South Africa: Statement By the Minister of Health On Medical Students in Cuba

press release

Health Minister Dr Aaron Motsoaledi has written letters to individual South African Medical students in Cuba who are on an illegal strike outlining the position of government on the issue.

From 7 February 2013, out of the 1 200 South African medical students presently studying in Cuba, 187 embarked on illegal strike. Their demands were the following:

  • That their stipend be increased by more than 300% from $200 to $700 per month.
  • That the Department of Health should sent a Health Attaché to Cuba
  • That they no longer want to be served any meal that consists of pork.

In dealing with this matter the department suspected that there might also be problems of cultural differences, adaptability and perhaps psychosocial changes which make it difficult for them to cope with their studies. In this regard, the department promptly dispatched a team consisting of a senior social worker, a senior psychologist, HR manager and a doctor who himself is a beneficiary of a Cuban medical studies to Cuba to assist the students accordingly. The team joined our Ambassador in Cuba to negotiate with the students with a view to settling this problem.

The Cuban government and the academic staff in the university affected joined the team and tried their best to have the matter resolved.

During the negotiations the students presented the South African Embassy in Cuba with two ultimatums:

That the Ambassador sign a document that these demands will be met

They come back home.

Ever since the South Africans-Cuban medical programme started, South Africa has never had a Health Attaché in Cuba. However, the Minister decided last year already to appoint and sent a Health Attaché to Cuba. The Attaché was due to start work in January but unfortunately have to complete some commitments in South Africa before taking over this posting. It is therefore not understandable why this matter is arising as a demand to be negotiated when the decision has already been made long before the strike.

The issue of food does time and again arise in universities even in our own country, and many of us experienced it as students in one way or the other. It has always been a matter negotiated between universities and the Student Representative Councils. Up to now we know of no student who has to abandon studies because such a matter was not resolved. Our students in Cuba are usually served alternate diets consisting of beef, chicken or pork.

However, for the two or three weeks, the Cuban government had problems in acquiring beef and chicken hence they could only serve what was available, which was pork.

The Cuban government was working around the clock to resolve this problem, which was a general country problem, not affecting only the students.

As to the issue of the stipend which we regard as pocket money, the position of the department is firm and will never change. Accommodation, food, transport, tuition and all the necessities that enable student to study are already sponsored jointly by the South African and Cuban governments. The stipend is just to enable the students to buy toiletries, soft drinks, comfort pads, entertainment and indeed for their general comfort.

For the students to firmly believe that if such a demand is not met they rather come back home, have left the Minister with no option but to grant them their wish because under no condition will the government be willing to meet such outrageous and unreasonable demand of $700 per month.

In the letter written to individual students, the Minister has stated this point unambiguously and emphasise that at no stage will such a demand ever be entertained.

The Department of Health has also noted with regret rumours that are circulating in the country that the Cuban authorities have arrested 187 SA students. We dismiss such rumours as misleading and baseless. We wish to state once more that not a single medical student has ever been arrested in Cuba.

The fact that we are receiving letters from some opposition political parties, particularly the Democratic Alliance (DA) urging government to deal with these purported arrests smacks of political expediency and it is quite disingenuous. We therefore call upon the DA to act responsibly and stop spreading such rumours. These rumours are causing unnecessary panic and have a potential to undermine the SA-Cuba Bilateral Agreement on health with specific reference to the medical training programme.

There are about 22 580 international students from 125 countries around the world studying in Cuba with a total of 19 125 pursuing medical studies. Of these 1 200 are medical students from South Africa.

It is therefore inconceivable that out of these multitudes who have accepted the opportunity granted by the Cuban government to pursue their studies and hence craft a future for themselves only 187 find it impossible to continue their studies. However, we regard this as their democratic choice.

Students are therefore warned that since opting out of the South Africa - Cuba Medical Training Programme is voluntary, there shall be no arrangements made by the Minister of Health or the Department of Health, including MECs for Health to complete studies at any SA medical school although students are free to make their own personal arrangements, and we shall not interfere in those.

In conclusion we wish to state categorically that when students accept the offer by the government to study in Cuba they are doing nobody a favour, neither the government nor the country as a whole. We are granting them this opportunity to craft their future, and it is entirely up to them to take it or reject.

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