The shade of the baobab is no more — sleep well, beloved Prof Eddie Ronald Mhlanga
There has been an outpouring of tributes and messages of gratitude from across the world and from the many colleagues and communities in South Africa and abroad for Professor Eddie Mhlanga’s life. He was a man of the people. Like a baobab tree, he offered shade from our harsh realities and rooted us in something way bigger than ourselves.
I experienced a deep loss on 5 February 2022, when Professor Eddie Mhlanga, a friend, mentor and teacher, passed away. This deep loss is felt by so many people: his family, whom we pray for, the medical community and many patients who have interacted with him. I have had the privilege of listening to him as a teacher, being comforted by him as a mentor and laughing with him as a friend for many years.
Professor Mhlanga’s career spanned the world and he was most happy working in the community. Although he received a lot of accolades, my reminiscences are but highlights of his distinguished career and achievements. Prof Eddie was chief specialist obstetrician and gynaecologist, and worked in Mpumalanga, where he continued to volunteer his specialist skills after retirement.
He was a professor and former head of the Department of Obstetrics and Gynaecology, Nelson R Mandela School of Medicine, where many patients and staff alike held him in high regard. For many years he was a member of the National Committee for Confidential Enquiries into Maternal Deaths and recently was the chairperson of the committee.
He also served on the FIGO (International Federation of Gynecology and Obstetrics) Task Team on the Prevention of Unsafe Abortion and was a past board member of Partners for Reproductive Justice (Ipas). He also served the WHO, UNFPA, Unicef, FIGO and the International Planned Parenthood Federation as well as international and local non-government organisations and especially feminist movements in various capacities over the years.
When he was chief director of Maternal, Child and Women’s Health at the National Department of Health, Prof Eddie was instrumental in helping implement the Choice on Termination of Pregnancy Act (1996). At the time of his passing, he was also the Lifetime Patron of Global Doctors for Choice (GDC) in South Africa.
Prof Mhlanga was an extraordinary man. So extraordinary that during the parliamentary proceedings on the Choice on Termination of Pregnancy Act, he declared:
“I am a born-again Christian, amen. I’m an obstetrician and a gynaecologist and also a public health worker. I am a father blessed with two daughters, a man who has had a vasectomy because I believe that men have to take responsibility for their own fertility.”
This was Prof Mhlanga at his best; an ally, honest, determined, clear, convicted and leading from the front. This is at a time when he was also personally experiencing stigma from his colleagues.
Not many people knew this about Prof Mhlanga: he was North Carolina Honorary Deacon at Barbee’s Chapel Missionary Baptist Church in the US, where he graduated at the completion of his public health master’s degree, and was a lay preacher in South Africa. He saw his practice of medicine as an act of love and devotion — his patients felt it and his students learnt it. Prof Mhlanga did the work of caring for the most marginalised — adolescents, women, sex workers and those seeking abortion — because of his faith.
Mentor and teacher
I was only 14 years old when the Choice on Termination of Pregnancy Act was passed. I had no idea that one day I would become the student of Prof Eddie Mhlanga at the University of KwaZulu-Natal (UKZN), who would inspire me to take up advocacy to increase sexual and reproductive health services and, in particular, access to timeous and dignified abortions.
I knew Prof from seeing him in the corridors of medical school. He was hard to miss, since he was so tall and dignified, but it was only in the third year during the OB-GYN rotation at King Edward VIII Hospital in Durban that I became Prof’s student. And thus began one of the most meaningful friendships of my life.
I immediately noticed Prof Eddie’s bedside manner, tone and the concern he showed for the patients he was caring for. He also spoke most of the official languages. He was a maestro and I followed him around the hospital in his crisp white lab coat. On one of those occasions, I ended up in theatre, watching him perform advanced surgery and being in complete awe of him. With every interaction, every tutorial, every suture, Prof Eddie Mhlanga imparted empathy and clinical acumen one cannot find in a textbook.
