Let’s Put South Africans to Work

Worker’s Day Statement
by IFP President, Velenkosini Hlabisa, MPL

Each year on 1 May, South Africa – and many other nations across the world – celebrate Workers’ Day. This commemoration is of special significance for South Africa, particularly in the light of the role played and sacrifices made by South African workers in the struggle against apartheid.

The workers that make up a country’s labour force form the backbone of society, and South Africa is no different. However, unlike pre-1994, South African workers’ rights are now protected by our Bill of Rights, found within our Constitution. Among others, “every citizen has the right to choose their trade, occupation or profession freely”, and “everyone has the right to fair labour practices”.

According to the most recent figures from Statistics South Africa, the unemployment rate was 32.5% for the fourth quarter of 2020. This was, in part, thanks to the impact of the Covid-19 pandemic on the economy. Would it not therefore be logical to offer any available job opportunities – particularly those funded by government – to South Africans?

Why then, are South African medical doctors and engineers being pushed aside in favour of their Cuban counterparts?

The past contributions made by Cuba in the fight for South Africa’s democracy cannot be ignored. However, how can the South African government justify creating job opportunities for foreign doctors and engineers when there are hundreds, if not thousands, of qualified South African professionals sitting at home, desperate for an opportunity to work. Further, these professionals already speak at least one of our 11 official languages and live in South Africa. No time or money needs to be spent on language lessons or relocating them and providing them with housing and transportation before they can even start working.

In addition to the millions spent each year on the Cuba-SA Student Doctor Programme, much publicity accompanied the arrival of approximately 200 Cuban doctors and medical professionals a year ago, to ‘help fight the Covid-19 pandemic’. The cost to the taxpayer: over R239 million in salaries alone.

According to media reports, “The R239 million could easily have funded 291 Grade 1 MO posts for post-community service doctors.” These Grade 1 MO or Medical Officer posts are what the junior doctors apply for once their community service is completed. Due to widespread budget cuts, these posts are currently few and far between.

This past week there was further outcry, as reports emerged from the Department of Water and Sanitation that 24 Cuban engineers “are in the country for three years and would assist in the area of infrastructure maintenance and operation skills throughout the water value chain from source to tap”. Minister Sisulu stated that she “want[ed] to refute claims that these engineers are in country to take jobs which could be offered to South Africans.” In addition, “engineers will be getting a stipend” and “budget that has been set aside will also cover accommodation, and goods and services.”

In light of our current unemployment situation, why are these resources being dedicated to Cuban engineers?

Following the Department’s announcement, one of the local unions provided a list of over 120 South African engineers who could step up and take on the work – while costing less and bringing more experience to the table. These engineers are also accredited to work in South Africa, which the aforementioned Cuban engineers are not.

As the IFP, we support finding local solutions to local challenges.

Importing ‘talent’ – and, in specific, Cuban engineers – is not a new proposal from the government. However, while they have been quick to offer motivation as to why the Department of Water and Sanitation requires outside help, they have been very quiet about the earlier contingents of Cuban engineers, imported under various unsuccessful schemes.

There was the Free State’s Cuban Technical Advisers programme, launched by then Premier Ace Magashule in 2015. The programme allegedly cost the taxpayer almost R85 million, with very little to show for such a sizeable investment.

At national level, in September 2013, the Minister of Water and Environmental Affairs and her Cuban counterpart signed an Agreement, “to assist the Department in the areas of geo-hydrology and engineering services particularly for rural and disadvantaged areas … capacity building through training and support of local staff”.

According to a media release from the Department of Water and Sanitation, dated 25 September 2017, “the two countries also agreed to extend the contracts of the 35 Cuban engineers stationed in all nine provinces to June 2018 in order to share more knowledge with their South African counter-parts”.

We are curious as to the fate of these 35 Cuban engineers who spent years in South Africa to “empower future engineers with much needed skills to help address the country’s water challenges”. It appears that the skills-transfer programme that has been in place for almost 10 years has not been very successful if a further cohort of engineers is being sent in now.

Is it not time to look to our local engineers, and give South African workers access to South African resources? We need to work together to re-build South Africa and give our people access to much-needed basic services.

Velenkosini Hlabisa, MPL
IFP President and Leader of the Official Opposition in the KZN Legislature
083 974 5783