SANDF defends firing 35 soldiers for refusing to study in Cuba ‘pointlessly’

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The South African military has defended its decision to fire 35 soldiers on mutiny charges.

Their transgression was to refuse to report to a Cuban medical training facility to study for an essentially worthless five-year medical degree. News of the dismissals prompted the SA National Defence Union (Sandu) to threaten legal action against the department of defence.

But department spokesperson Siphiwe Dlamini said 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 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, 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 [this claim is so untrue, it’s almost not required to point it out. But for the record it’s very untrue – digital editor].

“Even in South Africa, half the doctors were trained in Cuba and are now in the rural areas. Those who train in SA do not want to work there. Well, that is their right.”

A letter seen by The Citizen and 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 so their medical qualifications would be worthless once they returned home.

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 yesterday all referred enquiries to Sandu, which had advised them not to speak to the media ahead of the planned legal challenge surrounding their dismissal.

Sandu spokesperson Pikkie Greeff was not available for comment at the time of going to press.

The Health Professions’ Council of SA 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.

Simnikiwe Hlatshaneni / The Citizen