About 300 guests attended the launch on UKZN’s Pietermaritzburg campus of the book Chota Motala: A Biography of Political Activism in the KwaZulu-Natal Midlands, written by Professor Goolam Vahed.

The Motala family – including Ms Rabia Motala, widow of the late Dr Mahomed Moosa (Chota) Motala – co-hosted the event with UKZN Press.

Guests and speakers lauded the book for filling a gap in the legacy of liberation heroes from smaller areas, and for recording the history of the fight for democracy in South Africa.

Programme director Mr Yunus Carrim welcomed guests, who included the families of Motala as well as those of Mr Harry Gwala, Mr AS Chetty, Mr Archie Gumede, and Albert Luthuli, and of other notable heroes involved in the fight for South Africa’s liberation.

The Minister of Cooperative Governance and Traditional Affairs Dr Zweli Mkhize, who wrote the foreword to the book, was the guest speaker.

Also present were the Minister of Public Enterprises Pravin Gordhan; Deputy Minister of Justice and Correctional Services, John Jeffery; Mr Truman Magubane; Msunduzi Mayor, Themba Njilo; KwaZulu-Natal Human Settlements and Public Works MEC Ravi Pillay, and the Head of the Gandhi-Luthuli Documentation Centre at UKZN, Mrs Zandile Qono Reddy.

‘This book is not just about Motala personally; it is also about the history of his times, and of the Indian community and broader Pietermaritzburg community,’ said Carrim.

‘More than most, Motala was a community activist who wove together his political and medical roles,’ said Carrim.

Carrim added that one could not understand Motala without his wife Rabia, known as Auntie Choti.

Speakers referred to Motala’s example to younger politicians and freedom fighters, his commitment to non-racialism and his care for the communities he treated.

Deputy Vice-Chancellor for Research at UKZN, Professor Deresh Ramjugernath, welcomed distinguished guests, family and friends, and noted the achievement of Vahed.

‘UKZN Press is fulfilling our desire to be the Premier University of African Scholarship by publishing books like the one we are launching today,’ said Ramjugernath, adding that the work acknowledged the contribution of struggle veterans and activists to democracy, contributed to nation building and promoted social cohesion.

Vahed, who said he had aimed to capture Motala’s wider socio-economic context, praised Motala’s sacrifice of instant riches as a doctor for a life of social service and justice.

‘He was a man who ranged beyond the confines of his surgery, playing a role in linking struggles in racially segregated townships to a powerful and ultimately victorious movement.’

Vahed said it was the duty of academics and historians to record and publish the lives of great people. He thanked family and friends of Motala for their input into the book as well as UKZN Press and journalist Nalini Naidoo.

Gordhan acknowledged the importance of the book in recording events, providing particular context and acting as a collective memory. He said Motala’s life emphasised the importance of non-racialism, a principle crafted through struggle.

Mkhize, who said it was a special honour to be at the event, spoke about the impression made by Motala and colleagues on his (Mkhize’s) generation and credited the Natal Indian Congress for its role in the struggle, adding that men like Motala, who dealt with the most vulnerable, were inspired to act because of these people.

‘He taught us when you deal with an illness, you diagnose an ailment of the whole community,’ said Mkhize. ‘Unless you change the socio-economic conditions around any patient, you will continue to treat the person in a way that is not sustainable. The best way to solve the problem was to go out and fight apartheid.

‘Dr Motala drew his inspiration from people who put the needs of other people first – his career could offer all the trappings of the privileged but he threw in his lot with the poor,’ said Mkhize.

Guests at the event commented on the influence of Motala in their lives; many noted his neighbourliness, his humility, and his hospitality, saying he gave Pietermaritzburg a soul.

Motala’s daughter, Professor Shireen Motala, thanked guests for their contributions, and said a sense of history and warmth had emerged from the event, making it a rich and emotional day.

Words: Christine Cuénod

Photograph: Alistair Nixon