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SAMJ: South African Medical Journal

On-line version ISSN 2078-5135
Print version ISSN 0256-9574

SAMJ, S. Afr. med. j. vol.99 n.4 Pretoria Apr. 2009




Nthato Motlana (16/02/1925 - 30/11/2008)




The indefatigable Dr Nthato Motlana's important role in the South African liberation struggle has been well covered in the media. We wish to highlight his critical role in the success of Medical Education for South African Blacks (MESAB). MESAB was a private co-operative effort of South Africans and Americans that began in 1985 to increase the pitifully small number of South African black health professionals and thereby improve health care for the underserved black community. Dr Motlana saw this effort as preparation for a post-apartheid South Africa where blacks would play a meaningful role in leadership and in providing improved health care for all South Africans. In its 27-year history MESAB provided assistance to about 10 000 black individuals, enabling them to become health professionals and/or upgrade their skills. MESAB also introduced a pioneering mentor programme for disadvantaged students as well as providing support to advanced training in midwifery, rural outreach programmes, and training for the care of HIV/AIDS patients.

A founding Trustee of MESAB/South Africa, Dr Motlana served as Chairman for 15 years, leading a cross-section of highly respected health professionals. His participation, endorsement, and leadership in the dark days of apartheid lent credibility to the effort which was suspect at first both in the eyes of those who advocated 'liberation before education' and the South African apartheid regime. Nthato fervently advocated education as an instrument for overcoming prejudice and for personal advancement. He drew from his own history as a poor black boy taken under the wing of a white Jewish teacher who recognised and nurtured his talents, paying his fees. He twice stood trial with Mandela and others in 1952.

Although MESAB was not his first priority among his many other activities, we marvelled at the time he gave the organisation. He came to the USA on short notice and for remarkably short visits. His advocacy helped to persuade American donors like George Soros to contribute to MESAB. He kept a fearful schedule and slept little. When we asked how he could get by with so little sleep, with a smile he said, 'My grandmother told me I'll have plenty of time to sleep when I'm dead'.

His example was an inspiration to the young students and made them proud to be part of the 'MESAB family'. They were thrilled to meet him in person.

We cherished Nthato's friendship. When we first met almost 40 years ago, he was one of two black general practitioners in Soweto. We vividly recall our first visit to his surgery early one evening. A long line of patients waited outside. Inside, a single light bulb hanging from the ceiling illuminated his office.

Along with his acute and cogent comments on all matters of interest to us, he always brought a smile to our lives. We will never forget our pleasure in having Nthato and his wife, Zanele, visit us at home in Palo Alto, California.

Dr Nthato Motlana - a true hero! The world will miss him.


Joy and Herbert Kaiser
MESAB founders

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