Dr Nthato Motlana, who died recently, leaves a legacy that speaks volumes about where South Africa has been and what it is striving to become. In terms of his political role, Motlana's life speaks of humanitarian opposition to injustice and of a leadership approach that places the stress on its substance rather than the trappings of the leadership role.
Although he had been active in politics before, Motlana shot onto the national stage in 1976. He stepped up as a founder member of the Soweto Committee of Ten to coordinate a wider response and an effective follow-up to the Soweto uprising. He brought links to the broader anti-apartheid struggle; he enhanced those turbulent developments through his stature and focus; his clear, consistent and persuasive communication was a welcome complement to the anger and fervour on the ground.
Motlana paid a stiff price for taking on that leadership role. The state tried and convicted him, detained him without trial, banned him and denied him a passport for over 30 years.
The good doctor ranks among the most admirable and more exemplary nationalist leaders. His involvement was not informed by a desire for political power. He never interacted with others in a superior or domineering manner, was free of airs and graces, and when asked to speak at events – although he expected proper organisation – took part without putting forward a list of VIP-related requirements.
Motlana's passion for education was unquenchable; it pained him that the new South Africa had, by and large, not yet succeeded in bringing quality education to poor and black households. In a sense, he remained dissapointed and concerned that the education struggle he embraced so fervently had not been resolved. Quality education remained stubbornly inaccessible to all - a few got the strawberries and cream of private school education; a bigger number get the bread and cheese of former model C government schooling, but the mass of scholars - multiplied millions - get a type of schooling that includes a glut of poorly trained teachers, broken and absent facilities, budget shortfalls and consistently 'badly performing' schools.
Motlana worked exceptionally well in creating broad fronts – he instinctively understood how educational organisations, community organisation and faith-based organisations could and should work together around a common agenda. His easygoing and inclusive nature meant that – mercifully – he never added to the ego problems one sometimes encounters in multi-stakeholder collaborations. Although no socialist, he worked particularly well with trade union leaders. He could see the common ground, and the possibilities of building a force for change with them.
Long live Motlana's legacy!