Black business pioneer, community leader, altruistic medical practitioner, involved in several education initiatives, former secretary-general of the ANC Youth League, multimillionaire. In the first part of his long life, Dr Motlana played a central role in the internal resistance that led to the liberation of South Africa, and then co-founded and built up the black empowerment company New Africa Investments (Nail), with a market capitalisation of over R10 billion and profits exceeding R300 million by 1999.

He has been dogged by accusations of exploiting black empowerment for the sake of self-enrichment, pardy because of expectations raised in the mission statement of Nail: "Having at last achieved political liberation, black South Africans now seek economic empowerment. Our long-term goal is to roll back poverty, to generate jobs and to attain a standard of living commensurate with the resource base of our country".

What one thinks of Dr Modana depends on one's economic point of view. He himself deals with the charges brusquely, not so much by denial as by turning it sideways: "Don't talk to me about black empowerment because I don't come from that bloody genre. I come from a time when it was impossible and I did it. That's where I come from, not from some bloody political patronage," he was quoted as saying in 1994.

He likes to state that he has never made any bones about his intentions: "Whenever anybody goes into business, he goes for himself. Anyone who pretends to the contrary is a liar or a fool."And the market has always been his gospel: "I may not be able to enrich the poor people in Soweto but the shareholders must get a fair return and the hope is that one can form companies downstream."

He has condemned the "culture of entitlement", by which the previously disadvantaged claim restitution without giving anything in return, and encouraged South Africans to "stop toyitoyiing and get to work". He has cracked the whip when necessary: "While productivity levels are low and there is a lack of work ethic and discipline, the country will not get its act together." His somewhat old-fashioned values were apparent from his inaugural address as Technikon SA chancellor: "If the old ethic of respect for a job well done can be re-established, then the need to provide quality of life for self and family will become part of our national pride and the economic reconstruction of the country will take care of itself."

But patronising attitudes towards black empowerment got short shrift too: "Sometimes I get mad when people think I started being involved in business because the ANC was unbanned and Nelson Mandela got out of prison. People thought I got where I am because of affirmative action, but I say to hell with that, I got here because of hard work."

Born in poverty in the village of Marapyane, 128 km northwest of Pretoria, Nthato Harrison Motlana, a Tswana speaker, has memories of tending cattle as a boy and going to the Lutheran missionary school where he got an education "light years ahead of Bantu Education". He was used to "getting six of the best" from his schoolmaster, instilling the belief that "a little corporal punishment never hurt anyone".

As a politically minded young man he joined the ANC Youth League and became its secretary-general in 1952. He took part in organising the Defiance Campaign of 1952 and stood trial with Walter Sisulu and Nelson Mandela in the "Sisulu and nineteen others" trial. He was banned twice, detained without trial twice and convicted for "offences against the security of the state" twice for five and nine months respectively. He was denied a passport for 32 years.

He obtained a BSc degree from the University of Fort Hare and won a bursary to study medicine at the Medical School of the University of the Witwatersrand, as part of a quota of black students. He qualified in 1954 and opened a practice in Soweto, one of only two private practices, which he ran for almost forty years, initially charging his patients R2 and later giving his services for free. He was the family doctor of Walter Sisulu and Nelson Mandela, Desmond Tutu and thousands of others, and his practice became a haven for the wounded and injured during the uprisings of the seventies and eighties.

With other parents such as Winnie Mandela and Aubrey Mokoena he founded the Black Parents Association (BPA) in response to the 1976 Soweto school riots. The association formed a liaison group between the students and the authorities.

From these and other initiatives eventually grew the Soweto Committee of Ten, of which he became the chairman. The committee was at the forefront of community politics in the post-1976 era and steered resistance against apartheid into more productive channels.

He later founded the Soweto Civic Association, which focused on local government. During the State of Emergency of 1986 he was part of the Soweto Parents Education Crisis Committee, which travelled the country, and acted as a mechanism for articulating student views, applying damage control and engaging with the state. He became a founding member of the National Educational Crisis Committee which lobbied for a single department of education and equal resources for all.

Though discouraging bond boycotts, he supported rent boycotts of government-owned housing as a political tool. After the mid-nineties he also rejected rent boycotts, "which run counter to the spirit of the Masakhane (self-empowerment) campaign".

He was a founding member of the Black Community Programme (BCP), the goal of which was to empower blacks economically. One of its first projects was a people's clinic in the Ciskei.

His business career grew out of his medical practice. After various financially unsuccessful sorties, motivated by the success of Asian and European immigrant entrepreneurs, he started Phaphama ("Wake up!") Africa Commercial Enterprises in 1970. It traded in uniforms for schools, nurses and the police, but soon had to close for lack of capital and management skills. The next venture needed five years to secure the land and a further three years to raise the capital: Lesedi Clinic, the first black owned, private up-market hospital in the country. He was also the founder chairman of the 80 000 member Sizwe Medical Aid, the first black owned medical aid scheme in South Africa.

One of his major projects is the Get Ahead Foundation, started in 1984 together with community leaders such as advocate Dikgang Moseneke, Archbishop Desmond Tutu, Snowy Mashingo and Don MacRobert to address unemployment through the informal sector. In 1996 Get Ahead split into two separate companies: Get Ahead Financial Services (GAFS) and Get Ahead Development (GAD).

