CHOTA MOTALA : a biography of political activism in the KwaZulu-Natal Midlands by Goolam Vahed

Mohammed Moosa ‘Chota’ Motala (1921-2005): Notes for Discussion at 1860 Heritage Centre, 20 October 2018

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Rob Haswell, the then Msunduzi municipal manager, noted in 2008 that Pietermaritzburg, a city with strong links to Gandhi, Mandela, Paton and Luthuli does not have a historical treatise which details these links… No other South African city has such a rich tapestry of imposed rule which cuts across racial, cultural, and religious differences. How was this flame of moral and political justice kindled and kept alive in our city? How did it endure all that colonialism and apartheid could unleash? Many now despair, as if rainbow coalitions are just a myth of the nineties. If our city cannot produce the new flag bearers, which South African city can? These questions surely point to the fact that our city’s rich history needs to be understood fully.

The past decade has seen the publication of histories of health, sport, segregation, political violence in Pietermaritzburg, as well as biographies of Peter Brown and a doctoral dissertation on Harry Gwala. Earlier this year I published a biography of Dr Chota Motala and in this talk, will give you a brief outline of his life and contribution in the fields of health and politics to this city in particular and South Africa more generally.

Dr Mohammed Moosa ‘Chota’ Motala was born in Dundee on 14 June 1921 to Fatima and Moosa, who was running a small retail store in rural Talana. Motala lost his father when he was just thirteen and a student at the Dundee Government Indian School. The business subsequently went bankrupt and young Motala was considering joining a relative as a shop assistant when fate intervened in the shape of M.I. Meer, a maternal relative and editor of the Indian Views newspaper. Meer had interacted with Motala during his visits to Northern Natal to raise funds for his newspaper, and had been impressed by boy’s inquiring mind. He took him to Durban to continue his schooling at Sastri College, the school named eponymously after the first Indian Agent General in South Africa, Sir Srinivasa Sastri, who instigated its establishment. This intervention would dramatically alter the course of Motala’s life.

The new environment proved a crucible for the teenager. The 1930s were a time of intense political activity in Durban as young Indians entered the industrial sector and many became unionised and joined the Communist Party. They formed the core support of the movement that would ultimately radicalise Indian politics in the province under Monty Naicker in 1945.

Sastri College drew the brightest Indian learners from across the country and many became highly politicised here. I.C. Meer, Motala’s relative and contemporary, recalled that ‘Sastri College became identified with the new spirit in the community – to uphold human dignity and oppose all forms of artificial barriers. This dominating spirit was reflected in many of its students who became important leaders in many branches of the life of our people.’ In 1937, young leftists like I.C. Meer, Dawood Seedat, who was imprisoned for opposing South Africa’s participation in the Second World War and was a treason trialist with Motala in 1956, poet H.L.E. Dhlomo, author Peter Abrahams, and A.W.G. Champion of the ANC, formed a Liberal Study Group. Motala attended its meetings and one of the first things he would do when he settled in Pietermaritzburg was to initiate a similar Study Group at his home.

Sastri College

The Meer household in which Motala lived, was full of animated debates, as family and friends engaged in serious political discussion, all encouraged to air their divergent views openly and passionately. Motala grew into a confident and assertive young man by the time he matriculated from Sastri in 1938. He wanted to pursue a career in law but his brother Saleh convinced him to study medicine instead. People of colour had limited tertiary level study options in South Africa because Afrikaans-language universities formally barred Black students, while the English-language Wits University and the University of Cape Town had strict quotas on the admittance of Black students, and even when admitted, they were excluded from social and sporting activities and from living on campus residences. Bruce Murray has written that Wits’ ‘doors were never much more than half open to Blacks’.

The University of Natal excluded Black students altogether though Mabel Palmer, an academic of Scottish origin, started a Non-European section of the university in 1936, initially offering a BA degree, with classes held at Sastri College and later at a warehouse in Lancers Road, Warwick Avenue, because the University Council did not want Black students to enter the main campus.

The earliest Indian doctors in Natal, such as Monty Naicker and Dr Goonam, were forced to study in the United Kingdom and in India. Motala spent eight years in India, from 1939 to 1948, completing his medical degree at the Grant Medical School in Bombay. He travelled to India in the company of fellow Dundee resident, and classmate at both Dundee Primary and Sastri College, Omar Essack.


