Nthato Motlana


Dr. Nthato Harrison Motlana (16 Feb 1925 – 1 December 2008) was a prominent South African  businessman, physician and anti-apartheid activist.

 August 8, 1988

I interviewed Nthatho Motlana in his surgery, 1401 Mtipa St., Dube Soweto on August 8, 1988. It was a dry, cold Wednesday afternoon. He spoke of Soweto, “There is nothing here” he said, only brew, bread and a few veggies.”  At the end of the interview we walked outside.  The air was dark with the charcoal fires that polluted the air.  “I wonder,” he said, if we will ever be able to get out of this air.”  We spoke of his most famous patient, Nelson Mandela and I asked him what he thought of reports that he was in a Cape Town hospital being treated for Tuberculosis. “I hope we will soon see him again.  It has been so long. I have wondered, some time, if he would ever come out.” (An excerpt from Tales from South Africa).

He spoke of governance issues. He spoke of the origins of the conflict with the state.  The battle at the national level started in approximately 1914 and ended in 1948.  At the local level there was very little.  We had some local advisory boards by different names.  They were sounding boards of sorts.  In the 1970s, community councils were elected. There was no talk of giving them legislative power.

Back in the 1950s, non-European committees controlled power.  The townships in those days fell under the city.

In the 1970s, the state concluded they needed a black bureaucracy.  There were pressures from Soweto in 1976. By 1977, the idea of a council for various territories became the model for the country. As late as 1979, we were willing to be part of the system.  They rejected the proposal of the Committee of Ten (which he chaired).

By the early 1980s, some in government had concluded that if we had representative government at the local level we would lose interest in the national level.  However, by then we had rejected Black Local Authorities because there was no representation at the provincial or national level.

He noted the Mavuso argument that blacks could run the country from the local level but for most local government was just window dressing. Soweto never did have much authority.  Real authority has always been based in the hands of the seconded officials from the Administration Boards.

We talked about Soweto.  Soweto was linked to Johannesburg.  That was firm.  We would never accept a municipality of Soweto. The key is that Soweto is part of Johannesburg. According to the law, there can be no investment in Soweto.  There is only brew, bread, veggies and immediately consumable goods. There is no way that the townships can be made into anything. We are not even able to have public meetings in Soweto.

We might have a borough system, but on a city wide basis. He notes the possibility of five divisions within the city.  Now however the goal is representation on the city council.  Regional Service Councils are an issue. Only a small amount of money comes in from them. We need to regain access to our tax base.  68% of taxes come from blacks. Regional Services Councils will never be the vehicle for change because of the fact that they are based on race.

He quotes Nigel Mandy saying that 70% of taxes are collected by the CBD and 70% of that money is used to subsidize the northern part of the country. We also need to collect taxes from the mines he stated. He notes in passing the drop in real wages in South Africa from the 1970-1978  period.

Government is in the towns, he argued, not in the homelands.  The issues are infrastructure and the taking power back from the “young men in Mafeking, in the Bop. Homeland.  Regions are at the heart of the old idea of South Africa plus the homelands, plus the BLS countries plus Namibia. It would be a greater homelands systems. That was the original idea of the Federation. Ideas of regionalism have always been around.

We talked of the potential of working with Inkatha and its relationship with the National Party.  It is too late now.  Ten years ago they might have gotten away with it.  The conflict in Natal is now about the take-over of the townships of Durban.  The ANC he said has a powerful following in Natal.

He does have some admiration for well educated bureaucrats in the homelands.  The South African government however has no vision.  There is no strategy; no vision for the future.  There is a dormant quality to National Party thinking. In their own minds they have abandoned apartheid but don’t know what comes next. The Nats are not forthcoming about a strategy.

We accept that the rights of individuals need to be protected by not group rights.

They talk of a National State Council but the pressures will continue.  The pressures include trade union pressure, community pressure and international pressures.  These will result in a negotiations process and a mixed economy.


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