The SA military has defended its decision to fire 35 soldiers for “mutiny”, after they refused to report to a Cuban medical training facility to study for an essentially worthless five-year medical degree, reports The Citizen .
News of the dismissals prompted the SA National Defence Union (Sandu) to deny that the soldiers mutinied and to threaten legal action against the Department of Defence.
The report quotes SANDF spokesperson Siphiwe Dlamini as saying that the dismissals were legally sound. “They have been administratively discharged through our military justice process. The military has its own justice system and going AWOL (absent without leave) is a serious offence. “It is a dismissible offence. This is military, not civilian law.”
The report say the students allegedly refused to attend lectures at the General José Maceo infantry school’s new medical faculty after realising it was not an internationally accredited medical training facility. The students had all been employed in medically related fields in the military before being selected for the course. They had been in Havana since last year and had undergone training in Marxist-Leninist theory and basic biology and science, with the medical training due to start this year.
Asked whether the department had ascertained the status of the medical faculty’s accreditation with South Africa, or if the students would even be allowed to practise in South Africa, the report says Dlamini dismissed the question entirely. “Cuba offers the best medical training in the world and it is the foremost, including Americans, who train in Cuba. That is my answer. That is why the Cubans boast that 95% to 99% of the doctors in the world are from Cuba (the report’s digital editor said – this claim is so untrue, it’s almost not required to point it out. But for the record it’s very untrue). “Even in South Africa, half the doctors were trained in Cuba and are now in the rural areas. Those who train in South Africa do not want to work there. Well, that is their right.”
A letter circulated by the South African Military Health Service in March notified members that its command structure had dismissed the students after having “failed in numerous interventions”. “These students have been AWOL from February, for a period of more than 30 days. They refused to attend classes as instructed by lecturers and senior officer Brigadier General MT Majola, committing the offence of mutiny,” it read. The military initially sent 76 medical students, nearly half of whom apparently refused to attend lectures.
It is understood this was because they believed the institution was not recognised by the Health Professions Council of SA (HCPSA) so their medical qualifications would be worthless once they returned home. The report said they had apparently confirmed with the SA Qualifications Authority that the school’s qualifications were not recognised in this country.
The students contacted for comment all referred enquiries to Sandu, which had advised them not to speak to the media ahead of the planned legal challenge surrounding their dismissal. The report says Sandu spokesperson Pikkie Greeff was not available for comment at the time of going to press.
The report says the HPCSA could also not be reached for comment on whether there was any leeway for students attaining degrees from the Cuban facility to practise in South Africa, since it was not registered with them.
Sandu has offered a different version to military top brass as to why the soldiers could not continue with their studies abroad. Spokesperson Pikkie Greeff is quoted in The Times as saying that media reports claiming that the medical students, who are represented by the union, returned to South Africa because they went on a mutiny were untrue. The union has demanded that the SANDF reinstates the students by Wednesday 10 April – or face legal action.
“Some say they went AWOL. I see a very prominent Sunday newspaper this weekend even made the startling allegation that these students actually deserted their posts. None of these allegations have a fraction of truth in them. They are all false, they are lies and they are manufactured by the management of the SANDF,” alleged Greeff.
The report says, according to Greeff, the students were contracted by the SANDF to join as soldiers and to study for medical degrees to become doctors. “For that purpose, they were posted to Cuba to study there,” he said. After studying at the University in Cuba and finishing a semester, he said they were then moved to a different institution, which was little more than an infantry battalion in the Cuban Defence Force.
Greeff said the students started asking questions because they were not registered as medical students, as required by the Health Professions Act, and the institution in Cuba where they were studying was not accredited.
“The defence force management and powers-that-be in Cuba could not explain this, could not provide a solution to them and could not address their concerns,” he is quoted in the report as saying. “In the end, it simply boils down to requiring someone to study medicine in circumstances that are clearly unlawful and in breach of their employment contracts.”
He said the students were told that if they were not satisfied with the situation, they could get on a plane back to South Africa and be regarded as dismissed. Greeff said they also received a letter dismissing them for so called misconduct, although the nature of the misconduct was not detailed in the letter and their members were not given any hearing.
“We are not going to stand for this kind of thing. We consulted with the students. They are all our members and we have warned the defence force, through our lawyers, that they have until 10 April to reinstate these students and comply with the obligation in the employment contract,” he said in the report.