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Madiba, Fidel and a dream of doctors

- Deborah Minors

South African Cuban-trained doctors have graduated at Wits through an agreement forged by Nelson Mandela and Fidel Castro in 1996.

The 2016 cohort brings to 520 the total number of South African Cuban-trained medical alumni since 1996. Some of the original cohort from the 1990s attended the graduation of the 61 South Africans who received their MBBCh degrees in the Great Hall on 8 July 2016.

The training of South Africans in medicine by Cuba began with a bilateral agreement between former South African President Nelson Mandela and former Cuban President Fidel Castro. This year South Africa and Cuba celebrate 20 years of bilateral collaboration as well as the anniversary of the first cohort to train in Cuba in 1996.

Among this original group was Dr Desmond Kegakilwe, who went to Cuba in 1998. Kega­kilwe now works at the Wits Reproductive Health and HIV Institute (WRHI) and he is Chairperson of the Rural Doctors Association of Southern Africa (RuDASA).

Hope for a nation

Speaking at the graduation, Wits Vice-Chancellor and Principal, Professor Adam Habib, acknowledged Cuba’s contribution:

“This medical programme is an enormous sacrifice for a country that is small and under-resourced, but which has made its own contribution towards us addressing the historical disparities of our past. We thank Cuba for its solidarity and grand gesture.”

Habib urged graduands to be mindful of their responsibility to South Africa. He reminded them that the likes of Nelson Mandela, Steve Biko, Helen Zille, and others had traversed the Great Hall stage to graduate at Wits:

“Remember that you walk in the footsteps of Mandela on this stage. You are the product of training because of a small country in the Caribbean. Remember to make your own mark by providing a service to the most disadvantaged of our society. You represent hope for a nation and a continent.”

The storm still rages

Dr Links Gavin, 27, delivered the graduates’ message at the graduation. “We made it!” he began and quoted singer R. Kelly’s lyrics, the storm is over.

“But the storm of poverty and malnutrition is still raging. It’s a storm that rages in our own townships and in our own families,” said Links. “There’s a need for young women and men to impact our communities. We have our heads full of knowledge, hearts full of compassion, and our hands ready to serve in communities.”

Links later described the Cuban experience as “the best time of my life”, despite the challenge of studying medicine in Spanish. The entire first year in Cuba is dedicated to learning the language.

Links is an alumnus of the University of Pretoria. He will complete his internship at Tshepong, a Wits satellite training hospital in Klerksdorp, North West Province. His passion is surgery and he aims to specialise as an ear, nose and throat physician. He said the burden of disease is different in Cuba: “I only encountered one patient living with HIV.”

Prioritising primary healthcare in SA

Dr Aaron Motsoaledi, National Minister of Health told graduands that South Africa grapples with the “quadruple burden of disease”. These are communicable diseases (HIV, AIDS, TB); maternal and child mortality; non-communicable diseases (lifestyle diseases, cancer, mental illnesses, etc.); and injury and trauma.

The training of South African doctors in Cuba strengthens the capacity of government to ensure better health for all, said Motsoaledi. Furthermore, the National Department of Health (NDH) is working with eight medical schools to increase student intake, expand the schools, and build more medical schools – one of which has now been established in Limpopo Province after 30 years. These measures aim to realise Vision 2030, the NDH’s National Development Plan.

“Vision 2030 says that by 2030 life expectancy in South Africa must be 70 years, we must have an HIV-free generation, and the quadruple burden of disease must be reduced,” said Motsoaledi.  “If you go to the NHI [National Health Insurance] White Paper it says primary healthcare is going to be the heart of the healthcare system. The Cuban model promotes community. Many countries in the world are following the Cuban example [of prioritising primary healthcare].”

Kudos to Cuban healthcare

Motsoaledi said Cuba was the first country in the world to receive a World Health Organisation certificate for eliminating mother-to-child transmission of HIV.

His Excellency Carlos Fernández de Cossío, Cuban Ambassador to South Africa, told graduands:

“During your training, Cuba provided the best it can offer in its experience; the same experience that has Cuba recognised for its healthcare indicators. You are equipped with the technical science and skills to enable you to save lives, to heal, to improve the living conditions of your fellow countrymen – a huge but beautiful responsibility.”

After Professor Juan Ceballos, Acting Chancellor of the University of Villa Clara in Cuba, had conferred all 61 degrees, Professor Martin Veller, Dean of the Faculty of Health Sciences at Wits led graduates in the Hippocratic Oath