More than 400 South African medical students finally return home after union claims they were left ‘stranded’ in Cuba
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DURBAN - The Department of Health has said that more than 400 medical students who were studying in Cuba have returned to South Africa.
The department said the first group returned on August 5, while the second group arrived on Monday.
About 15 students had to remain in Cuba, after they tested positive for Covid-19.
The department’s comments come after the SA Medical Association Trade Union (Samatu) said the group of fifth year students had been left stranded in Cuba, with no money to purchase basic goods for months.
According to the department, the 469 students, who had completed their fifth year studies in Cuba, will now complete their final year of clinical training at local universities.
General secretary of Samatu Dr Cedric Sihlangu told The Mercury on Monday that the group had been expected to all arrive in the country at the end of last month.
However, he said that they were told by the Health Department that due to political instability in Cuba, their flights were delayed.
Sihlangu said the students had told the union about the poor conditions they had to endure because they didn’t receive their stipends on time.
He said that for the past three months, the students have not been receiving their $200 (about R2 932) stipend.
“One of the banks where the Department of Health was depositing money for the purpose of distributing it to the students was blacklisted. As a result, students were unable to receive their stipends.
“Students were not getting their stipends for consecutive months. Also, on top of that, students get a final parting stipend of $1 200 ( about R17,787.29) and they were also not getting that. Most of them refused to return to South Africa until their collective stipend was sent to them,” he said.
Sihlangu said students had been living in poor conditions and some could not even get sanitary pads.
“Imagine how dehumanising that is. The type of food they were eating, the place they were sleeping at, and other issues raised by students, just broke one’s heart,” said Sihlangu.
Department spokesperson Popo Maja said the department secured two chartered flights to bring the students back, with the first charter due on July 24 and the second on July 27.
But Maja said these flights were postponed, as the students demanded that their stipends be paid prior to them leaving Cuba.
He said the stipends had not been paid due to challenges in transferring funds to Cuba, which were beyond the control of the department.
Speaking on the conditions the students had to live in, Maja said Cuba was not a rich country, as its economic development had been affected by seven decades of a stringent and punitive economic blockade by the US administration.
He said the situation had been further exacerbated by the Covid-19 pandemic and an increase in the price of commodities worldwide.
“The conditions of the students are no different from any other Cuban citizen or thousands of foreign students in Cuba,” said Maja.
He said, apart from three meals a day and accommodation, students also received a monthly stipend of $200 a month.
Maja added that the department had been in communication with the students through the South African Embassy in Cuba.
“There is a health attaché who is responsible for the management of these students while they are in Cuba,” said Maja.
He added that, since the beginning of July, there had been constant engagements with the students.