Motala was an eager participant in the anti-colonial struggle in India. He became involved in student activism, which was spearheaded by the All-India Students Federation, formed in 1936 with a nationalist mission of securing independence from the British. Motala was Secretary of the Bombay Students’ Union from 1942 to 1945; activist in the Quit India Campaign, a civil disobedience movement launched in August 1942 in response to Gandhi’s call for immediate independence from the British; a delegate to the All India Students’ Federation in 1943; member of the INC from 1944 to 1947; and General Secretary of the Grant Medical College Gymkhana (equivalent to the Student Representative Council).

He was also active in sport, playing table tennis, badminton and cricket, a sport in which he represented the university. Motala graduated and had the degrees of Bachelor of Medicine and Bachelor of Surgery conferred on him by the University of Bombay on 7 August 1948. Within weeks of finalising their studies, Motala and Omar began the journey home, reaching the shores of Natal on 25 October 1948 on board the steamship Kampala.

It was a different South Africa that Motala returned to. D.F. Malan’s National Party had ousted Smuts from power and set out to implement its policy of Apartheid, which aimed to achieve the total racial segregation of South African society. It was underpinned by legislation that categorised South Africans into distinct legal racial categories, who were to live in racially defined residential areas, required them to operate businesses in designated zones, and prevented them from marrying outside their race group.

Racism and segregation had long been a feature of South African society but Motala argued that apartheid took racial thinking to a higher level by integrating aspects of Nazi ideology, which Afrikaner leaders embraced during their visits to Germany in the 1930s. He wrote that successive white regimes were seeking a solution to the question – ‘How best to solve the “native” problem?’ – And seeking an answer that would satisfy ‘white agriculture and mining interests in their quest for a continual supply of cheap labour’. Motala wrote that under Prime Minister D.F. Malan’s NP government the ideas of ‘the ultra-right fascist movement in Europe in the 1930s and early 1940s was now resonating in the corridors of power in Pretoria. The repression of the Non-European majority was bound to assume a brutality that was naked’.

Both Motala and Omar settled in Pietermaritzburg. Motala’s life in Pietermaritzburg spanned virtually the entire apartheid era. He arrived in the city a year after the National Party (NP) came to power in 1948 and was an important figure in the city’s history as a medical doctor, political activist, family man, and friend and foe to many until his death in 2005.

Motala initially opened a practice in Raisethorpe and Omar in West Street in the city centre. As their political involvement increased, they found it difficult to manage their respective practices and went into partnership in 1953, first in Longmarket Street and they later relocated to larger premises in Retief Street, which evolved into arguably the city’s best-known medical practice. Over time, the practice expanded to include a number of partners who, at different times, included Vasu Chetty, B. Harryparsad, N.M. Goga, Mohammed Cassimjee, Krish Moodley, Iqbal Motala, and R. Lalbahadoor.

They were all highly skilled medical doctors, and their practice played a crucial role in a context of limited public facilities under the burden of apartheid. They helped to improve access to, and quality of, health care for the poor in Pietermaritzburg, and in this way perhaps even contributed to the overall welfare of the community. The doctors reflected on the challenges of practicing in a context where most patients were poor and public services were limited. The doctors made house calls until midnight, attending to patients who were too old or too poor to get to the surgery. When faced with emergencies, they would sometimes drive them to hospitals in Durban in their own cars as there were limited hospital beds in Pietermaritzburg for Black people.

Led by Motala himself, these doctors displayed ethical and political priorities rooted in an innate sense of social justice. The caregiving ethos of the practice was visible to many. Yusuf Bhamjee and Yunus Carrim described Motala as ‘a doctor in the old tradition. It was not for him the five-minute consultation and immediate prescription. Rather, he engaged with his patients, counselled them, got to know their extended families.’

Motala was troubled by changes in the practice of medicine over the course of his lifetime. Speaking on the role of family practitioners in 1987, he emphasised that there was a close relationship between people’s health and their social and economic circumstances. He expressed concern about specialisation. While this affirmed ‘exciting advances’ in the medical field, there was a deterioration in doctor-patient relations and higher costs to patients. The ‘art of healing’, he said, was becoming ‘impersonal’. He was critical of privatisation, which made health care ‘a commodity to be bought by the consumer who must have money’. Motala was adamant that ‘health care must never be seen as a commodity, not even a privilege. It is a basic human right of all members of any society.’ This is a sentiment that most of us can attest too when we are faced with astronomical bills.

