State-trained nurses sit idle while SA faces severe staff shortages

Alis Tshilowa, an auxiliary nurse, reviews one of the patients’ files at Chris Hani Baragwanath Hospital in Soweto Picture: Mpumelelo Buthelezi
Alis Tshilowa, an auxiliary nurse, reviews one of the patients’ files at Chris Hani Baragwanath Hospital in Soweto Picture: Mpumelelo Buthelezi

While the country battles medical staff shortages, hundreds of nurses who completed their training with the promise of work are unemployed

When Jabulile Msimang* saw a post calling for aspiring nurses to register for a four-year training programme, followed by another four years of work to pay the bursary back, she thought that an opportunity had finally come to take her and her family out of poverty.

Instead, the 23-year-old from KwaZulu-Natal (KZN) is among about 200 newly qualified nurses who completed their community service at provincial state hospitals and clinics last year, who are now sitting at home despite their contracts stating that they would be employed by the provincial health department.

While the country faces severe nursing shortages, Msimang and her cohort are facing an uncertain future, and 216 other newly trained nurses who completed their community service in Gauteng hospitals are also jobless.

The SA Nursing Council’s latest statistics prove the need for trainees – there are 287 079 registered nurses in the country, but their average age has increased, with 29% aged between 50 and 59, and 27% aged between 40 and 49.

The Democratic Nursing Organisation of SA (Denosa) and the Young Nurses Indaba Trade Union (YNITU) say the problem extends beyond Gauteng and KZN to Free State and Limpopo, where hundreds of trained and qualified nurses sit idle.

“We waited for a list to come out last month to announce the placements, but we didn’t get it. On January 2, we called the main campus where we were trained and were told to wait at home as there were no posts for us. We can’t even look for jobs in the private sector because we don’t have our certificates yet and were told that our certificates were only coming out in July from the head office in Pretoria,” said Msimang.

Last month, the national health department announced a massive drive to fill more than 15 000 professional posts, including 9 797 newly qualified practitioners into community service and internship posts, and 5 300 clinical and support health workers.

Read: What happens on a December night at Bara hospital

Msimang’s contract with the provincial health department states that she is obliged to work for the department for the same number of years it paid for her to study.

The KZN health department conceded that none of the nurses who completed their community service had yet been employed, saying it was in the “process of identifying vacant and funded posts”.

KZN health department spokesperson Ncumisa Mafunda said: “[Added to the number of] these service obligation nurses are nurses who still need to be regraded, after completing a bridging course, from staff nurse to professional nurse. For this group too, there is still a process that is under way to find vacant and funded posts. The department is thus looking to identify solutions for both these groups.”

Commenting on the unemployed cohort of nurses in Gauteng, DA shadow health MEC Jack Bloom said it costs more than R500 000 to train a professional nurse for four years: “It makes no sense to spend huge amounts of money on training nurses and not employing them, even though there is a large shortage of nurses in public hospitals.”

Denosa spokesperson Sibongiseni Delihlazo said: “The placement of nurses is a big problem in both KZN and Gauteng. It also happens to be the biggest provinces and their shortages of professionals are quite dire.

“Government is funding these kids to study, but when it comes time for them to be absorbed there is suddenly no funding for posts. It is poor human resource planning that is lagging us behind as a country. There is no finality on the matter in Limpopo as well, but there negotiations are ongoing with the department.”

On January 2, we called the main campus where we were trained and were told to wait at home as there were no posts for us.

Delihlazo said this cohort of nurses added to hundreds more who completed their studies in the past three years, who were also not placed.

“We are angry and feel disrespected, and unfortunately there are no heroes to intervene. Patients will continue to die if we don’t hire nurses. We already have a situation where patients are being turned away. Each year we fight the same battle,” he said.

YNITU president Lerato Madumo-Gova said the only provinces they were aware of that were not experiencing similar problems were Western Cape and Northern Cape.

“This community service idea was a bad one from the beginning. The idea was that the provinces would do the training and once the service was complete, it would be a national responsibility to place the nurses. I think they were trying to copy and paste what was being done with doctors, but even at that level there are problems. There is no HR planning and no heads are rolling,” she said.

For Msimang, this setback has far-reaching implications, not just for her, but for her family.

“I was the only person working. I live with my grandmother, who is on pension, and my siblings. So when you get an opportunity to go to college and get work, a lot of things start making sense in your life. But right now nothing makes sense,” she lamented.

In terms of community service and intern doctors, Dr Edward Ngwenya, an SA Medical Association member, asserted that around 1 600 South African-born-and-trained doctors had been placed at medical facilities.

National health department spokesperson Popo Maja said the department was responsible for the allocation of statutory posts, which were limited to internships and community service, while the provincial departments were responsible for recruitment and appointment.

“Once a nurse has completed his/her statutory year of community service, he/she is eligible to apply for registration and enter the usual labour market. There is no automatic transition into posts and they need to apply in the usual manner,” he said.

Maja advised the unemployed nurses to apply for the 674 posts advertised as part of the presidential stimulus package, or head for the private sector.

“Life Healthcare group will be recruiting roughly 250 nurses in the coming quarter, Mediclinic currently has 30 jobs advertised and will be updating its website with additional posts in the coming days,” he said.

*Not her real name


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