The financial services branch operates a stokvel loans scheme. Don Mac-Robert, managing director, has claimed that for every R500 lent by Get Ahead, one job is created and that the development has created or sustained 50 000 jobs in one year. Training is offered in disciplines such as plumbing, motor mechanics, welding, bookkeeping and marketing. A primary health-care programme, endorsed and supported by the Department of National Health, has a major impact in communities where it is being run.

He was a founder member of the National Association of Co-operative Societies of Southern Africa (Nacssa) an umbrella body for a range of burial societies, stokvels, women's clubs and mehodisano clubs. Its assets were valued at R650 000.

After four years, in 1994, Nacssa was in financial trouble and core investors demanded their money back, disturbed by internal strife between Motlana and chief executive Sam Moufhe. Motlana's black empowerment company, New Africa Investments Limited (Nail), was listed on the Johannesburg Stock Exchange in 1994. As executive chairman Motlana built it up into a multibillion rand company within five years. His approach was to form strategic partnerships and alliances with established businesses with a view to transferring skills, know-how and ultimately power to black employees.

The first investment, made in 1992, was in Metropolitan Life, a thriving life insurance company, which had been successful in the black insurance market and where blacks had progressed into management. The Afrikaner owned Sanlam, one of South Africa's most powerful insurance companies, sold 30% of Metropolitan Life to Motlana and a consortium of black investors.

Nail next bought The Sowetan, the biggest daily newspaper in the country. It also acquired control of a 20% stake in MTN, one of two cellular networks in South Africa. In alliance with the National Empowerment Consortium (NEC), Nail acquired a big slice of Johnnie, created from the unbundling by Anglo American of Johannesburg Consolidated Investments.

Nail's collaboration with NEC, which to a large extent represents trade union power, was seen as a form of black empowerment that could filter down to the ordinary black person. One of the major achievements of Nail was the formation of the African Merchant Bank (AMB). Motlana contributed some of his personal money to a start-up capital of R7 million to launch the bank, which grew to become the most important empowerment merchant and investment bank in the country.

Eventually Nail was clouded in scandal when a plan to reward four executives with share options worth R130 million led to acrimony and division among shareholders. When white co-founder Jonty Sandler was asked to resign, Motlana followed suit, displaying a characteristic lifelong loyalty towards his friends and closest associaties.

Living a high-profile public life, Motlana has never avoided controversy. He has engaged in debates with people such as traditional healers and journalists. As a qualified medical practitioner he has denounced the former, calling some of their beliefs "mumbo jumbo" and dismissed as "nonsensical" the idea that their art came from the gods, saying that these beliefs are a legacy of his people being denied access to proper education.

He has declared his belief that black journalists are better equipped to cover events in neigbouring countries than their white compatriots, contending that black journalists are more sensitive to the predicament of black people andmore able to empathise with their problems by getting closer to them, both physically and psychologically. He has bemoaned the paucity of coverage by South African newspapers of events in Africa: "Our children know more about New York than Lagos." Still an ANC man, he has been accused of meddling with the editorial content of The Sowetan, a charge he has vehemently denied.

During the William Makgoba saga, when the Wits University deputy vice-chancellor was suspended after a spat among academics over doubts about his academic credentials, Motlana walked out of a Wits Council meeting which refused to lift the suspension.

He has to be one of South Africa's busiest committee people, spending much of his time redressing the iniquities of apartheid. As chairman of IDASA, the Institute for Democratic Alternatives in South Africa, he has committed himself to peaceful change in South Africa and dialogue with the whole community.

He was a founding member and chairman of the Advisory Council of Medical Education for South African Blacks which supports training through scholarships at South African universities and other training programmes. He was a founding member of the South African Medical Discussion Groups, an organisation of black doctors that addresses health issues affecting blacks.

He is a member of the Educational Opportunities Council, one of the largest bursary funds in the country, which administers scholarships for blacks at universities in South Africa and the USA. He was also a founder member of the Promat Board of Directors, a body dedicated to promoting better matriculation results for black students. He is a member of the board of the Equal Opportunities Council  one of the largest scholarship funds in the country.

He is a trustee of the Medical University of Southern Africa (Medunsa). Dr Motlana is Chancellor of Technikon South Africa as well as the University of the North West in Mafikeng. In 1989 he was the recipient of the Wits Alumni Honour Award, the highest award bestowed by Convocation to one of its members judged to have rendered exceptional service to the community   in his case, his service to the people of Soweto and his sense of vocation to the underprivileged of people of South Africa.

He has received an honorary LLD from Dartmouth USA, an LLD from Dennyse, USA and an MD from Medunsa. The South African Sunday Times Business Times named him one of the "Top Five Businessmen" of 1993.

His resignation as Nail chairman came at the end of a long, productive life. Dr Motlana has said that he wants to return to his roots as a medical doctor and get involved in medical care. The South African AIDS epidemic is causing a huge amount of suffering and is depleting the country financially, and this is where he will direct a great deal of his attention as the new millennium starts.


• This biography is a modified extract from the following source: Coetzee, C & Pienaar, H. (1999) “Nthato Harrison Motlana” from They Shaped our Century: The Most Influential South Africans of the Twentieth Century. Published by Human and Rousseau - p.364-368

Collections in the Archives