Motala was instrumental in reviving the Natal Indian Congress (NIC) branch in Pietermaritzburg from the time he was elected chairperson in 1950, with the likes of S.B. Mungal, A.S. Chetty, S.B. Maharaj, and Omar Essack. While he was regarded by some of his contemporaries as an intellectual he himself saw that politics was “on the ground” and joined with ordinary working class people. The Pietermaritzburg NIC branch grew its membership and forged alliances with local ANC, Communist Party, Liberal Party, and trade union branches.

Motala also established a Study Group at his home at 433 Boom Street where talks were given by academics and students from the local University of Natal as well as visitors to the city. In this tightening of apartheid’s geography, Motala helped to cross racial boundaries. Nelson Mandela used the Motala home as his base in the Midlands, while Walter Sisulu occasionally sat through the night absorbed in political discussion with eager activists. It was also here that planning for some of the protest campaigns in the Midlands took place.

The NIC forged close relations with the local African National Congress (ANC) branch, led by people like Archie Gumede, Harry Gwala, Moses Mabhida and A. B. Majola, as well as with Liberal Party members like Peter Brown, Leslie and Pessa Weinberg and Harold Strachan.

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Shortly after the Defiance Campaign of 1952, Motala was elected joint chairperson, with Baba Gumede, of the Natal Midlands Committee of the CoP, which sought to ascertain what people wanted included in the proposed Freedom Charter. Motala was especially close to Albert Luthuli, whom he described 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 CoP where the Freedom Charter was adopted.

On 5 December 1956, Motala was arrested for treason and was transferred to Johannesburg in the same aeroplane as Archie Gumede and Albert Luthuli. The trial lasted five years in all, but charges against Motala were dropped in 1959. Although this was a difficult time for him on a personal and professional level, he would later reflect that he had some ‘wonderful times’ with the likes of Walter Sisulu, Nelson Mandela, Oliver Tambo, Z. K. Matthews, and Albert Luthuli. Trialists were however affected by loss of income, which placed a huge burden on many despite support from international funding agencies. Motala was fortunate to have supportive partners in the medical practice.

The treason trial years were a period of heightened activism, which included the potato boycott, women’s beerhall protests, and strikes at the Eddels shoe factory. Following the Sharpeville massacre of 21 March 1960, which was due to the PAC organising an anti-pass march, the state banned both the ANC and PAC. Motala, and several thousand other activists, were detained for a period of five months. The All-In Africa Conference of 25–26 March 1961 firmly established the city’s place in future narratives of South African resistance history.

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Motala on the extreme right, Mandela and Dadoo are seen in the back.

Treason trial

A few months later, however, South Africa became a Republic in May 1961. By this time, many in the Congress Alliance began to question the efficacy of nonviolent resistance, as the State was becoming ever more ruthless and met every African attempt at peaceful protest with force. In July 1961, the national executive of the ANC and the TIC/NIC met to discuss the issue and according to oral recollections, younger activists were adamant that non-violent resistance had run its course. The meeting agreed that Mandela would establish MK as an independent organisation, while the ANC would remain committed to non-violent resistance. Luthuli remained a principled supporter of non-violence and was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1961. In December of that year, Luthuli was handed the Nobel Peace Prize at a ceremony in Oslo on 10 December 1961, while MK announced its presence to the world with a series of coordinated attacks on 16 December 1961.

One of the most important issues facing Black South Africans was the government-instituted violence of group areas. As Anthony Lemon points out, the GAA ‘exemplified the fundamental tenet of apartheid ideology that incompatibility between ethnic groups is such that contact between them leads to friction, and harmonious relations can be secured only by minimizing points of contact.’ Group areas, it can be argued without risk of hyperbole, terminated the possibility of creating an ‘open pluralistic society’.

In discussing the Act, Motala made clear that the Natives Land Act and Natives (Urban Areas) Act had already removed the African presence from the city and this explained why Indians were the main victims of group areas in Pietermaritzburg. Motala argued that the Act ‘entrenched European interests at the expense of non-European interests for the purpose of the maintenance of white domination . . . Non-European people must bear almost all the losses’. Motala emphasised the human suffering that would result from social engineering: the fear, insecurity, uncertainties, which was social, economic, and spiritual.

