As rain clouds gathered in the Mother City and a light but chilly wind gripped the air, the atmosphere inside the University of Cape Town’s (UCT) Sarah Baartman Hall was warm and energetic – as ululations and cheers rang out in celebration of the accomplishments of a large cohort of newly qualified South African doctors.
The doctors in-waiting, who had just completed their studies through the Nelson Mandela Fidel Castro (NMFC) Medical Collaboration Programme, are now equipped to serve patients in need of their care and expertise across the length and breadth of South Africa. The NMFC Programme was established by presidents Nelson Mandela and Fidel Castro in 1996, as part of various bilateral agreements between South Africa and the Republic of Cuba. The programme was developed to address the dearth of doctors who practise in rural, peri-urban and informal settlements.
A vibrant graduation
Hosted by UCT, the graduation ceremony took place on Friday, 7 July, and included many bells and whistles: a marimba band, the national anthems of Cuba and South Africa, a musical item, and a special thanksgiving message offered by Khoisan chief Aùtshumao Mackie.
Professor Heidi Soca Gonzalez, acting vice-chancellor of the University of Havana in Cuba, conferred a total of 454 degrees during the morning and afternoon ceremonies, and loved ones cheered loudly as the graduands took to the stage. Following their graduation, the cohort of doctors will follow an 18-month integration programme into local universities, and will be placed in various public healthcare facilities located in historically disadvantaged communities across the country.
“Today we confirm that the relationship and partnership between South Africa and Cuba has yielded huge human capacity for the medical fraternity, particularly medical doctors.”
In attendance at this vibrant occasion were delegates from both countries, including the deputy minister of the national Department of Health in South Africa, Dr Sibongiseni Dhlomo, and Faculty of Health Sciences academics from UCT and other partner universities.
The programme in brief
Addressing the audience, Dr Dhlomo said Cuba’s contribution to South Africa’s struggle for liberation is well documented. “They fought with us; they fought for us.” At the dawn of democracy, Castro responded to Mandela’s request to help South Africa rebuild its healthcare system. The agreement, he added, was that Cuba would send Cuban doctors to South Africa, to work in hospitals across the country. Castro further pledged his country’s allegiance by offering to train South African medical students, in Cuban universities, to become doctors; and so the programme was born.
Dhlomo said the programme signifies the impact Cuba has in the field of medicine internationally, and the celebration highlighted the importance of this solidarity work, which to date has benefited 165 countries. Some doctors who were trained in Cuba and have returned to South Africa today hold senior clinical management responsibilities in various health institutions in the country.
“As we meet in such gatherings, we always reflect on these two stalwarts [Mandela and Castro], their vision and distinguished revolutionary task, who brought about change in the lives of many families, including these graduates here today,” he said.
“Today we confirm that this relationship and partnership between South Africa and Cuba have yielded huge human capacity for the medical fraternity, particularly medical doctors. It’s a remarkable milestone that cannot be hidden or forgotten, given the impact it has in South Africa. This is the legacy and the living testimony of the impact of this relationship brought by our stalwarts.”
A partnership of solidarity
During his welcome address, vice-chancellor (interim) of UCT Emeritus Professor Daya Reddy described the event as a momentous occasion, and a time to commemorate and celebrate the cohort’s hard work and sacrifice that have culminated in the degrees awarded.
“Developing this programme in collaboration with Cuba provided a creative and collaborative way of growing the numbers of medical doctors in South Africa. It is a fine example of a wonderful partnership of solidarity, friendship and support, for which we in South Africa are immensely grateful,” Emeritus Professor Reddy said.
Since its inception, more than 3 000 medical doctors have graduated through the programme – contributing to the growing pool of doctors in the country, and plugging a critical scarce skills gap, which translates to one doctor being expected to treat 1 000 patients. Graduating 454 new doctors this year, 40% of whom are women, is a significant achievement and a substantial contribution to the field of medicine. As he concluded his address, Reddy also acknowledged the academic and support staff, as well as the family members and loved ones, who provided both material and moral support and helped the graduates achieve this milestone.
“Congratulations on the milestone you have just reached, and my very best wishes for all the good you will do after today, and the difference you will make.”
“Today, we also acknowledge the efforts and contributions of our colleagues at Cuba’s medical faculties, who have played an essential role in educating and training all of you – our new medical doctors, he said. “Of course, we celebrate with each of you for what you have achieved and accomplished. Congratulations on the milestone you have just reached, and my very best wishes for all the good you will do after today, and the difference you will make.”
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