Nursing Students Demand Extension Of Bursary Stipends

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Protest action involving frustrated nursing students have encountered an interruption, but the group says they will not go down without a fight. The students have been engaging with the Gauteng Department of Health for quite some time, but say they aren't being listened to.

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Tensions continue between the Gauteng Department of Health and final year nursing students. 

Over 100 nursing students were up in arms last week, after they were told that they won’t be placed within community service programmes.

These students, in their final year of their nursing studies at the Gauteng College of Nursing R. 171 programme, are demanding that they be placed within Gauteng Health spaces, especially after they were told their contracts would be renewed.

Mpho Rantsu, spokesperson for the students, says they feel misled and let down by the Department as they were assured placement for employment upon course completion.

The students say they had a series of meetings with the Department, but now they are being told differently, leaving them in limbo. 

Upon the commencement of the course we were promised a lot of things and now the Department is singing a different tune, and no one is willing to hear us out.

In a turn of events, the Gauteng Health Department has obtained an interdict preventing final year nursing students from continuing their protest.

The students have been demanding that they continue to receive stipends between June and November of this year, even though they have completed their studies. But, the Department continues to reiterate that it does not have the funds.

The Health and Allied Workers Indaba Trade Union (HAITU) has accused the Gauteng Health MEC of abusing the courts, and insists the students' demands are justifiable, especially due to the contractual obligations stipulated when the students were awarded nursing bursaries. 

The bursary was awarded in 2020 as part of a three-year nursing programme 

The group were given bursaries by the Gauteng Department of Health when they began their studies three years ago. They were the first group in the three-year nursing programme after it was introduced. 

This bursary aims to nurture necessary and scarce skills in the medical field. The Gauteng College of Nursing has a number of branches around the province for students, and is offered to Gauteng-residing students who aim to study towards a Nursing Diploma. 

HAITU Gauteng leader, Bafana Tshabalala, has explained:

This issue emanates from the contracts that the students entered into with the Department [of Health], which said after their training, the Department will take them [on] for employment. But now, during their training, a new issue was introduced by the Regulatory Body of the South African Nursing Council, the issue of the Board Exam, which was not there when this course started. 

Tshabalala says the Board Exam does not take place until six months after the students have completed their nursing training, and that the Department did not raise the issue of no funding when the course was developed and introduced.

Regarding the requests for stipends, students are asking that between now and the time of the Board Exams, they are retained into the system and can assist as student nurses in hospital wards.

According to Tshabalala, once students have written and passed their exams, they are requesting that they be retained in the system for employment. 

The Department previously stated that a staggering figure of R77 million to fulfil the promises they made to the students, but HAITU disagrees, saying that it only cost R10 million. 

Tshabalala elaborated: 

"Our figure was sitting at R7000 per month for the next six months, multiplied by the number of students which is 168. As to how did the Department get to the R77 million, it tells you exactly how they calculate money when they do tenders."

The reason that they claim they don't have this money, is because there are no kickbacks in this; no-one in the Department will benefit, this money will go straight into the accounts of students and that is why they are claiming they don't have money.

Critical shortage of nurses in South Africa 

South Africa is currently experiencing a shortage of nurses in hospitals across the country, and not placing nurses in health spaces is a cause for concern, says NetCare, one of the largest private hospitals in the country.

NetCare has reported that the country has an estimated shortage of between 26,000 and 62,000 nurses, and a large number is expected to retire by 2030.

One nurse has called the situation "an incredible loss", not only for the students but also for the healthcare sector, as government has invested and trained these nursing students for three years, but now suddenly drops them when it's time to fulfil the promise of providing employment in their field; employment which would have assisted with alleviating some of the nurses shortage in South African hospitals. 

Netcare has claimed that the critical shortage of nurses is partly to blame on government's restrictions on private-sector nursing training. These restrictions limit the numbers NetCare and other hospitals are allowed to train. 

Public hospitals are short-staffed and it will require nearly a billion rand to address the crisis, according to Minister of Health, Dr. Joe Phaahla. 

Phaahla says he's aware of nursing staff issues and has approached Treasury for help.

Just in terms of the immediate basic needs, we did indicate that across the board, we need an amount of just under a billion Rand, about R950-million which is required just to be able to make sure that we can meet the basic needs.

It's not something which we're oblivious of, it's a matter we're taking it up with our colleagues who manage resources of the country. 

Tshabalala says this is not a sudden grievance amongst these nursing students, and that in fact, they began engaging with the Department and the MEC since last year.

He continues saying, “We really need the department to employ every nurse that is available, because if Netcare that is a private sector is failing to close the gap it tells you just how severe the situation is.”

Netcare previously trained over 3,000 nurses annually, but it's now restricted to a fraction of that number. Government has cited the reason for not placing nursing students due to a lack of funding, as well as unavailable spaces.  

Tshabalala says the students have their own legal team, who are working on taking the Department to court. 


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