Motala was served with a five years banning order in 1963, which restricted him to the Pietermaritzburg area. The Congress movement suffered a fatal blow in 1964 in what came to be known as the Rivonia Trial, where Mandela, Ahmed Kathrada, Walter Sisulu, Govan Mbeki and the others were sentenced to life imprisonment on Robben Island

The anti-apartheid movement in the 1960s was handicapped by bannings, exiles, imprisonment, denial of passports, and authoritarian laws that shut down all forms of opposition. Motala’s banning led to social isolation as he was forced to withdraw from the humdrum of public activity. Motala was fortunate that he was allowed to continue working which meant that he was not totally isolated, while his family remained an important instrument of support

The political situation changed in the early 1970s with the emergence of the Black Consciousness Movement under the leadership of Steve Biko, strikes by workers following the 1973 Durban strikes, and student activism especially after the Soweto Rebellion of 1976, which led to a sea change in the political climate. Motala was of the view that the apartheid regime had developed a false sense of security. He wrote retrospectively in 1991 that ‘the decade of the Soweto Uprising … was the decade during which the Nats came to suspect that there can never be stability and progress in our country until the legitimate aspirations of all South Africans are satisfied.’

After Soweto, opposition to homeland leaders intensified; more recruits joined MK; the labour movement grew in strength once the State allowed limited unionism; student activism could not be quelled; and Africans were a permanent presence in white areas. The apartheid state of exception could not be sustained.

During the seventies, Motala continued being involved in community activities and quietly mentored younger activists when the NIC was revived in 1971. A.S. Chetty was elected chairperson of the NIC’s Pietermaritzburg branch.

There was a close link between Motala’s political and professional careers and he got involved in several cases in the 1970s and 1980s where prisoners died in apartheid prisons, and where the white medical fraternity colluded with the regime. This happened directly in the case of Dr Hoosen Haffajee of Pietermaritzburg, who died in police detention in 1977, and indirectly following the death of Steve Biko.

Haffejee was born in Pietermaritzburg, qualified as a dentist abroad, and returned in South Africa in 1976. He was working at Durban’s King George V Hospital when he was arrested on 3 August 1977 by the Special Branch under the Terrorism Act and found hanging from a grille door at the Brighton Beach police station some hours later. While the pathologists’ report stated that Haffajee’s body sustained sixty wounds on his back, knees, arms and head, Magistrate Blunden ruled on 15 March 1978 that Haffajee died of suicide by hanging and that the ‘other injuries found on the dentist’s body were due to third degree methods, were pure speculation unsupported by evidence.’

While the medical and security establishments brushed aside the death of Haffajee, the death in detention of BC leader Steve Biko on 12 September 1977 created an international storm. The moral faltering in professional practices on the part of white doctors led Black doctors, including Motala, to form alternative organisations for health care professionals. The National Medical and Dental Association (NAMDA) was formed on 5 December 1982. The immediate impetus was the outcome of the inquest into Biko’s death, but more broadly it was inspired by the impact of detention without trial on prisoners and inequitable apartheid health care provision.

Anti-apartheid activism in the 1980s received impetus through the global Release Mandela Campaign, ongoing education boycotts, the formation of the UDF in 1983, which mustered mass internal resistance to apartheid, and the mobilisation of millions of workers by COSATU. This period also witnessed sustained urban unrest following the ANC’s declaration of a “people’s war” in 1985, that made town councils inoperative and the country more generally ungovernable. MK guerrillas began to infiltrate the country more easily with the demise of apartheid-friendly regimes in Mozambique and the former Rhodesia

Motala was once again publicly active, speaking from podiums during the campaigns for community and political rights. He found a natural home in the UDF, because its membership crossed racial lines and it embraced the values of the Freedom Charter he so treasured. Motala was a firm non-collaborationist, who refused to entertain the debate about participating in government structures and supported a forceful anti-SAIC and later anti-tricameral campaign in the Midlands.

The government responded brutally to the upsurge in resistance. It declared a partial State of Emergency on 22 July 1985 and re-imposed a more draconian one the following year. Thousands of activists were arrested during this period, including Motala, though he was released early on grounds of health.

