KZN lifts its surprise ban on recruiting foreign doctors
Amid the wave of xenophobic attacks and deadly violence that has heightened tensions between SA and its key trading partners in the rest of Africa, KwaZulu-Natal’s health department published a circular last week banning the recruitment of foreign doctors.
The department said it wanted to make space for newly qualified locals who were returning from training in Cuba.
Last week’s violence led to the death of 12 people, two of them foreigners, and the arrest of 639 people.
It overshadowed the World Economic Forum on Africa in Cape Town, which was billed as an opportunity for SA to project its role as a leader in Africa.
The department retracted the circular on Wednesday for reasons it has yet to explain, according to the national health department and SA’s biggest doctor union, the SA Medical Association (Sama). The provincial department had not responded to Business Day’s repeated requests for comment at the time of publication.
Business Day has seen a copy of the circular, dated September 4, in which KwaZulu-Natal’s acting head of health, Musa Gumede, said the recruitment and employment of foreign health professionals had been suspended.
The department has recruited “a huge number” of SA citizens to be trained as doctors in Cuba and will have insufficient posts and funds to absorb them unless the recruitment and employment of foreign doctors is halted, he said.
The KwaZulu-Natal health department employs 336 foreign doctors from 57 countries, according to a statement issued by the IFP.
Sama vice-chair Mvuyisi Mzukwa said the timing of the circular was ill-considered given the recent attacks on immigrants. “The country is on fire,” he said.
The directive itself is puzzling, as government policy prioritises hiring SA doctors over foreign nationals, he said.
Medical students returning from Cuba require three more years of training and community service to qualify.
SA has been sending medical students to train in Cuba since 1997 under a deal in terms of which Cuba has also been sending health-care professionals to work in SA’s rural areas.
The programme has strong political support and has helped SA overcome the inability of its medical schools to train enough doctors for the country’s needs. But it has proved to be neither efficient nor cheap.
Students who study medicine in Cuba take two years longer to qualify than their peers
in SA, and each year of study in Cuba costs more than double what it would locally.
In its early years, only a few hundred students were trained in Cuba, but the numbers were dramatically increased under former president Jacob Zuma’s administration.
Health minister Zweli Mkhize’s spokesperson, Lwazi Manzi, said 1,912 students were studying medicine in Cuba and more than 650 would graduate in 2020. The average output of SA’s medical schools is 1,400 graduates a year.
“New registrations on the Cuba programme have been suspended to be able to absorb the large cohort coming in next year,” she said.
The annual cost of medical training in Cuba is R331,000, compared with R150,000 at a local medical school, according to a written reply given by Gauteng health MEC Bandile Masuku in August in response to questions posed by the DA’s Jack Bloom.
Bloom estimates that it costs R2.136m to train an SA medical student in Cuba, compared with R900,000 if the student studied in SA.
The Cuban-trained students spend their first year learning Spanish and then do five years at a Cuban medical school.
They spend their final year at an SA medical school and must pass local exams to qualify.
336 the number of foreign doctors employed by the KwaZuluNatal health department