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Introducing NACOSA’s new Executive Director

Mohamed Motala joined NACOSA as Executive Director at the beginning of June and has quickly set about the task of steering the organisation through the stormy waters of a third wave of coronavirus infections. “With COVID, we all know people who have lost loved ones, income and are struggling,” says Mohamed, “But there are a lot of passionate, hard working and committed people that are quietly going about their work amidst the devastation, and not outwardly showing any of what they are going through. At NACOSA, we are fortunate to be able to create a space for people to continue this work.”

Mohamed’s early childhood growing up in the sugar cane plantations of rural KwaZulu-Natal sparked his passion for social justice work: “Much of what drove and shaped my working life goes back to my early childhood where extreme poverty was evident all around me in the descendants of Indian indentured slave labourers and the Zulu-speaking dispossessed communities living on sugarcane plantations. These communities suffered alcohol abuse, gender-based violence and extreme poverty. People had no access to basic facilities including healthcare, and were forced to rely on unprotected springs for household water use while living a meagre existence as subsistence farmers and plantation workers. It was not uncommon to have classroom friends that were poorly dressed having no shoes, runny noses and sometimes festering sores.”

Mohamed’s life choices were also profoundly influenced by his family: “I grew up in a family where all of this was explained within sociological and political contexts informed by generations of elders involved in community work and political organisations.” Mohamed’s relatives include stalwart activists, Dr Chota Motala and Professor Fatima Meer.

After completing a BA Honours degree in Geography and a Masters in Town and Regional Planning at the University of Durban Westville and the University of Natal, Mohamed’s early working life focused on organising workers in trade unions as well as accessing housing for poor communities living in informal settlements. “This passion for social justice led me to work in the non-profit sector my entire adult life, save for a short stint in the public service,” he explains. Shortly before joining NACOSA, Mohamed completed an evaluation of the R350 Social Relief of Distress Grant for the Department of Social Development, as the technical lead. In Cape Town since 2015, he was the Founding CEO of Tekano Health Equity South Africa, which was one of seven global leadership development programmes that are part of the Atlantic Fellows Programme. Prior to that he spent eight years as the Executive Director of the Community Agency for Social Enquiry (CASE) in Johannesburg. “I worked on large-scale, multi-year organisational and programme evaluations that supported government and civil society to inform policy and programme development. We also conducted large scale membership surveys for Trade Unions,” he says. His involvement with HIV and health goes back 15 years, first as part of HIV work that Oxfam undertook in South Africa and subsequently, through his research and evaluations of programmes at CASE and more recently at Tekano Health Equity.

“What drew me to NACOSA is that it works directly in poorer communities through local community-based organisations that best understand, and are able to respond to the needs of poor and marginalised people.” Mohamed is passionate about health equity: “As HIV moves into being more of a chronic disease, improving the health of poorer people is very much linked to the social, political and economic determinants of their lives. NACOSA takes this holistic approach of dealing with health issues.”

“What I love about NACOSA is that we work on the ground, engaging and strengthening organisations that are the closest to affected people and communities. I have come across the most amazing people here that are passionate about the work that they do and have a real sense of justice, embodying the values of what it is to be human.” Mohamed feels that NACOSA has a real understanding of the drivers of poverty, health inequity and injustice. “I have found people that are eager to make a difference and have unflinchingly thrown themselves into the midst of the chaos that COVID has wrought. They have seamlessly worked through everything the pandemic has thrown at them, continuing to provide services and build people and organisations.”

Although it is early days, Mohamed Motala is excited to throw a spotlight on this work. “NACOSA is a player in the delivery of health services within the HIV and related areas,” he says. “As international donor funding decreases and the South African government takes over more of the provision of services, including prevention of disease and the restructuring of the health sector through the National Health Insurance, the role that civil society and local community-based health workers play will become increasingly important.”

“With NACOSA’s footprint, we have lessons to learn about what’s working in service delivery, prevention, care and treatment, and community responses, particularly as we grapple with unequal access. My vision is for NACOSA to be able to inform better outcomes in the overall health improvement of the majority of South Africans who continue to be defined by their poorer economic status and along racial and gender fault lines.”

He is committed to continuing and maintaining NACOSA’s high standards of service delivery, because there is such an evident need for these services. “We have the opportunity to present what we see on the ground and what we have learned through our work in communities to the world,” he explains. “And when people see and understand things the way our frontline staff do, it will change and shape the approach.”

Mohamed acknowledges the burden this work can place on frontline workers and carries a deep respect for people who are struggling and working to improve their own lives and the communities in which they live and work. “It takes an incredible amount of resilience and strength to work in communities with those who are sick and suffering. Yet people carry on.”

“The lesson from this is that there are inspirational people all around us and sometimes all you need to do is recognise and affirm the good work that is being done for them to reveal themselves to you.”