16 May 2023 | Story André Damons | Photo Charl Devenish
Prof Mokgadi Matlakala
Prof Mokgadi Matlakala, Academic Chairperson of the Department of Health Studies at UNISA and Deputy Chairperson of the Forum for University Deans in South Africa (FUNDISA), was the keynote speaker and acknowledged the contribution of nurses and the courage to continue to advocate for improved health and healthcare.

Nurses serve with pride, and they should be protected, valued, and respected.

This was the recurring thought from speakers at the University of the Free State (UFS) School of Nursing’s International Nurses Day celebrations.

“We celebrate this day to highlight the importance of nurses in the healthcare services, and to honour our heroes – us being the heroes as well,” said keynote speaker Prof Mokgadi Matlakala, Academic Chairperson of the Department of Health Studies at UNISA and Deputy Chairperson of the Forum for University Deans in South Africa (FUNDISA). “We acknowledge the contribution of nurses and the courage to continue to advocate for improved health and healthcare – and this amid the challenges confronting us.”  

Prof Matlakala said the theme of the day, “Our Nurses. Our Future”, comes at a very critical time for the nursing profession, given the circumstances following the COVID-19 pandemic, and the ongoing transformation needed in nursing education, particularly in South Africa. 

International Nurses Day is celebrated annually on 12 May, and this year the UFS School of Nursing also hosted a tree-planting to commemorate nurses who lost their lives during the pandemic. Several other activities, including an Amazing Race, outdoor events, and stalls portrayed nursing services in various contexts. 

Prof Matlakala said the day also serves as a way of sharing ideas about changes taking place in nursing, and imagining a nurse of the future, both in practice and academia. “In the African context, it is important for us to reflect and understand who our nurses are, where are they, and where have they been trained.”

World mistakenly took nurses for granted

“Today we have an opportunity to celebrate ourselves as nurses, and I encourage you to acknowledge the good work you are doing. And I include the student nurses as well, because they are our future.”

Prof Matlakala said during the pandemic the world mistakenly took nurses for granted. “They treated us as invisible, and as an inexhaustible resource,” she said, outlining areas such as illness among nurses, fear of the pandemic, death, work overload, and unprecedented changes in nursing environments and nursing education as areas where nurses were “taken for granted as superheroes”.

“The pandemic is over, but the question is: Did the nurses receive any counselling after surviving the pandemic? Did they get special leave to rest? In the nursing practice it is business as usual. In nursing education institutions, they are speaking of catching up on the time lost during the pandemic. Nobody is thinking of exhaustion as a non-communicable disease. Yet, many of our nurses are suffering from exhaustion both mentally and physical. It is thus important that we advocate for wellness for our nurses.”

Protect. Respect. Value

Prof Matlakala said protecting nurses relates to how the government or health system can address the growing nursing shortage and provide positive practice environments, especially with regard to safety in the workplace. She also said the ongoing shortage of nurses is a pandemic that is felt across the globe.

Her message to future nurses is that the profession needs nurses who will be available to confront the many challenges nurses are experiencing. “You need to be assertive and take control of your professional status despite the problems we are hearing. One of the values that we need to have is a positive attitude, which means we need to focus on solutions, not only on problems.”

Celebrating the impact of nursing services

Prof Gert van Zyl, Dean of the UFS Faculty of Health Sciences, welcomed guests and said International Nurses Day celebrates the impact of nursing services in providing high-quality healthcare to patients and improving their overall wellbeing. 

“Nurses play a critical role in the healthcare system, providing care, support, and education to patients and their families. Thank you for your dedication and passion for your profession,” Prof Van Zyl said. “Thank you for all the sacrifices you made to provide the highest level of care and support to people in need in the recent COVID-19 time. Moreso, your contribution to the healthcare industry is immeasurable. We are grateful for everything you do and have done. Keep up the excellent work.”

He added that he believes professional nurses are motivated by many factors, including three main ones: “A desire to help others, a sense of purpose, and the satisfaction of making a difference in people’s life. To motivate nurses for the future, it is important to recognise their achievements, to support them, and to provide opportunities for development and growth.” 

Dr Jeanette Sebaeng, Head of the School of Nursing, said she is privileged to be part of this “very sacred” profession. “I had an opportunity to see life for the first time. I had an opportunity to close someone’s eyes for the first time. I don’t think I would be anything else, even in the next life, other than a nurse.” 

She said when 2020 was declared the Year of the Nurse and Midwife, by year-end the meaning had become grim. “We did not expect that it would be our year in that manner. We lost close to 300 nurses in South Africa due to COVID-19. Even after losing our colleagues, here we are, still strong. That is resilience, and for that I salute you.”

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