Dr Nthato Motlana: Physician and anti-apartheid activist

Nthato Motlana had vivid memories of what it was like to be a black youth in 1940s South Africa: "The attitude of whites was monstrous," he said. "They were boors, animals. We lived a life of subservience, obsequiousness, fear, of obeisance to the white man in a way that nobody can really understand. When you saw a white man, you saw God Almighty and you had to get out of his way. He could kick you, he could kill you and get away with it."

Motlana fought back. He lived through the dark years of apartheid and emerged triumphant. By the time of his death, he was deeply respected as a medical doctor and a leader in the freedom struggle, a pioneer in black economic empowerment and one of South Africa's wealthiest men.

He was born in 1925 in the village of Marapyane, near Pretoria, moving at the age of 10 to Johannesburg with his mother, who worked as a domestic servant for a white family. In 1946 Motlana began his Bachelor of Science studies at the South African Native College at Fort Hare in the Eastern Cape. Fort Hare, today a fully fledged university, then had fewer than 400 students but was the premier place for higher education for blacks, both from South Africa and other Africa countries. Nelson Mandela was one of the elite who studied there; Robert Mugabe graduated in 1941.

South Africa's blacks were suffering from several centuries of racial discrimination at the hands of European settlers. The Second World War and the Allied dedication to freedom aroused hopes of a new era, but those were dashed by the Afrikaner Nationalist electoral victory in 1948 on the slogan of "apartheid" (apartness). At Fort Hare, as Motlana later recalled, "there was great sadness mixed with anger and apprehension." With feelings running high, a branch of the African National Congress Youth League formed at Fort Hare later that year, with Motlana as secretary. The league had come into existence two years earlier to push for African nationalism and for aggressive action against discrimination.

Motlana went on to study medicine at the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg. This was an exceptional achievement: the university was for whites and the government allowed only a small quota of black students. They could study, but had a segregated residence and were debarred from taking part in university sports or social events.

Despite the obstacles, it was a rare and privileged status. Yet Motlana imperiled it by taking part in the ANC's Defiance Campaign in 1952, in which people were urged to break the apartheid laws which the Afrikaner Nationalists were enacting wholesale: sitting on a park bench designated for another colour group, or entering the wrong library, was a crime. Motlana was convicted – together with Mandela and others – and was given a suspended sentence and banned from political activities.

Marriage to Sally – who was to become a formidable anti-apartheid figure in her own right – meant setting up home in a humble one-roomed dwelling in Johannesburg's Western Native Township. But the government declared it a "black spot" and ordered the black residents to leave, to make way for whites. Motlana took part in the resistance, but lost. He set up his medical practice in the then-new township of Soweto.

Motlana's African nationalism remained strong and he was a supporter of the Africanist group inside the ANC who accused the organisation of lacking militancy and being too influenced by white Communists. But he argued for unity, and opposed the breakaway of the group from the ANC in 1958 and the formation of the Pan-Africanist Congress – whose anti-apartheid campaign two years later led to police killing scores in the Sharpeville Massacre.

As the Afrikaner Nationalists tightened their hold, black resistance was beaten down. But it surged again in 1976 with a revolt by schoolchildren. Motlana was vice-chair of the Black Parents' Association and chair of the Soweto Committee of Ten, which sought to lead the community. With his own history of education, he tried to persuade the youngsters not to boycott schools; he was alarmed by their policy of "no education before liberation". He did not succeed, however, and in later years lamented that the era had produced three million South African mothers and fathers without skills and without any prospect of getting jobs.

The Committee of Ten was banned and Motlana was detained without trial for five months. Undaunted, throughout the 1980s he remained a leader fighting against government attempts to bring Soweto to heel. Worried that detention and ceaseless harassment would leave his family without income, he opened a grocery store, run by Sally. The government allowed township stores to sell only basic groceries – so as not to compete against white-owned supermarkets in cities – but the business thrived and still exists.

Motlana's natural entrepreneurial gifts came to the fore. He brought together several dozen doctors to launch the first black-owned company to make chemicals; then the first black privately owned hospital; then the first black medical-aid scheme. And as apartheid went into decline at the start of the 1990s, he enthusiastically went into the world of big business, becoming known as the father of black economic empowerment. His success reached its height with the formation of a giant conglomerate, New Africa Investment Limited (Nail), which made him one of the wealthiest men in the country. Years later he resigned after strong public criticism of a proposed huge bonus payment to executives, including himself.

He never forgot his roots. He chaired a South Africa/United States fund to train black health professionals and he was active in the Nelson Mandela foundation to help children.

His vision of South Africa traversed the colour spectrum and his African nationalism never caused him to turn against whites. Indeed, his forays into stratospheric business were in association with whites, and the links and friendships he built over the years endured. In his medical practice he was doctor to the poor people of Soweto. He was also the house doctor of Robert Sobukwe, the Pan-Africanist Congress leader. After Mandela was released from prison in 1990, he became his doctor too.

Motlana was joyous in his life, with laughter easily bursting out of hisslender body. He responded to the harshness of black existence with lifelong dedication to relieving the suffering of others.

Benjamin Pogrund

Nthato Harrison Motlana, anti-apartheid activist, physician and businessman: born Marapyane, Pretoria 16 February 1925; twice married (four sons, two daughters); died Johannesburg 30 November 2008.

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