From the mid-1980s Motala and other activists in Pietermaritzburg were preoccupied with political conflict in the Midlands that pitted supporters of the IFP against those of the UDF. The conflict also involved so-called third force elements such as the police and members of the South African Defence Force (SADF). The causes of the violence are multiple and complex. They included the shortage of housing, struggles over scarce water resources, increases in rent and transportation costs, and the proposed transfer of the authority of townships from the city council to the KwaZulu homeland, as well as the State’s own struggles which presented openings for black groups to increase their power base. Around 3 500 people died and more than 50 000 were displaced between 1985 and 1990.

The situation appeared hopeless and none other than Mandela wrote to Motala from Victor Verster Prison on 10 January 1989:

Pietermaritzburg has featured so much recently that one may be tempted to think that it is the only city in the country, and the breeding ground for all the sins of the world. I have sent numerous messages to my colleagues inside and outside the country, urging that the most leading figures from all sides should set aside policy and personal differences and meet urgently to stop the mutual slaughter before it became endemic. The persistence of the violence, despite the combined efforts of all concerned, would be a different matter. But from this distance it would appear that organisational differences are an important contributory factor. It is an extremely disturbing situation.

Motala’s Retief Street practice was the referral point for victims of political violence as certain medical facilities were no-go zones for UDF supporters. Edendale Hospital was avoided by the UDF as young comrades who went there for assistance feared being beaten up. The doctors in Motala’s practice spent long hours removing the pellets and bandaging the wounds of victims. Hundreds of patients were treated without charge, including those with gunshot wounds that needed surgical treatment.

Support for the NIC from the late 1970s was based in part on service delivery issues and the 1980s protest climaxed in the non-racial march on 30 October 1989 by 10 000 people to the City Hall a memorandum of grievances was presented to the mayor. There was support from civic, worker and teacher organisations, who rejected the LACs and urged the election of a single non-racial council, which should levy equitable rates and repeal the GAA. These ‘bread and butter issues around rates, rent and water’ that affected people’s daily lives were crucial for overall political mobilisation in the region. Not much has changed at the present time.

Towards the end of October 1989, Motala received a surprise invitation from Nelson Mandela to visit him at Victor Verster Prison. Mandela had been moved from Robben Island to Pollsmoor Prison in 1982 and then to Victor Verster in 1988. By this time, the South African government was in crisis. The country was besieged by political violence, which made large parts of it ungovernable and raised the cost of maintaining the status quo. Economically, the country faced problems such as a skills shortage, increasingly higher levels of taxation, high rates of unemployment, a drop in the price of gold, devaluation of the currency and lack of capital inflow because of economic sanctions. The collapse of the Berlin Wall in 1989 put an end to the communist bogey that had partly influenced Western support for the apartheid regime. The ANC and PAC, for their part, were not in a position to overthrow the apartheid regime. A negotiated settlement had thus become inevitable.

The Anti-Apartheid Movement (AAM) in Britain had successfully projected Mandela as a global icon and de facto leader of the liberation movement. Mandela had been meeting in secret with the NP from June 1986. Mandela met with Botha in July 1989. Botha was replaced by F.W. de Klerk as president of South Africa in September 1989. While Botha refused to countenance African majority rule, De Klerk moved quickly to bring about a negotiated settlement.

In the months that followed the July 1989 meeting with Botha, Mandela was allowed to meet with members of the Mass Democratic Movement and representatives of South African business, government and civic organisations. It was in this context that Motala visited Mandela on 11 November 1989, and discussed the past, present and future.

1990 was bittersweet for Motala. When the South African parliament opened on 2 February 1990, De Klerk unbanned all political organisations, including the ANC, PAC and SACP, and set Mandela free on 11 February 1990. Protracted negotiations ultimately ushered in South Africa’s first democratic government in 1994.

When the ANC was unbanned in 1990, Motala was elected chairperson of the ANC Northern A branch. His political life was to undergo a new chapter. He was almost 70, still working and in fairly good health as he anticipated with excitement imminent political change. Motala was involved in the CODESA talks that paved the way for the non-racial democracy in South Africa but suffered a heart attack in 1993 and did not serve as a member of parliament.


In revisiting Motala’s writings as South Africa was transitioning to a non-racial democracy, the prescience and relevance of his arguments are striking. Motala’s speeches in the period leading up to the April 1994 elections reflect how deeply Motala thought about the transition, the kind of society he wanted to see emerge and how he anticipated some of the problems currently besieging the country.

