The provincial health department is considering calling on the military to help. Photo: Gallo Images
Nursing staff abandoned their posts at the Nelson Mandela Academic Hospital in Mthatha on Friday night, the Eastern Cape health department said.
Nurses, who earlier held two managers of the hospital captive, forced the rest of the nursing staff to leave the building, said spokesman Sizwe Kupelo.
"This is tragedy... even in the high care unit there are no nurses," he said.
Doctors and other staff remained on duty and were struggling to provide care for patients.
"Even managers who are doctors are at the hospital looking after the patients," he said.
The department was considering asking for help from the military as an emergency measure.
"We are considering taking serious steps against all those involved... We need to act in the best interests of the country, in the best interests of the poor patients," Kupelo said.
One patient who required special care would be transported to a hospital in East London.
On Saturday, patients who could be cared for at home would be discharged "to avert crisis".
Earlier, two managers were released after hours of being held hostage by the nurses.
The nurses, who were not armed, locked the them in a boardroom around 11am because they were unhappy about the night duty allowances they were owed.
Kupelo said a list of nurses qualifying for the allowance had been submitted, but had to be resubmitted when it was found to contain mistakes.
"It was detected that the list was fraudulent. There were names of people who were on leave at the time."
This had caused a delay in payments. The correct list was finalised last Tuesday.
The nurses had expected to be paid this week, but Kupelo said they would be paid only next week.-Sapa