An embarrassment, extremely disappointing and a waste of money and opportunity. This is how the action by six medical students who arrived back home on Thursday after pulling out of the Cuba-South Africa doctor training programme has been described. More than halfway through the programme, which costs R500000 for each student over six years, the group has decided to quit.
The exchange students were part of a group, that went on strike over food and demanded that their stipends be increased by more than double the monthly amount of R1600.
When the government told the striking group that their monthly allowances would not be increased, it was hoped they would continue with their studies considering most are from disadvantaged backgrounds and were selected out of many deserving candidates for the scholarship.
However, the six opted to abort their studies and come home. More than R2m has gone down the drain and this episode – the first of its kind since the programme started more than a decade ago – has caused embarrassment for South Africa.
Dr Mzulungile Nodikida from Nompumelelo Hospital in Peddie, Eastern Cape, who studied medicine in Cuba said South African students were better off than students from Latin American countries.
He said he could not understand why the students were complaining about the stipend because the money they received was only to cover clothes and toiletries. Accommodation and food were provided for free.
Recalling his experience as an exchange student in Cuba, he said: “South African students were well off compared to students from other countries, especially Latin American students. The Cubans don’t even eat the food that we eat. We eat meat daily and they only have meat once a week. Also the monthly stipend we were getting was more than enough.
“It is difficult to adapt in Cuba because everything is different, the air that you breath, the food, you eat rice every day and the language but we had strong leadership.”
The students were part of a group of 187 medical students who went on a hunger strike and boycotted classes demanding their monthly stipend be increased from $200 (about R1 600) to $700 (about R5 600).
The SA government spends about R500 000 a student over six years for a language course, medical training and living expenses in Cuba.
Health department spokesperson Joe Maila said the department was saddened by the students’ decision to abort their studies.
“Money was the main thing that they wanted and we made it clear that we were not going to increase their stipend. The six opted to come back home. We are extremely disappointed as we were doing everything for them. They are unreasonable because the issue of diet was not a big problem,” Maila said.
Eastern Cape health department spokesperson Sizwe Kupelo said the department supported the stand taken by the national department.
“The minister has done everything to persuade the students to remain in Cuba. They have embarrassed the country and contravened the laws of Cuba. Most of these students come from destitute background. Some were taken from remote areas, farms and townships. The Eastern Cape has a shortage of doctors and we cannot afford this,” Kupelo said.