South Africa’s Education Minister, Blade Nzimande, has called for the deportation of over a hundred South African medical students in Cuba who launched a hunger strike over conditions they considered unacceptable.
“The sense of entitlement and lack of gratitude displayed by these students who come from a country with such high levels of desperate need for higher education and training, and limited state resources, is totally unacceptable. I condemn it in the strongest terms,” Minister Nzimande said.
“If they are threatening to come back home, then maybe they should do just that.”’ But emails sent to the South African daily City Press painted a different picture. A bottleneck apparently held up payment of student food bills which left the students without meals for four days. Meals are primarily pork, not acceptable to some students. The stipend is insufficient, they say, to cover incidental expenses and amounts to a third of what children of the South African diplomatic corps receive. “The department of health might say our demands are unreasonable, but, honestly, we wouldn’t go to such lengths for something we didn’t believe in,” said one student who asked to remain anonymous.
“None of us are trying to be heroes here, and none of us want to go home and lose our careers,” he added in an email. Some 2,000 South African medical students are enrolled in the 6 year program which includes one year of practical work in South Africa. This week, about 187 of the student doctors staged a protest outside the South African embassy in the Cuban capital of Havana and were arrested. They were detained overnight but have refused to give up their fight over food and money. Health Minister Aaron Motsoaledi’s spokesman, Joe Maila, initially promised a “fact-finding mission” to look into the complaints.
“We really want to find out what is happening with the food. Where there are serious concerns we will do something immediately. We want these students to succeed. We need more doctors.” According to the students, the mission never arrived. He defended the pork diet. “Our students are usually served alternate meals consisting of beef, chicken or pork but for the past two or three weeks the Cuban government had problems acquiring beef and chicken.
They could only serve what was available, which was pork.” The students responded: “Whenever we ask for change we are reminded of the fact that we are from poor families, squatter camps, that we are women and men with difficulties, children of the storm and we should be grateful for the little we have." The father of a student detained this week told City Press it was unfortunate the department felt this way. “When our kids complete their studies they return to serve South Africans. In many cases, they work in rural areas where local doctors refuse to go.” w/pix of Minister B. Nzimande