It was only when we were reunited after my community service years that I had the opportunity to tell him how he had inspired me to be an abortion provider and to do advocacy in the manner that I do. Whenever we were at an event or conference and I had to introduce him, I always jokingly referred to myself as his “mistake”. I placed the blame for my activism on him and we always laughed at this running corny joke that I couldn’t let go.
I was proud for people to know that he taught me and I know so many others are just as proud that he taught us how to be great. Having worked together on many projects over the past seven years, I looked to him for guidance, constantly calling to resolve issues of obstruction to abortion access impacting people in all provinces. Many times he had to listen to and help me through my rage at the injustice that people continue to face within the health system.
He provided counsel to many students, nurses and doctors, and was always available when called upon to travel across the region and the country, hosting seminars, speaking on panels, facilitating clinical refresher courses and lately doing online work. Yet many may also not know that Prof Eddie wanted to become a surgeon.
In his own words: “In Acornhoek I saw women dying every day because there were no skills to save them.” In a way I think this explains his impeccable surgical skills; I recall a conversation he had in theatre more than a decade ago, that as doctors we must not butcher the patients when performing surgery.
Last year, when we were together at a gathering, in a room full of women who had HIV and who were coerced into sterilisation, a woman thanked Prof Mhlanga for doing his best back then to assist her when she realised that she had undergone sterilisation without her informed consent. Many in the room cried; the trauma of many women present, some already passed on, was visceral and the deep-seated pain of those sharing their stories palpable.
I too cried, overwhelmed at the realisation that the patients Prof Mhlanga had been assisting all those years ago at King Edward VIII Hospital were some of the women in the room that day. Prof Mhlanga had done his best to offer surgical intervention to improve the quality of life of women, and also worked hard to ensure HIV-positive women’s rights to have children were respected. Even where the reversal of the sterilisation was impossible, he listened to women, he believed women.
Memories and tributes
One of my favourite memories of Prof Mhlanga is from 2021, at an abortion provider retreat hosted by OurEquity in Muldersdrift.
He spent a lot of time barefoot. He said he wanted to feel the earth. He also had a pedicure and when he showed off his feet to me, I teased him that it’s only a matter of time until they have grass all over them, and we chuckled as he walked away, towards the grass.
On the last evening, we gathered to honour Prof Mhlanga along with our other treasured mentors, and told him how important and ordained his work was. Most importantly we got to say thank you, over and over again. He shared these words with us:
“No one chooses to be in a difficult situation, but we are chosen to be in that space to provide the necessary care.”
The evening was beautiful and when A Luta Continua started playing, Prof Eddie jumped up and danced and danced and that’s how the party started.
These are the memories we will cherish forever, indeed, a luta continua.
There has been an outpouring of tributes and messages of gratitude for Prof Mhlanga’s life from across the world and from the many colleagues and communities in South Africa and abroad. He was a man of the people. Like a baobab tree, he offered shade from our harsh realities, and rooted us in something way bigger than ourselves.
We remain grateful to the family of Prof Mhlanga for generously sharing him with all of us and for so many years. We give thanks for the life of such an amazing teacher and ally. We do not know what you as the Mhlanga family are going through, we cannot even begin to imagine the depth of your loss. We offer our deepest condolences, there are simply no words magnificent enough to ease your heartache.
On the Friday before his passing, I called Prof Mhlanga twice and he did not pick up. It was something I noted as odd. I was used to him answering or very quickly returning the call. I decided that I would call him on Saturday, first to scold him for missing my calls, but more pressing was to plan for the next rounds of national seminars for 2022.
Instead, I will forever remember the day my teacher, my mentor and my friend departed this Earth. The shade of the baobab is no more, although the roots remain deep within us. Sleep well, my beloved, sleep well, Xijekana. I will always love you. DM/MC
Dr Tlaleng Mofokeng runs the DISA clinic in Johannesburg. She is the United Nations Special Rapporteur on the right to health, a bestselling author and broadcaster.
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