By Dan Moshenberg

Tuesday, August 9, 2011, was the annual celebration, in South Africa, of National Women’s Day. This public holiday commemorates August 9, 1956, the women’s march on the Union Buildings in Pretoria, in protest of the infamous pass laws. That day 20,000 or so women famously, and heroically, chanted, shouted, screamed: “Wathint’Abafazi Wathint’imbokodo!”. Translation: “Now you have touched the women, you have struck a rock!”

That was 55 years ago.

On Tuesday morning in South Africa (I am visiting here this week), the morning news talk shows, such as Morning Live on SABC2, celebrated with song, dance, some discussion. Women, and men, challenged the nation to do more, to do better. It was both festive and moving.

At the same time, there was a silence at the center and heart of the celebrations.

That silence was the abuse and death, in today’s South Africa, of women in childbirth. And that national silence was shared by major Western news outlets, such as The New York Times, Washington Post, the Guardian, the BBC, and others.

On Monday, August 8, 2011, Human Rights Watch released a report entitled “Stop Making Excuses”: Accountability for Maternal Health Care in South Africa. Pregnant women, maternity patients, in the Eastern Cape are regularly abused. They are directly abused by so-called health care providers, and they are generally abused by the lack of accountability in the system. This results in women dying in large numbers.

Women describe being physically and verbally abused. They are pinched, slapped, and roughly handled during labor. Women in labor are turned away from clinics, without examination or explanation. Women, weak from childbirth, are told to clean up after giving birth. They are left unattended, and uninformed, for hours and sometimes days.

That’s South African women. For refugee women in South Africa, the conditions are far worse.

What has the provincial or national government done in response to this horror? Nothing. Less than zero and worse than nothing. They have colluded through what might be called a system of non-accountability. And where’s the world press? Nowhere to be found.

1956: “Wathint’Abafazi Wathint’imbokodo! Uzakufa!” “You have touched the women, you have struck a rock, you have dislodged a boulder, you will be crushed!”

2011: “Stop Making Excuses!”

Photo Credit: David Goldblatt.

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