Mhlanga, an OB/GYN, was an outspoken advocate for reproductive rights. In 1994, he “danced across a stage” to accept his master’s degree from the University of North Carolina School of Public Health. He went on to becomehead of the Department of Obstetrics and Gynecology at the Nelson R. Mandela School of Medicine in Durban, South Africa, and was the first director of Maternal, Child and Women’s Health and Genetics in the National Department of Health in Pretoria.
It’s hard to choose just one word to sum up Mhlanga’s work and activism, but “fearless” is a good start.
When Thabo Mbeki was president of South Africa in the 1990s and notoriously casting doubt on the link between HIV and AIDS, pressure mounted on the government to take a clear stand on the issue. Mhlanga, then a top official in the national Department of Health, publicly challenged Mbeki and didn’t mince words: “HIV causes AIDS and AIDS kills… People are dying after being infected with HIV and that is what we need to be concentrating on.”
The right to safe, legal abortion also concerned Mhlanga deeply, even though he was at one time a self-described “ardent born-again Christian with conservative views about sex and women.” That changed in the early 1980s, when he witnessed the death of a colleague who suffered complications from an incomplete abortion. He attended her funeral and there saw the four-year-old son she had left behind. That moment was a turning point, and he became one of the activists who helped get South Africa’s liberal Choice on Termination of Pregnancy (CTOP) Act enacted into law.
Dr. Tlaleng Mofokeng, United Nations Special Rapporteur on the Right to Health, is among those looking back with inspiration and awe at Mhlanga’s life and work. Posting on Twitter, she wrote, “You served til the very end Prof Eddie…You were an amazing doctor, mentor and a friend…You taught me about obstetrics but also showed me how to be compassionate and care for women most vulnerable.”
Ernest Nyamato, Ipas associate director of quality care, said Mhlanga “combined a fierce intellectual courage with the warm spirit of a caregiver. We all stood in awe of him and his uncanny ability to turn high-sounding words into one simple question, ‘Does this help women at the end of the day?’. That is the question he has left all of us to answer.”
Mhlanga served on the Ipas Board of Directors from 2006 to 2011 and chaired the board’s medical care committee for two years. “He aligned himself with the vision and mission of Ipas and translated them into meaningful action,” says Makgoale Magwentshu, a senior advisor for Ipas South Africa. She adds that he was an unwavering supporter of the work done by abortion providers, who are sometimes stigmatized for the care they provide. “He appreciated them 365 days a year.”
Anu Kumar, president and CEO of Ipas, says Mhlanga was “a wonderful, fun, warm, and deeply caring person and stalwart champion for abortion access, and really, for reproductive justice.” Several years ago, she and Mhlanga were among a group visiting the Cape Coast castle in Ghana. “On the way out, as we sat in the brick arched entry, he proceeded to give a sex-ed lesson to all who were coming and going into the castle. He had a big smile on his face.”
Africa has lost a giant, a tree has fallen—women have lost a champion and a friend.”
—Pansi Pam Katenga, Ipas global development director