weSizwe (MK). His training as part of MK was a particular set of skills he utilised throughout his life. He approached tasks in a methodical manner and his problem-solving skills were well thought off especially amongst his fellow medical practitioners. In 1992 the ANC asked him to return to South Africa.
Upon return to the country, and with the assistance of the ANC, the United Nations awarded him a scholarship to continue his medical studies at MEDUNSA, where he graduated as a medical doctor in 1996. Dr Ponnusamy continued his medical studies resulting in him qualifying as a cardiologist. He worked as a Specialist Cardiologist at the Inkosi Albert Luthuli Central Hospital.
His lifelong commitment to public service continued, and at the time of his death, he was the Head of the Clinical Unit at the University of KwaZulu-Natal’s Department of Cardiology at the Inkosi Albert Luthuli Hospital. This was a post he held since 2009, where he had joined the department as a trainee in 2004 culminating in the completion of his cardiology training in 2008. He taught many students and won awards for his skill as a doctor including the 2010 RC Fraser International Fellowship Award in Interventional Cardiology at St Thomas Hospital. He was also a member of the College of Medicine of South Africa, where many students mentioned his stern but fair assessment of their medical abilities. He taught many undergraduate medical students, and this was extended to postgraduate medical students as well. His expertise and skills as a cardiologist were renowned and he imparted those skills to the nurses and paramedical staff in cardiology and to Cardiology Fellows where he supervised and taught interventional and non-invasive cardiology.
Dr Ponnusamy also continued his service to the community and the main highlight was the Ponnusamy family’s commitment to the upliftment of Hinduism through the Shri Vaithianatha Easvarar Alayam (SVEA), commonly known as the Umgeni Road Temple. He followed in the footsteps of his father and two older brothers by playing a leading role in the management affairs of the temple. At the time of his death, he was steering the temple through an unprecedented pandemic, where the Umgeni Road temple like similar religious institutions was trying to find a way of adapting its religious practises and observances while being financially sustainable.
His political commitment never wavered and he continued to play a role in the ANC. He was involved in ANC structures especially in the run-up to the first democratic elections in South Africa in 1994 and continued his involvement in local communities until a week before he took ill. Within the ANC, he remained close to Ravi Pillay, Nomusa Dube-Ncube, Willies Mchunu, Mac Maharaj, amongst others.
Dr Ponnusamy was known for his humility and total commitment to anyone who needed his help, be it medical or otherwise. He often said that he did not join the struggle for freedom to enrich himself or to brag about his struggle credentials. Dr Ponnusamy will be remembered as an unsung hero of the anti-apartheid movement, a true humanitarian, leader and teacher in the field of medicine, and ultimately as a beloved son, brother, and uncle.
Dr Somalingum (Leslie) Ponnusamy passed away in February 2021 in Durban, KwaZulu-Natal.
Email from Aveshni Ponnusamy (niece of Dr Somalingum (Leslie) Ponnusamy) to SAHO dated 28 March 2021