Foreign medical students fight for their licences

Published Mar 6, 2022


A GROUP of foreign doctors who studied medicine in South Africa are contemplating legal action to secure slots on the Department of Health’s Internship and Community Service Programme (ICSP).

Without the ICSP experience, doctors cannot be granted licences to practise medicine, regardless of their academic qualifications.

The affected foreigners said the Department of Health’s (DOH) “hardline stance” to first place local doctors on the ICSP, followed by those who have secured citizenship, was likely to render their years of academic work as useless.

They claimed their plight was worsened by two recent legislation changes made by the Department of Home Affairs (DHA).

Minister Aaron Motsoaledi signed into law (on January 31) that foreigners, who were studying towards degrees in the area of critical skills, would only qualify for permanent residency after working for five years in the country.

This was in contrast to April 2016, when then Minister of Home Affairs, Malusi Gigaba, signed a waiver agreement that granted foreigners residency without acquiring the required years of post-qualification experience.

Another stumbling block for the foreign students emerged on February 2, when Motsoaledi announced a new critical skills list, which didn’t include medical doctors.

This means doctors will not qualify for critical skills visas in future.

A foreigner from the disgruntled group, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said he couldn’t understand why doctors were removed from the list, considering the country’s well-documented shortages.

He made his application for ICSP in August but when the placements were announced, they didn’t include him.

After making queries, he got a response in December, stating that foreign nationals will only be considered if posts were available, and a lack of funding was a challenge.

“Without an internship post here in South Africa, my medical training is incomplete. No other country will accept me to practise medicine because I don’t hold a medical licence,” he said.

The student said it was his long standing desire to be a doctor, so that he could serve society, especially the poor. He chose South Africa because he was impressed with the high rankings of the country’s universities.

“It is frustrating that I can't get past these hurdles,” he said.

He said it was not a new experience for foreign medical students to face difficulties with securing ICSP posts, but it has become worse in the last month.

“I have been enquiring with students ahead of me about this since my fourth year. They had to go back to their home countries and wait until the DOH called, but it seldom happens,” he said.

He was planning on applying for permanent residence, in line with the previous waiver, believing he had a better chance to get onto the ICSP in that way, but it has since been removed.

“The new laws should not apply to people like me who started studying in 2016.

“When I signed up, becoming a licensed doctor in South Africa was achievable and we were on the critical list. So, I had an expectation.

There are at least 20 foreigners like me in the same unfair situation. We are looking at pursuing this issue legally,” he said.

Foster Mohale, the DOH’s spokesperson said: “SA citizens, including those studying in Cuban universities and permanent residents are given priority. Thus, studying in SA doesn't automatically mean placement for foreign graduates. Processes need to be followed.

“The situation is better now than before, when we used to produce about 1 000 doctors per year around 2016. Now we produce about 2 400 doctors annually.”

Siya Qoza, spokesperson for the Minister of Home Affairs explained that they consulted with various ministries like Basic Education, Trade and Industry, Labour and Public Enterprises, before they discussed and confirmed the critical skills list at Nedlac.

“In practice, the list is reviewed every four years. However, the last review was in 2014,” Qoza revealed.

He said the exclusion of various medical professions from the listing will not impact negatively on the economy, as there are various other visas which foreign nationals may still apply for.

To avoid prejudice to those affected by the changes, any critical skills work visa issued in terms of the 2014 listing, will, for a determined period, continue to be in force and may only be renewed under certain conditions.

Qoza promised that applications already submitted before February 2 will be processed according to 2014’s listing.

Likewise, all applications received for permanent residence permits, before the January 31 waiver withdrawal, will be processed, and permits already issued will remain effective.

He said holders of study visas did not qualify for permanent residence status.

“The Minister received legal advice that the waivers granted in 2016 were unlawful and irregular and had to be withdrawn.”