A group of 35 SA Military Health Service personnel who went absent without leave (AWOL) during their Cuban medical training as doctors have lost their Supreme Court of Appeal (SCA) application for reinstatement, reports MedicalBrief. The SCA noted that “military discipline constitutes the difference between an army and a mob … [their] conduct was a flagrant breach of duty”.
The student soldiers appealed after the Gauteng High Court (Pretoria) last year ruled that the SA National Defence Force was within its rights to fire them. The students had refused to attend lectures at a military training school, claiming that was not an internationally accredited medical training facility.
The group had all been employed in medically related fields in the military before being selected for the course and had been in Havana for a year, being trained in Marxist-Leninist theory and basic biology and science, with the medical training due to start the following year.
The main reason for training the appellants in Cuba at the University of Ciencias Medicas (UCIMED), the judgment notes, is that the country “has a unique system of training doctors in military medicine”. Due to an increase of students registered at UCIMED, it established two satellite campuses in Santiago, namely Ciencia Medicas Facultad 2 Santiago de Cuba and the Inter Arms School General José Maceo (the Inter Arms School).
The group then turned to the SCA, which turned down their application last Thursday (6 January). The judgment was written by Acting Judge Ashton Schippers, with judges Xola Petse, and Tati Makgoka, Caroline Nicholls and Nolwazi Mabindla-Boqwana concurring)
The soldiers were part of a group of 76 officers and non-commissioned officers in the SAMHS given an opportunity to study medicine at UCIMED. The SANDF paid for their studies in advance.
They arrived in Cuba in August 2017 and started with a Spanish and pre-medical course. Some of them only commenced with their studies the following year. The group raised their concerns with the SANDF’s Surgeon-General. When these were allegedly not addressed, they refused to further attend classes but remained at their base in Cuba.
The SANDF made numerous attempts to get them back to class but they said they wanted to withdraw from the programme and return to South Africa. They were told if they withdrew, they would be discharged.
On their return to South Africa a board of inquiry found they were absent without leave (AWOL) for 30 days while in Cuba and they were fired.
The group denied they were absent without leave and said they remained on campus while in Cuba and reported for roll-call.
The SCA found that the appellants had “openly defied” their commanding officer, Colonel Joel Lopez, by refusing to attend classes. “The fact that their commanding officer was aware of the appellants’ whereabouts (on the evidence he was not) or that they were physically present within the precincts of the School of Arms, is irrelevant. In the replying affidavit the appellants denied that Colonel Joel Lopez, a member of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Cuba, was their commanding officer because he had not been appointed to that rank under the Act. They contended that Brigadier General Majola was their commanding officer and that he had not instructed them to attend classes. Before us the appellants rightly did not persist in this argument – it is opportunistic and contrived.”
The SCA also rejected the appellants argument that dismissal could only occur after military board of inquiry had been convened.
“Military discipline constitutes the difference between an army and a mob. Obedience and order are the backbone of any military force. The SANDF simply cannot function properly when its members absent themselves from duty without permission, contrary to the job they agreed to do, and the rules with which they undertook to comply. The appellants’ conduct was a flagrant breach of duty.”
Last year, The Citizen reported that the SANDF defended its decision to fire the soldiers for “mutiny”, after they refused to report to the medical training facility to study for what they claimed was “an essentially worthless five-year medical degree”. In this week’s judgment, the SCA found that their claims were unfounded and that the campus was accredited.
The Citizen report quoted SANDF spokesperson Siphiwe Dlamini’s response, at the time: “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. 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.”
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