Although it is legal in South Africa, abortion remains a controversial, private topic of conversation, whispered but never spoken openly about. This silence has led to illegal clinics opening up shop. Staff reporter Samantha Steele reports on an illegal clinic operating a street from the Department of Health’s headquarters in Pretoria.
Room 508 is small and dimly lit. Two girls are sitting on the filthy couches, one visibly pregnant. The woman sitting behind the desk in front of us smiles at me coolly. “How far along are you?” she asks. She is referring to my ‘pregnancy’. I look around the room, and see a multitude of posters of pregnant women and babies, overlapping on the chipped walls. I look down, and murmur that I’m not sure.
She indicates a calendar stuck to the wall. She points to February, looks at me and asks quietly whether or not I got my period then. We proceed onto March, April, until we reach the current month. We decide that I am three months pregnant.
Room 508 has heard many whispered conversations about due dates and failed condoms. Five-oh-eight – a secret code: deciphered, it reads ‘abortion’.
I found Dr Morina’s number on the street, printed in bright orange and pasted to a telephone pole. “ONE DAY QUICK, SAFE AND PAIN FREE ABORTION!!! CALL: DR MORINA. PRETORIA CENTRAL.” I was surprised to see a medical practitioner advertising herself so brashly – brightly coloured posters with tear-off numbers. I had collected several of these cell numbers, belonging to a variety of ‘doctors’, across Pretoria.
I discovered – when investigating this proliferation of 076 numbers – that the same distinctly accented voice answered three of them. Dr M.T. Lucky, Dr K.B. Rachel, and Dr Morina were all pseudonyms for the same woman, operating a clandestine abortion clinic in Pretoria Central.
The Dr Morina I initially spoke to on the phone was not the calm, friendly, reassuring Dr Morina I was to meet in Room 508. She was abrupt and furtive, her manner intimidating. “I can’t talk to you on the phone. I’ll tell you all of this in person. When do you want to meet?” she asked belligerently. She refused to tell me where her clinic was, and arranged a rendezvous on the corner of Vermeulen and Van der Walt Streets in Pretoria Central.
Xolani Mbanjwa, fellow journalist, and I went to the meeting point and waited for Dr Morina to show up. We were acting the role of a nervous couple. My unease was certainly not faked as I scanned the crowds for a sign of the elusive ‘doctor’.
Suddenly, a large man approached us. He looked at us intently and leaned forward conspiratorially. “You are looking for doctor…?” he asked. “Doctor Morina,” I replied apprehensively. “This way,” he said as he turned to go, “follow me.”
A woman joined up with us as we crossed the street. This was my first glimpse of Dr Morina: a well-groomed black woman in her thirties; informally dressed in a navy tracksuit. Immaculately styled, her curly hair bounced in time to each quick step. We entered a building with small dark lettering above the door: FATIMA’S HOUSE. The entrance hall was incredibly small. People were jostling in and out of the narrow space. The four of us stepped into the aging, heaving elevators and rode up in awkward silence.
We stepped out onto a corridor. Businesses and services were advertised haphazardly on the walls. The corridor lined with doors. On the way to Room 508 we passed various other businesses – one was labelled ‘doctor’ with handwritten, lopsided writing, coloured in with Bic pen. Dr Morina walked past it and stopped outside a room labelled 508.
Now we are sitting in her ‘clinic’ – a small, dingy room.
Dr Morina attempts to reassure me; my anxiety is noticeable. “Don’t worry, we are safe,” she says, “I see many girls of your colour,” she adds with a knowing tilt of her head. “Is it safe? I mean, will it hurt?”
“No problem. You will bleed heavily because you are further along than three weeks, and you’ll have some light cramping. But it is ok – I have had some girls come back for more abortions, so you see, you can get pregnant again,” she tries to soothe me. “How will you do it?” I ask. “I will give you some pills. Four you will take orally, three we will insert up, into your cervix,” she gestures upwards. “Are you a real doctor?” Xolani asks. “Yes,” she answers. Behind her there hangs only a certificate from the African Herbalists Association – given to Dr HM Mkoya in 1998. “So there won’t be any problems if I get an abortion now?” I ask. “No, a foetus only forms at four months, so you are still ok,” she says. Xolani pauses and turns to her. “We are really unsure about this, you know, we were wondering about counselling or something?” (Counselling is a legal requirement according to the Termination of Pregnancy Act 92 0f 1996). Dr Morina offers no suggestions. Silence stretches across the room.
“How much is it?” I ask.
“R700.” Another pause. “For R400 I could sell the abortion pills to you,” she says, indicating me with a tilt of her head, “and you,” pointing to Xolani, “can insert them into the cervix yourself. But it is better if I do it – the pills are sometimes not put all the way up.”
“We need time to decide,” Xolani says nervously. “No problem. Call me when you want to make an appointment,” Dr Morina says with a final smile, a hand showing us the exit. The door to Room 508 closes behind us with a soft click. I leave with a shudder of relief, thankful that I am not one of the unfortunate girls in need of Dr Morina’s dubious services.
BACKGROUND: While I was studying my undergraduate degree in Pretoria, I also interned at the Pretoria News – the city’s local paper. Early on in my internship I stumbled across a flyer advertising abortions. The dirty, clandestine feeling this flyer gave me immediately interested me in this article, since abortions are legal in South Africa and illegal, dangerous practices such as this are both unnecessary and dangerous. This piece was done undercover during the course of the year, and was finally published in October of 2007.