Unemployed doctors spend a night outside KZN health offices

South Africa flag with doctor in front
The unemployment of doctors has become a recurrent issue.(freepik)

A group of about 100 unemployed junior doctors spent Tuesday night camped out in front of the KwaZulu-Natal (KZN) health department’s offices in Pietermaritzburg. 

The doctors, who completed their community service in December last year, staged a sit-in at the Natalia building where the department is housed. They say they aren’t leaving until they get formal letters of appointment from the department. 

“We were promised jobs by the first of April and that has not happened which is why we slept out in the cold rainy weather,” one of the unemployed doctors, Refiloe Mokoena, tells Health-e News. The KZN native graduated from the University of Free State in 2020 and completed her community service at Indwe Hospital in the Eastern Cape in December last year.

“After several back to back engagements on Tuesday Dr Sandile Tshabalala the head of KZN health department  said he could only meet with us on Wednesday. We then told him that we will peacefully wait for the meeting inside the Natalia Building,” Mokoena says. 

But the group was forcefully removed from the building and spent the cold and rainy night out in the street. Photos shared by the doctors show people, some wearing scrubs and carrying stethoscopes, sitting in camp chairs covered with blankets.

“We had to negotiate with the police to at least allow us to camp outside the Natalia Building. We are thankful they kept guard throughout the night,” says Mokoena. 

Protestors sitting on the pavement holding placards.

Meeting with the department

The KZN health department met with the group’s representatives on Wednesday. 

“Today (Wednesday) more promises were made to our delegates who attended a meeting with KZN health officials. However they said the budget is R2.9 billion short as they have previous debt from last year. They said the budget would be allocated to hospitals and the hospitals would decide on how many doctors to employ,” she says.

KZN health MEC Nomagugu Simelane re-assured the unemployed doctors that their plight is being attended to at the highest level of government. 

She says the government will do its best to employ as many of the junior doctors as possible. 

“We do have vacancies that have not been filled. Those vacancies are in almost all our hospitals which have the prerogative to recruit. Unfortunately, we are unable to fill all of those posts, at the level that we would like to. We are able to fill only those posts that are funded,” she says. 

She says they have been provided with funds from the Medium Term Expenditure Framework, but those funds are not for the hiring of unemployed doctors. 

“Those funds were meant to foot the bill for the wage agreement that was agreed upon last year. However, this is a discussion that the health minister is continuing to have with the president,” she says.

Recurring issue 

Dr Nkateko Mnisi deputy president of the South African Medical Association Trade Union says the unemployment of junior doctors who had completed their community service has become an annual issue

“The issue of the unemployment of junior doctors is a recurring problem. Last year we handed a memorandum about unemployed doctors to Health Minister Dr Joe Phaahla. Early this year we were in the same situation and now doctors had to spend a night out in the cold to fight to be employed. Meanwhile public hospitals are operating on skeleton staff,” says Mnisi. 

The unemployment of health workers exists alongside severe staff shortages in the public health sector. 

The health minister has attributed the high number of unemployed medical graduates to the increasing pressure on healthcare budgets which, he says, is partly due to the large government salary bill. In February Phaahla said the department would soon outline plans with timelines for recruiting and appointing health workers, including the recently graduated professionals and unemployed medical doctors.

But this is cold comfort for Mokoena and her colleagues who are still camping outside the MEC’s office in Pietermaritzburg. Mokoena says the situation they are in is disheartening. 

“It is mentally draining to stay at home day in and day out. Now I have to figure out how to be a contributing member of my household. Meanwhile, doctors in public hospitals are burnt out because of the shortage of human capital while we are sitting at home doing nothing. This badly affects the patients,” she says.  – Health-e News

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