Inter Press Service (Johannesburg)
28 April 2008
Posted to the web 29 April 2008
For more than a decade, Cuban doctors have filled part of a gap left by
South African doctors who in large numbers leave the country looking for
better salaries and employment opportunities.
According to Fidel Radebe, director of communications for South Africa's
department of health, there are currently 134 Cuban doctors in the
country working under a government-to-government agreement between Cuba
and South Africa.
The first Cuban doctors who came to the country under this agreement
arrived in 1996 -- two years after the African National Congress (ANC)
came to power.
Socialist Cuba was a firm supporter of the anti-apartheid struggle in
South Africa, and the ANC and other leftwing movements in South Africa
always had a natural affinity for Cuba's stated struggle against "neo
Fast forward to 2008 -- Radebe could not confirm rumours that
negotiations were underway to bring a new batch of doctors to the
country. "The department may in future consider the further recruitment
of Cuban doctors as provided for in the government-to-government
agreement, but details have not yet been finalised," he said.
IPS asked Radebe about how Cuban doctors have been received in South
Africa. Some of their patients and colleagues have been harsh in their
criticism. Patients have complained that some of the doctors are not
properly trained and that they do not converse fluently in any of South
Africa's 11 official languages, including English.
This kind of response, however, stands in sharp contrast to a number of
papers and articles written by academics and journalists that praise the
Cuban government for its accessible medical system and the high
standards of training in that country. According to some figures there
is one doctor for every 170 Cubans -- something South Africa has no hope
of achieving in the near future with only 74 doctors per 100,000 citizens.
Whatever the criticism, it cannot be denied -- some commentators say --
that Cuban doctors have brought invaluable resources to far-flung areas
of the country where many South African doctors refuse to work due to
insecurity, remoteness of the area, and a lack of proper salaries.
"These doctors provide an important service in places where only one
doctor is often on call 24 hours a day, seven days a week," says Mike
Waters, spokesperson for the opposition Democratic Alliance (DA).
Harald Pakendorf, a former newspaper editor and currently an independent
political analyst, concurs that Cuban doctors play an important role in
primary health care in South Africa. He also adds that the government
should retain doctors, all of whom were trained at great cost to South
"The government should appoint competent hospital administrators who can
see to things like funding and the purchasing of equipment. Doctors
should care for their patients. They should not have to worry about the
availability of things like needles, sutures, swabs and medicines,"
Regarding the criticism that Cuban doctors often lack the necessary
skills, Radebe says that all doctors have to register with the Health
Professions Council of South Africa and therefore have to meet certain
According to Waters, the vacancy rates for medical specialists range
from 51 percent in the central province of the Free State to a massive
86 percent in the northern Limpopo Province, near Zimbabwe. And it is in
these empty spaces that the Cuban doctors are eagerly welcomed.
The situation in the Eastern Cape, South Africa's poorest province, is
also desperate. Not only is there a lack of general practitioners, but
there is also a demand for teaching staff at the medical school of the
Walter Sisulu University in Mthatha. A total of 32 Cuban specialists are
currently attached to the medical school.
Karuna Krihanlal-Gopal, the acting director of marketing, communications
and development at the university, says that the Cuban doctor-trainers
"certainly bring a wealth of experience [to South Africa], having worked
in similarly challenging circumstances prior to arriving in the country.
They are also very dedicated teachers."
In 2007 Cuban doctors with 10 years experience or more who work in South
African government hospitals and institutions were paid about 3,800 to
4,400 dollars per month, according to figures released by the DA.
Relatively speaking, this might seem like a lot, compared to salaries in
Cuba, but South African doctors emigrating to work in Europe, North
America or the Antipodes could often treble their salaries by practicing
According to Radebe, several doctors have in the past opted to obtain
permanent residency and citizenship in South Africa.
According to the government-to-government agreement, South Africa has
also sent hundreds of medical students to Cuba to be trained there. From
1996 to 2007, 470 South Africans had been trained there.
Radebe says that there are many programmes to retain doctors in the
South African public health system -- "revitalising of hospitals to
provide a better clinical environment for health professionals,
improving their conditions of service within the allocated budgets,
providing better career progression and remuneration dispensations,
providing specialist training, investing in new technologies and
improving clinical management."
There are many suggestions on the table. But implementing them is
another matter. Meanwhile, Cuban doctors are fulfilling a crucial role
in plugging the hole left by South African doctors who are either
unwilling to work in far- flung areas or who are themselves seeking
greener pastures overseas.