27/07/2012. Minister of Health Dr Aaron Motsoaledi addresses delegates at the School Health Conference held at Unisa. Picture: Masi Losi

Johannesburg - Health Minister Aaron Motsoaledi has written letters to South African medical students in Cuba who embarked on an illegal strike, defining the government's position on the strike, his department said on Thursday.

On February 7, 187 of the 1 200 South African students studying medicine in Cuba went on strike, spokesperson Joe Maila said in a statement.

Their demands include a more than 300-percent stipend increase, that a health attache be sent to Cuba, and that they no longer want to be served any meal that contains pork.

“In dealing with this matter the department suspected that there might also be problems of cultural differences, adaptability and perhaps psychosocial changes, which make it difficult for them to cope with their studies,” he said.

“In this regard, the department promptly dispatched a team consisting of a senior social worker, a senior psychologist, HR manager and a doctor... to assist the students accordingly.”

He said the team joined the ambassador in Cuba, academic staff at the university and the Cuban government to negotiate with the students.

During the negotiations the students gave the embassy two ultimatums, Maila added.

“That the ambassador sign a document that these demands will be met or they come back home,” he said.

“Ever since the South African-Cuban medical programme started, South Africa has never had a health attache in Cuba. The minister decided last year already to appoint, and sent a health attache to Cuba.”

The attache was expected to start in January but had to complete other commitments, and the department said it was “ not understandable why this matter is arising” because a decision was made a long time ago.

He added that on the issue of food, it has always been a matter negotiated between students and universities, even in South Africa.

“Up to now we know of no student who has to abandon studies because such a matter was not resolved. Our students in Cuba are usually served alternate diets consisting of beef, chicken or pork.”

“However, for the two or three weeks, the Cuban government had problems in acquiring beef and chicken, hence they could only serve what was available, which was pork,” he added.

Maila added that the stipend would not change as accommodation, food, transport and tuition is jointly sponsored by the two governments.

“For the students to firmly believe that if such a demand is not met they rather come back home, have left the minister with no option but to grant them their wish, because under no condition will the government be willing to meet such an outrageous and unreasonable demand of $700 (about R6 200) per month.

“In the letter written to individual students, the minister has stated this point unambiguously and emphasised that at no stage will such a demand ever be entertained,” he said.

The students currently receive a stipend of $200 (about R1 800). - Sapa