Health Minister Aaron Motsoaledi says foreign nationals are burdening the South African health system. He was speaking on the second day of labour union, National Education, Health and Allied Workers’ Union’s (Nehawu) Nurses’ Summit in Johannesburg on Wednesday.

The summit looked at issues that nurses are facing, such as safety, training and the introduction of the National Health Insurance (NHI).

South Africa is facing a dire shortage of health workers against an increasing number of patients in the country’s hospitals.

Motsoaledi says more hospitals and clinics are needed to accommodate all the local and foreign patients. He says South Africa needs to re-look at its immigration policies to control the number of undocumented and illegal immigrants in the country.

“The weight that foreign nationals are bringing to the country has got nothing to do with xenophobia… it’s a reality. Our hospitals are full, we can’t control them. When a woman is pregnant and about to deliver a baby you can’t turn her away from the hospital and say you are a foreign national… you can’t. And when they deliver a premature baby, you have got to keep them in hospital. When more and more come, you can’t say the hospital is full now go away… they have to be admitted, we have got no option – and when they get admitted in large numbers, they cause overcrowding, infection control starts failing.”

Overcrowding in neonatal wards has been blamed for the deaths of a number of babies who are exposed to infections in hospitals. Motsoaledi says neonatal wards in Gauteng alone are 132% full and yet they cannot reject premature babies.

“That is why we also want the NHI – because we know that some of these services are there in the private hospitals but they are there for a select few. When you have got overcrowding like this, you must use all the facilities in the country – whether they are public or private. I can’t say this baby is about to die, he needs an ICU, there is no ICU in a public hospital but the private hospital next door has got an ICU and this baby cannot go there because she belongs to a lower socio-economic class… that’s wrong – and that’s what we want to change on NHI which people are trying to run away from.”

The nurses, as the backbone of the health system, are forced to strike a balance between saving lives against the limited staff and resources. They have been accused of lacking passion and empathy.

However, Zola Saphetha, the general-secretary of Nehawu has defended them saying the health system has deteriorated in the country and yet the demand for health care is increasing.

“There’s a ratio in terms of the policy. The first thing that we are emphasising is that let’s stick to the ratio and as and when we deal with difficulties of overcrowding, we should have a conversation in terms of how do we deal with those. It can’t be imposed because they are against the policy. And we call on government to be a custodian of the roles and the policies that are put in place by government but overcrowding of course you know that it brings more burden in the system, in a sensitive environment like hospitals so we have to find mechanisms of dealing with it.”

The union says it believes that the NHI will assist in improving its work and providing health care as it is expected to come with a larger pool of workers and resources.