Motlana: passing of a great man


3 December 2008


South African businessman, anti-apartheid activist and academic Dr Nthato Motlana died on Sunday 31 November after a long struggle with cancer. His passing was described as a “hard blow” by his close friend and comrade Nelson Mandela.


In a statement released by the Nelson Mandela Foundation on Monday, Mandela said “the loss of our friend, Nthato Motlana, is a hard blow”.


“We have travelled a long road together, through many decades of the struggle against apartheid and the years of building democracy. His unfailing support for our family during the prison years is something we will never forget.


“We will miss him; and our country will miss him. His contributions in such a variety of fields made him a patriot of special quality. Hamba kahle,” Mandela said.


A founder of the Nelson Mandela Foundation, Motlana died after a long battle with cancer on Sunday, 30 November at his home in Johannesburg; he was 83 years old.


Defining history


Motlana, the Mandela family doctor, was born in Marapyane near Pretoria in 1925, and played a prominent role in all the defining moments in South Africa’s history since the 1950s.


As a bachelor of science student at Fort Hare University in the late 1940s, Motlana was voted secretary-general of the ANC Youth League. Later, he enrolled at the University of the Witwatersrand’s Medical School, graduating in 1954.


Two years earlier in 1952, Motlana stood trial with Mandela and 18 others in the 1952 Defiance Campaign Trial. All the accused were convicted for their role in a campaign of peaceful protests against apartheid laws.


A leading member of the Soweto community and vice-chairperson of the Black Parents’ Association during the students’ uprising in 1976, Motlana was detained for nine moths in jail with hard labour after the uprising.


After that, he was banned twice, detained without trial and convicted for offences against the security of the state, resulting in imprisonment. He was not permitted to leave South Africa for 32 years.


Committee of Ten


It was also during the 1970s that Motlana became the chairperson of the Soweto Committee of Ten, which was formed to run the township’s affairs after the collapse of the Soweto Urban Bantu Council. The Committee of Ten was among the organisations banned by the apartheid government on 19 October 1977.


After the committee was banned, the Soweto Civic Association was formed, with Motlana again as chairperson. He remained active in resistance politics throughout the 1980s and became Mandela’s personal doctor after he was released from prison in 1990.


Besides taking an active part in politics, Motlana was an ardent businessman. His first business venture was a grocery store in Mofolo, Soweto, which opened in the 1970s. Later in the same decade, he led a group of doctors to form the first black-owned chemicals company, Africhem. Then he was involved in the launch of Phaphama Africa, which manufactured uniforms for children and soldiers.


Motlana’s detention and his subsequent release in 1977 did not deter his business acumen. His detention, on the contrary, led him to establish New Africa Marketing, a company aimed at providing employment for young people who had been detained.


Following this company, Motlana established Kwacha, a company that was to sprout a Soweto landmark – Lesedi Clinic – the first privately black-owned hospital in the country. At the same time, the company introduced Sizwe Medical Aid Scheme, the first such scheme to be owned and operated by blacks.




However, Motlana’s flagship was the investment holding company, New Africa Investment Limited (Nail), the black-owned and controlled conglomerate at the helm of one of South Africa’s biggest daily newspapers – the Sowetan.


Motlana has served on the boards of Putco, Rand Water Board, Adcock Ingram Group and Sasol. He was also the chairman of MTN and Metropolitan Life.


In 2007, he received the Financial Mail’s Little Black Book Lifetime Achiever Award “in recognition of his outstanding achievements in the business world and his community involvement”.


The award honoured him as one of the “few individuals who have paved the way for black business people who play in the black economic empowerment space today”.


Aside from his business interests, Motlana also served as the vice-chancellor of the University of North West and Technikon South Africa and on the University of the Witwatersrand’s council.


Motlana is survived by his wife Zanele, six children, 11 grandchildren and one great grandchild.


Source: City of Johannesburg