Motala also chaired the Gandhi Memorial Committee, which had been instigated by another Pietermaritzburg stalwart, Dasrath Bundhoo, in 1989, and eventually led to the building of a statue of Gandhi opposite the old Colonial Building, once the government headquarters that decreed Gandhi should not be allowed in the first-class compartment of the train in 1893. The bronze statue was unveiled on 6 June 1993. Future South African president Nelson Mandela and Archbishop Desmond Tutu were among those who attended the unveiling of the statue.

At the unveiling ceremony, Motala alluded to the many problems facing the country but was optimistic that they could be overcome:

This centenary commemoration is upon us at a most important moment – the transition of our own country to a new democratic society. The last mile or two has yet to be walked. Reconciliation and the immense problems of reconstruction challenge us as never before. Many of our young people bred in the tragic 70s and 80s and already scarred, the thousands returned from exile with nothing to come back to, the legions of the unemployed, the landless and the homeless will face a future, some with great deal of trepidation, others filled with high expectations and yet others filled with despair. Let us heed Gandhi’s advice that ‘nothing happens in society that is outside us’. We are responsible directly or indirectly for all that affects all our compatriots. The suffering of our fellows must involve our own suffering and service. Can we overcome the destructive forces still residing within our society? We are convinced that Gandhi would say ‘yes’ without hesitation. It is this belief that fills us with hope and the Gandhi Memorial Committee invites all those committed to these ideals to participate in the monumental task of reconstruction of our wounded and bleeding society.

Wednesday 27 April 1994 marked the first time that all South Africans were allowed to vote in a general election. Millions queued in long lines to cast their vote over a three-day period. Motala and Rabia voted on the first morning at the Arthur Blaxall School for the Blind, close to their Mountain Rise home. According to Rabia Motala, they got to the voting booth ‘very early. Chota was thrilled. There was a large crowd, all excited. For Chota it was the culmination of his life’s work.’ Indeed, this was the case for many of his generation. Rabia noted that this also led him to be wary, remarking ‘but he was worried too. I remember Chota saying that the easy part was making speeches, the hard work starts now.’

The ANC and its tripartite alliance partners, the SACP and COSATU, swept to victory with just over 62% of the vote and formed a Government of National Unity (GNU) with De Klerk’s NP (24%) and Buthelezi’s IFP (10%). Nelson Mandela became South Africa’s first black president.

Meanwhile Motala, on medical advice related to his heart condition, had given up general practice in May 1993 but continued working, as medical officer in charge of the Industrial Council of the Leather Industry of South Africa’s Health Care Clinic established in Pietermaritzburg; and from 1994 to 1996 he was a part-time assessor for the interim National Medical and Dental Council of South Africa. He was also appointed as honorary lecturer in Family Medicine, University of Natal from 1995.

mee n chota
Rabia Motala, Fatima Meer, Chota Motala and Ismail Meer
Ambassador to Morocco

The Pietermaritzburg Municipality awarded Motala civic honours in 1997 for improv­ing the quality of life for the sick and the poor in the city and for his role in community affairs and the liberation struggle.

Motala was honoured when then President Mandela asked him in April 1996 to become ambassador to Morocco. Motala accepted the honour and served as ambassador from November 1996 to 1999, but returned because of ill-health. Motala’s grandchildren Aalia, Ziyad and Raees occupied a central part of the last decade of his life. In speaking to them, it was apparent that Motala derived great pleasure from doing such things as playing cricket with them, reading, helping with homework, and attending their school events.

Motala also had time to reflect on the post-apartheid period. He was under no illusions about the difficulties that lay ahead, telling his interviewer Ruth Lundie in 2001 that the task ‘of destroying a particular system [was] different from building a new society’. He pointed to the many problems which were ‘the legacy of apartheid which groomed us and which lasted, well literally for decades.’ He discussed at the length the issues of higher education, land redistribution, and gross inequalities in wealth, upon which the very survival of democracy depended.

Motala also identified another ‘crucially important factor’ to Ruth Lundie and that was psychological. He said that that was, ‘in the psyche of many South Africans, frustrations, resentments, anger, these are not visible but they are there… We haven’t moved from where we were 50 or 60 years ago on these matters… and on things like gender sensitivity … because there was no particular progress made in the field of any sort of human rights.’

