Johannesburg — Dr. Nthato Motlana has a friendly, easygoing manner that endears him to the many black patients who visit his medical office in Soweto. But scratch beneath the surface a bit by probing Motlana's attitudes on political issues in South Africa and you find anger.
Motlana's surface calm but deeper frustration mirrors what appears to be black sentiments in Soweto as a whole. Those sentiments are bubbling to the surface as South Africa's largest black community is being asked to go to the polls Dec. 3 to elect a town council.
Local government of black segregated settlements is the one area, outside of the tribal ''homelands,'' in which South Africa's white-minority government has allowed blacks to vote. And recent legislation has granted more power to black local authorities than they possessed during the last election in 1978. Pretoria considers the granting of such new power an act of genuine ''reform.''
''They say that the new black local authorities act is equivalent to that for white municipalities,'' says Motlana. ''And it is true.''
But when asked why he is urging blacks to boycott the elections as they did in 1978, Motlana loses his cool demeanor. ''It's this continual rejection, this concept of a white South Africa, the forced removals of blacks, the denationalization of blacks, all this makes it impossible,'' he says, emphasizing ''impossible.''
Polls indicate that Motlana is perhaps the most prominent political figure in Soweto. In a recent opinion poll by the Star newspaper, he was rated by Sowetans as the second-most-popular figure after Nelson Mandela, the imprisoned leader of the African National Congress.
If Motlana were to participate in town council elections, it would probably give them a stamp of credibility.
Aside from what he calls the ''whole framework'' of apartheid which makes it ''impossible'' for him to participate in government institutions, Motlana says the town councils themselves are flawed. He says they ''operate in a vacuum'' as long as blacks are denied any participation in provincial or central government.
There is also the question of how these town councils will be financed, and the government's failure to deal with this question before the elections. Soweto , although it has at least 1.2 million residents, has no business tax base, thanks to rigid national government controls applied over the years. All major business and most black consumer spending take place in the white metropolitan areas.
But the government has insisted that black townships be self-sustaining. Black town councils can raise money only by raising rents and from the sale of liquor.
Only 6 percent of Soweto's eligible voters are estimated to have voted in 1978. The new town councils may garner a slightly higher vote, Motlana concedes. But he is convinced the overall message will be one of rejection.
Motlana is something of a populist leader in Soweto, often drawing support from the two major opposing political camps: the adherents of ''black consciousness,'' and those supporting the freedom charter, a document calling for multiracial political resistance. The Freedom Charter was formulated in the 1950s and adopted by the African National Congress (ANC). Critics say Motlana is a ''man in the middle,'' vacillating between those different philosophies.
He is chairman of the Committee of Ten, an shadow government founded in 1977 as an alternative to the local black authority in Soweto. When the committee drew up a blueprint for what it regarded as genuine municipal autonomy, its meetings were banned and its members detained.
Today, the Soweto Civic Association, a grass-roots spinoff from the Committee of Ten, remains one of the most prominent community organizations in Soweto.
Motlana rejects the reasoning that participating in the new town council can be a way to extract more from the government. ''We haven't been able to use such bodies because Pretoria uses those bodies to perpetuate white power,'' he says.
The tactics of using government institutions to bring change has failed consistently, he says, beginning in 1936 with the establishment of the Advisory Natives Representative Council, a black body formed to advise the national government. Indeed, Motlana as a member of the African National Congress Youth League in those days lobbied against some ANC members who wanted to participate.
Motlana's interest clearly lies in the budding political activity taking place in the townships outside any government sanction. He is enthusiastically supportive of the new umbrella United Democratic Front, formed earlier this year to oppose the white government's reform policies.