The students were released, but last week the South African government warned that they could be deported if agreement on disputed matters could not be resolved.
On 7 February, 187 of 1,200 South African students studying medicine in Cuba launched a strike, demanding a more than 300% stipend increase, the appointment of a South African health attaché in Cuba and that they not be served pork meals.
University food typically includes beef, chicken or pork, but the Cuban government has struggled to acquire beef and chicken, and so consequently has only been serving pork.
The students, completing their final year at a Cuban medical school, boycotted classes and threatened to abandon their studies and return home should their demands not be met. The Cuban authorities later intervened when the students gathered outside the South African embassy in Havana.
Some students complained to South African media that payments of food bills had been held up, leaving them without meals for days.
South Africa has a long-standing agreement with Cuba for the training of local doctors. Universities in this country are able to graduate only around 1,200 medical doctors a year – a number insufficient to fill vacant posts and alleviate a critical shortage of doctors.
The two governments jointly sponsor the students' accommodation, food, transport and tuition, with students receiving a US$200 monthly stipend. The students are demanding $700 to bring them “in line with diplomats' children”.
In all, South Africa invests about R500,000 (US$60,000) per student over the six-year training for a Spanish language course, medical education and living costs.
Department of Health spokesperson Joe Maila claimed that the students wanted more money to buy food rather than eat what was on offer. They wanted to buy “goodies and party” and were “spoilt”.
The move prompted Health Minister Aaron Motsoaledi to write the students letters, suspecting that their issues arose from cultural differences, adaptability and “perhaps psychosocial changes”.
The health department therefore dispatched a team including a social worker, psychologist, human resources manager and doctor to “assist the students”. The team joined the South African ambassador in Cuba, university staff and the Cuban government in negotiations with the students.