Protesting medical students in Cuba come under fire

The protesters among South African medical students, stationed in Cuba, seems to have raised the ire of the South African government drawing statements which stop short of branding the protesters as ungrateful spoiled brads.

Details of this protest action are scant but there is some ground in arguing that a part of government’s reaction, a barrage of venom, may be over the top. The potential challenges bound to be faced by a group of young and bright people, hailing from a liberal society as politically robust as South Africa, should not be underestimated. The question as to whether their demands are really unreasonable also deserves a closer look.

The latest fire has come from the Minister of Higher Education and Training, Blade Nzimande who in a strongly worded statement condemned the protest. “The sense of entitlement and lack of gratitude displayed by these students who come from a country with such high levels of desperate need for higher education and training, and limited state resources, is totally unacceptable. I condemn it in the strongest terms”.

In demanding amongst other things a $500 increase to the $200 monthly stipend, the 187 students are said to have stayed away from class with some said to be staging a hunger strike of sort. They are also said to be threatening that they will return home if their demands are not met. South Africa has a total of 1200 students in this Cuban program.

“If they are demanding something that is a privilege, as if it is a right and threatening to come back home, then maybe they should do just that and open up that opportunity for other equally deserving young people who are thirsty for such opportunities,” said Nzimande.

The ministerial statement said the South African government spends about R500 000 per student over six years for a language course, medical training and living expenses in Cuba.

Nzimande said the action of the students was threatening opportunities for other deserving South African students, particularly those from poor backgrounds, from benefitting from the long standing cooperation that exists between the two countries where a number of South Africa’s medical doctors and other professionals have received training in Cuba.

“The level of need for higher education and training opportunities is very high in the country, and the state resources are extremely limited in comparison and through this long-standing cooperation with Cuba, government is going some way in broadening access and increasing the number of adequately trained medical professionals,” said Nzimande.

A year ago Nzimande signed a bilateral agreement with his Cuban counterpart which was aimed at strengthening relations in the area of education between the two countries and at the same time encourages mutual understanding between the peoples of the two countries.

“We will continue to build on the work that is already underway, and actually take it to a higher level which will include lecturer and student exchanges as well as research collaboration amongst our higher education institutions. A lot more deserving students are ready for these opportunities,” said Nzimande.

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