Mahomed Motala was born in Dundee on 14 June 1921. In 1938 Motala matriculated at Sastri College and studied medicine in Bombay, India, from 1939. It was at the height of the Indian struggle for liberation against British colonialism. At Sastri College, Motala became involved in student politics. After qualifying as a medical doctor in 1947 and doing his internship, he returned to South Africa to set up a medical practice in Pietermaritzburg. He was the second Black doctor to do so.
Most of his patients came from the surrounding Black townships. The appalling conditions in which his patients lived, caused him to be involved in political activities. He often served the indigent without charging them. He was instrumental in reviving the Natal Indian Congress (NIC) branch in Pietermaritzburg. This was shortly after the Natal Indian Congress (NIC) had been taken over by a radical leadership under young militant Dr Monty Naicker. In 1950 Motala was elected chairperson of the local branch of the Natal Indian Congress. Together with S. B. Mungal, S. B. Maharaj, Omar Essack and others, he forged close relations with the local African National Congress (ANC) branch, led by Archie Gumede, Moses Mabhida and A. B. Majola.
He was elected joint chairperson, with Baba Gumede, of the Natal Midlands Committee of the Congress of the People, which mobilised the people to state their views on what should be in the Freedom Charter. During the preparations of the Congress of the People, Motala's house was used regularly for meetings by the leadership of the African National Congress, including Nelson Mandela and Walter Sisulu, with whom he became friends. Motala also knew Chief “Inkosi” Albert Luthuli and referred to him as a "very important mentor". In June 1955, Motala spoke on behalf of Luthuli, who was banned from the farewell function for the Durban delegates going to Kliptown for the Congress of the People.
In the early hours of 5 December 1956, ten security policemen raided his house in Pietermaritzburg and arrested him for treason. He was later transferred to Johannesburg with Gumede and Albert Luthuli to stand trial. The trip was so rough that the men wondered if the intention was to get rid of them. In Johannesburg, Motala was locked up in the Fort prison with other treason trialists, including Nelson Mandela. During the trial, Motala spent much of his time with Goolam and Amina Pahad, the parents of African National Congress ministers Aziz and Essop Pahad.
His medical partners managed to keep his practice going while he was on trial for a period of three years. However, the trial denied him an opportunity to see much of his family. He travelled once a month to Pitermaritzburg in his small Volkswagen, loaded with fellow trialists who also lived in the region. In 1959 the charges against him were dropped. Although he found the trial frustrating, he said he had "wonderful times" with Walter Sisulu, Nelson Mandela, Oliver Tambo, Z. K. Matthews, Luthuli and others.
After the Sharpeville massacre, Motala was detained for a period of five months. In 1963 he was served with a five years banning order, which restricted him to the Pietermaritzburg area. Late in the eighties, he was again detained under the state of emergency, only to be released on the grounds of ill-health. He was also part of the Release Mandela Campaign that visited him at Victor Verster prison in Paarl in 1989. With the unbanning of political organisations in 1990, Motala was elected chairman of the Pietermaritzburg Northern Areas Branch of the ANC. Between 1996 to 1999, Motala was appointed South African Ambassador to Morocco but he resigned from his position due to ill-health. He died on 25 May 2005 and is survived by his wife and two children.
Chris Barron (2005). Sunday Times: Obituary. 22 June 2005