Motala was disappointed that whites had not shown sufficient remorse about the apartheid past. He wrote that ‘oscillating between the pleasant feelings generated by our newly achieved democracy and the frustrations caused by our many, many as yet unfulfilled expectations . . . many blacks – African, coloured, Indian – hoped that whites would show some contrition.’

Motala emphasised that non-racialism was non-negotiable in building a new society, ‘not for reasons of expediency but out of principle because it is truly the best appeal for nation building – a united, democratic, caring and sharing South Africa’. In view of the ethnic, linguistic, racial, cultural and religious ‘strands in our population, the task facing the ANC was how to respond to each sector sensitively’. He urged ‘the creation of a new order’ in which people could be ‘Zulu, Xhosa, Sotho, Afrikaner, English, Christian, Hindu, Jewish, Muslim and whatever, celebrating this diversity, [while] we proclaim to the world at large that we are South Africans, one and all’.

In January 2004, Motala, almost 83, suffered a severe setback. He was admitted to hospital after undergoing a stroke. This was a difficult time for him, despite outstanding care from doctors, physiotherapists, nurses and his wife Rabia. As Bhamjee and Carrim record, ‘Being such an active person, Motala found the restrictions of a stroke immensely frustrating … His impatience with the stroke symbolised his life: one of ceaseless activity that would not be bound by restrictions.’ Dr Motala was almost 84 when he passed away after a long illness, at his Mountain Rise home on Friday, 20 May 2005.

passed away

He left behind his wife Rabia, who was a well-known activist in her own right; son Irshad, educationist, activist, and member of the Gandhi Memorial Committee; and daughter Shireen, a Senior Director of the Postgraduate School, University of Johannesburg.

The ANC organised a memorial service for Motala at the Pietermaritzburg City Hall on 11 June 2005. The three-hour long event included a list of distinguished speakers, such as Sibusiso Ndebele; long-time trade unionist and Pietermaritzburg based community leader Dasarath Bundhoo; deputy foreign affairs minister, Aziz Pahad; COSATU regional secretary, Zet Luzipho; Sibongile Mkhize; Colin Gardner; Monika Wittenberg of PACSA; Motala’s partner B. Harry Parsad; ANC MP Yunus Carrim; Walter Sisulu’s daughter Beryl Simelane; Motala’s daughter Shireen; and Robben Island veterans Ahmed Kathrada, Billy Nair and Anton Xaba.

Together, they paid appropriate tribute to Motala’s contribution as a medical doctor, family man, and political activist, which made a lasting impression on this city.

As part of the heritage project, post-apartheid South Africa has witnessed the biography of places bring reconfigured through the renaming of streets, buildings, and towns after antiapartheid and anticolonial figures. This is to both honour them and ensure that South African cities reflect the new political dispensation.

Old Greytown Road, the main arterial route to suburbs to the north of the Pietermaritzburg CBD, was renamed the Dr Chota Motala Road. Speaker of Msunduzi municipality, Colin Gardner, who knew Motala through his involvement in the Liberal Party in the 1950s and as an activist in the UDF in the 1980s, in announcing the renaming of a road in Motala’s honour, stated:

That misty road that winds itself up to the Northern air, will now forever be associated with Chota. Every time we drive and walk along that road, we should remember how blessed we have been to have had Chota Motala living and working among us . . . There is still much to be done to heal South Africa and we must be inspired by Dr Motala. I thank God for the gift of this wonderful man.

The road is a link to many parts of the city. In a way this fits his life-story for he was a man who ranged beyond the confines of his surgery and played an important role in linking struggles in racially segregated townships into a powerful and ultimately victorious movement. A flyover pass through the intersection of Dr Chota Motala Road and the national N3 road officially opened as the Dr Chota Motala Interchange in February 2014. At the opening ceremony, the then National Minister of Transport, Dipuo Peters, described it as a fitting tribute to Dr. Motala in light of his ‘history and his love and care for the people of South Africa, and especially this part of the country.’

Dr Motala became synonymous with Pietermaritzburg, due to his immense contribution to the life of the city. Yusuf Bhamjee and Yunus Carrim wrote in an obituary that his death marked the passing of an institution, rather than an individual: ‘just as this country will never have another Nelson Mandela, Pietermaritzburg will never have another Chota Motala.’

Written By Goolam Vahed


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