Political activist and community doctor

Themba Molefe

Themba Molefe

Nthato Harrison Motlana had a choice early in life: of being one of the few black elites to be envied by the people - but he chose to remain simple.

Motlana, 83, succumbed to cancer this week. He was arguably the first black student to obtain a medical degree at the University of the Witwatersrand in 1954. And, as the saying goes, the world was his oyster.

But no, he would become a township doctor eventually running two surgeries in the backyards of houses in Dube and Diepkloof, Soweto.

So attached was he to the people that the sick went to him from all corners of Soweto.

It was not uncommon to hear old women advising each other to "tsamaya ko Motlana, o tla fola" (go to Motlana and you will be healed). A political activist from his youth, it was natural that he became a community doctor as well.

There are anecdotes aplenty about him, too. One is about a man whom Motlana referred to the then Baragwanath Hospital for specialised treatment. This was shortly after the June 16 1976 Soweto uprising.

Motlana had been elected chairman of the Soweto Committee of Ten, which was deeply involved in the aftermath of the youth revolt.

On arrival at Bara a white doctor duly asked the man who had referred him to the hospital. He said, innocently: "Dr Motlana."

The unsuspecting patient was shocked when the doctor suddenly shouted: "Nurse, call the police, this man is talking politics inside the hospital."

That was how Motlana, who some simply knew as Ntate Harrison, became a legend in Soweto.

Though media coverage of his passing rather dwelt on his early days as a member and later general secretary of the ANC Youth League in the 1950s, it was Motlana's role in the aftermath of the 1976 youth uprising that really distinguished him as a social activist.

First, reacting to the mass exodus and detention without trial of high school pupils in the wake of the uprising, Motlana was involved in the formation of the Soweto Black Parents Association (BPA). He was elected BPA vice-chairman, with Dr Aaron Matlhare at the helm.

Motlana became the chairman of the Committee of Ten, which was subsequently established at the offices of The World newspaper in Industria West, Johannesburg, in 1976.

The late Percy Qoboza, who convened the meeting, was the editor of the newspaper.

The committee included luminaries such as the late Ellen Khuzwayo, and gave rise to the Soweto Civic Association.

The SCA was to later play a significant role in the reconstruction of Soweto's urban politics after the Soweto SRC under Sechaba Montsitsi frog-marched councillors from the Urban Bantu Council chambers in Jabulani in 1977.

Obviously Motlana did not escape the dragnet when the National Party government, in a swoop on October 19 1977 (Black Wednesday), detained thousands of activists, banned 19 organisations and The World, Weekend World and Pro Veritate, a Christian Science publication.

An entrepreneur of note, Motlana's trailblazing achievements in business cannot be belaboured, as founder of the first black private clinic, Lesedi, in Soweto, and Sizwe Medical Aid Fund.

He was a no-nonsense man who spoke his mind. In the early 1990s when enrolling black children at "multiracial" schools became topical, he had some choice words about the subject.

"I wonder why people will say they are taking our children to the white man's schools. If this is our country, then those are our schools and we will take our children there," he said in an interview.

Motlana was married to Zanele for more than 36 years and they had two children, a daughter and a son, following his divorce from Sally, formerly Maunye.

Born on February 16, 1925, in Marapyane near Pretoria, Motlana died on Sunday after a long battle with cancer. He will be buried tomorrow at West Park cemetery. The service, at the Wits Great Hall, starts at 9am.