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​​Nthato Motlana's memories of Joburg
Dr Nthato Motlana​​After serving Johannesburg as a businessman, a political activist, an academic, and a philanthropist for over half a century, Dr Nthato Motlana has definite views about the city.

The diminutive Motlana still goes to the gym regularly - and the results show. He looks much younger than his 79 years, is full of energy and his memory remains sharp.

Motlana has played a prominent role in virtually all the defining moments in the history of Johannesburg politics since the 1950s. In the 1970s, he led civic politics in Soweto, and remained active in resistance politics throughout the 1980s, while pursuing business interests at the same time.

As a student at Fort Hare University in the late 1940s, Motlana was voted secretary of the African National Congress Youth League. It was in this capacity he later played a prominent role in the resistance to the forced removals from Western Native Township in the late 1950s. "We used to sing, 'ons phola hier'," he exclaims, then shakes his head and bursts into the song. He later enrolled at Wits University's Medical School, and completed his medical studies in 1952.

In the wake of the 1976 student uprising, Motlana was once more in the spotlight with the founding of the Committee of Ten, which was set up to formulate recommendations on the running of civic affairs in Soweto following the demise of the unpopular Soweto Urban Bantu Council.

Dr Nthato Harrison Motlana passed away on 30 November 2008

The committee was later disbanded to make way for the Soweto Civic Association, which Motlana also headed. Motlana remained active in resistance politics throughout the 1980s, and when Mandela was released from prison in 1990, Motlana became his personal doctor. But Motlana's involvement with Joburg dates back even further ...

He arrived in the city in 1935 as a 10-year-old boy from Marapyane village outside Pretoria to live with his mother, who worked as a domestic worker in Kensington. It was only on his arrival in the city that Motlana saw whites for the first time. "Until then, the only white person I had ever seen was a Lutheran priest who visited the church in our village, but then we saw him as an oddity."

Motlana lived first in Sophiatown and later moved to Western Native Township. He attended school at the famous St Cyprians School in Sophiatown, described by Anglican archbishop Trevor Huddleston as the largest primary school in South Africa at the time.

Motlana's memory of Joburg in the 1940s and 1950s is rather ambiguous. He remembers life in the city at the time as "difficult". "It was a European city in Africa - a white man's town. To move around town after 9pm, you had to carry a pass."

Still, Motlana expresses nostalgia for the city of that time. "It was clean. It breaks my heart to see the city centre deteriorating the way it has."

Motlana bought his first house in Western Native Township, a rather humble one-room dwelling, immediately after marrying Sally, his first wife. Following the forced removals of Western Native Township residents to Soweto, Motlana moved, first to Orlando East and later to Dube, before upgrading to the more affluent Diepkloof Extension.

Motlana says he would not exchange Joburg for any other city in the world. In the late 1970s, at the height of apartheid repression, a friend of his, Dr Makhene, tried to convince him to go into exile. "I couldn't go. This is home man!" he exclaims. "The best city in the world."

This is partly because for Motlana, Joburg offers more business opportunities, "than any other place". And, after engaging in various business ventures in the city for more than three decades, Motlana should know.

Motlana's first business venture was a local grocery shop in Mofolo called Sizwe, which was opened in the 1970s. "I was constantly being arrested by the police at the time for my political work," he recalls. "So I opened the shop so that my family would not struggle when I was detained." The shop still stands in Mofolo and is now run by his ex-wife, Sally.

In the late 1970s, he led a group of doctors to form the first black-owned chemicals company called Africhem. Then Motlana became instrumental in the formation of a company called Phaphama Africa, which manufactured uniforms for soldiers and for school children.

But the active role he played in the civic politics of Soweto, as leader of the Committee of Ten, soon landed Motlana in detention. When he was released in 1977, Motlana's indomitable entrepreneurial spirit led him to establish New Africa Marketing, mainly to "provide employment for young people who had been detained", Motlana says.

Next, Motlana formed Kwacha, a company that was to establish a Soweto landmark, Lesedi Clinic, the first privately owned, black hospital in the country. Motlana persuaded 38 other doctors to buy shares in the company. At the same time, the company introduced Sizwe Medical Aid Scheme, the first such scheme to be owned and operated by blacks. A glittering dinner was recently held to mark the 25th anniversary of these two ventures. "Sizwe is the eighth largest medical aid in the country," asserts Motlana proudly. This prolonged existence, says Motlana, is proof that he has operated sustainable businesses.

But Motlana's flagship is without doubt investment holding company, New Africa Investment Limited (Nail). It was in 1993 that Motlana joined up with other political luminaries, including Dikgang Moseneke, Paul Gama, Sam Montsuenyane, Franklin Sonn and Jonty Sandler, to create Corporate Africa, which later became Nail. The venture was of such a scale that it signalled their intention to play in the big league.

Now retired, Motlana spends his days attending to the various NGOs he has been associated with in his illustrious career. He remains the vice-chairperson of the Mandela Foundation, a trustee of the Mandela Children's Fund, and chairman of Inroads South Africa, which offers learnerships to nurture and place youth. He recently retired from Medical Education for South African Blacks, a collaborative American and South African effort to provide scholarships to accomplished, black health professionals, after 14 years as its chairman.

Being on retirement has given Motlana time to appreciate the natural and man-made beauty around him. He is "thrilled and encouraged by ongoing developments around the city", he says, his face beaming. He expresses confidence that change is in the air in the Joburg inner city. "Look at what's happening around! I'm particularly pleased with the housing developments in Jeppe, Fordsburg and Brickfields. Those houses are beautiful."

Beautiful maybe, but nothing compared to his retirement home. Nowadays, he is to be seen marvelling at the sheer vastness of his homestead in the up market Muldersdrift agricultural holdings in Mogale City. "But I conduct all my business in Joburg," he says. He insists that he remains within the borders of Gauteng and is still a Joburger at heart.
​​Nthato Motlana's memories of Joburg