Durban - The country’s biggest nursing union, the Democratic Nursing Organisation of South Africa (Denosa) says the government might as well close all the nursing colleges, given its reluctance to employ nurses who have completed their community service.
Denosa said hospitals and clinics are sorely understaffed, while qualified nurses are sitting at home without jobs.
“You say there is no money to absorb them into the system, so why are you training nurses? Who are you training them for?” asked Denosa acting secretary-general Cassim Lekhoathi.
He said the issue of unemployed nurses was a national problem because once they had completed their four-year nursing studies and one-year community service, the provincial health departments were supposed to absorb them into the system, but this was not happening.
“Health in South Africa is in ICU. Anything in ICU is in a critical condition and if it doesn’t get critical attention, it is going to die,” said Lekhoathi.
“There’s no nurse that should be unemployed with the shortage of nurses we have in this country.”
Denosa said patients also got a raw deal because, typically, a hospital ward with 40 patients only had four or five nurses on duty, which was not nearly enough.
“Especially in clinics, you can’t treat patients like (they’re on) a conveyor belt. You need to spend time (with) and talk to the patients,” said Lekhoati.
“Instead you will find that patients who arrive at 5am have still not been attended to at 3pm.”
Lekhoati said patients became abusive when nurses took tea breaks, without understanding the pressure they were under. He blamed the government’s poor human resource planning for the problem.
“Given the burden of disease in South Africa, there is a huge demand for the number of nurses to increase. How are you going to implement the National Health Insurance (NHI) effectively if you do not have enough nurses in the system?”
A Durban nurse, who wished to remain anonymous, said she and her colleagues, who completed their community service in December, had waited for the KZN College of Nursing to send out the placement list, indicating which government institutions they would be employed at from this month.
She said they were told when they started studying that they would be expected to work for the KZN Health Department for three years in order to repay their bursaries.
However, when they called the college on January 2 to find out about placements, they were told the “government has relieved you of all your contractual obligations”. They were also advised to look for work in the private sector.
The woman said she had elderly parents to support and was desperate for work.
“We can’t find jobs in the private sector without official permission because they can demand that we pay back the bursary money,” she said.
Since being told to find their own jobs, the department had placed some nurses, but more than 100 were still waiting for official confirmation of government employment or permission to look for employment elsewhere.
Not only community service nurses have been affected; nurses and nursing assistants who studied at private institutions are also battling to find jobs.
A nursing assistant, who would only be identified as Happy, said she had been unemployed for four years and was registered with a nursing agency, but “I never know if I’m going to get enough hours of work to feed everyone”. She knew private and public medical facilities were severely short-staffed and couldn’t understand why they did not employ more people.
Happy said the situation was so dire that nurses were turning to crime.
“There’s a lot of crime in our province because anybody who is hungry will do unusual things to feed their families. Some nurses steal from their neighbours and others go to shops, where they steal food,” she said.
KZN Health MEC, Sibongiseni Dhlomo, said community service nurses who found jobs in the private sector or in another province should take it.
“We will release you, it is not your fault,” he said.
Dhlomo said that 87 nurses had been employed to date, but 100 more were still in limbo.
He said the unemployment crisis was caused by KZN’s 28 private nursing colleges, which churned out nurses without thinking about their future. He said they should close down or severely restrict their intake.
The province only trained a handful of nurses because it wanted to ensure they could be placed within government facilities.
“These private colleges act like taxis who pick people up in Pinetown and drop them off in Durban without worrying what they will do in Durban.”
Dhlomo said they employed 300 staff nurses and nursing assistants last month, and 11500 people arrived for the interviews.