How to become a medical doctor in South Africa

It is an unfortunate fact that the demand for medical practitioners in South Africa far exceeds the supply, despite the fact that many South African students dream of becoming medical doctors! Unfortunately, there aren’t enough medical schools in South Africa, or sufficient spaces at them to accommodate all the learners who want to follow this career path. 

As a result, it’ll be hard for you to get into medical school. The competition to get into the existing places in medical schools is fierce!  Prospective medical students must also understand that becoming a doctor is a long and expensive process that takes a great deal of discipline, commitment and very, very, VERY hard work! It is therefore crucial that you apply early because of the limited number of students that will actually be accepted each year.

What high school subjects are required to be accepted at a medical school?

The high school subjects required are mathematics, physical science and life science (at Level 4), and the applicant needs to have achieved at least 60% in their home language. They will also be required to have written the National Benchmark Test*, and to have achieved an overall average of 70% in their National Senior Certificate. It is also very important to have a high level of proficiency in English as almost all your tuition and study materials will be through the medium of English. 


*The National Benchmark Tests, or NBTs, are assessment tests that first-year applicants to higher education institutions have to write to gain acceptance. These tests measure the candidate’s maths skills, and academic, language and quantitative literacy. The aim is to establish whether the student will be able to cope with the demands of studying at a tertiary level. 


Requirements for acceptance into a medical school

The acceptance criteria vary from university to university, so you need to go on their websites (links listed below) and download the prospectuses for each medical school. As already said, medicine is a highly competitive course to get accepted into – the number of applicants far outstrips the places available. 


Top students all over South Africa as well as other countries in Africa try to get into the medical schools listed below, in South Africa as they are highly rated. Black or Coloured applicants may find it a bit easier to get in than White or Indian students as the controversial ‘Quota System’ is in force to redress past imbalances. The system aims to have doctors qualify to represent the South African racial demographic. 


In practice, though again this can vary from school to school, this would mean that roughly 69% of the students accepted at medical schools would be Black, 19% would be Indian, 9% would be Coloured, 2% would be White and 1% would be ‘other’. Applicants are expected to have high academic marks, with the lowest being in the mid-70 percentiles, and going up to as high as 90%+ at some schools. 


The quota system and the shortage of places at South African medical schools have the unfortunate result that many South African students are forced to leave and study medicine in other countries. This also contributes to the dire shortage of doctors in South Africa. It’s estimated that South Africa needs 3,000 ‘new’ doctors per year. In reality, the actual number that qualifies is only about 1,300.


How long does it take to qualify as a doctor in South Africa?

Medical students will spend six years at medical school, of which two years will be in-house learning and four years will involve practical work as a resident where you may be paid a salary. This will depend on where you’re doing your residency and which medical school you’re enrolled at. The University of the Free State offers a five-year course. You will need seven years to qualify if you’re on an extended programme for candidates who didn’t initially meet the minimum admission requirements.


Are there different ways to gain admittance to a medical school in South Africa?

Yes, there are basically the following four ways to get into medical school:

  • The most straightforward way is immediately after Matric if your marks are good enough. After qualifying, you’ll have to do a two-year internship and one year of community service during which you’ll be placed anywhere in South Africa at the government’s discretion.  But it must be said that this is not the easiest way to get admitted into medical school for most people.
  • The second way is to get into a course that is related to medicine, like science, biology or any of the other health sciences. If you do really well in your first year, you can apply in your second year to transfer into medicine.
  • The third way is to complete a degree at Wits University in either chemistry, biology or physics, and then apply to enter their third year of medical school through their GEMP, their Graduate Entry Medical Programme.
  • The fourth and final way is to apply for a government bursary to study medicine in Cuba. To qualify for this bursary, you must be a South African citizen and permanently live in Gauteng. Your age must be between 18 and 35, and you must be in good health. 


Which universities in South Africa have medical schools?

These are the South African universities with medical schools, where they are located, and links to their medical schools: 


Plans are in progress at the North-West University to open a medical school, but these haven’t been finalised yet. They have, however, been inviting applications from interested and prospective medical students for admission into their Medical/Health Science programmes for the 2022/2023 academic year.


What does it cost to enrol at medical schools in South Africa?

We have to emphasise that these figures are for your first year of tuition only, and may be open to change: 

  • University of Cape Town – R69,560
  • University of the Free State – R44,390
  • University of KwaZulu-Natal – R44,220
  • University of Limpopo – R48,038
  • University of Pretoria – R55,000
  • Sefako Makgatho Health Sciences University (previously MEDUNSA) – R31,450
  • Stellenbosch University – R55,096
  • Walter Sisulu University (not obtained)
  • University of the Witwatersrand – R62,890


Are there bursaries, scholarships or other funding I can apply for to study medicine?

All the universities mentioned have bursaries and/or other funding opportunities available, so you must research this via their websites and handbooks. Many other bodies also offer bursaries, so it’ll be well worth your while to spend some time researching these. You can also contact the Department of Health about bursaries. 


There is a great deal of information in this regard on Google as well. Just make sure you search under relevant phrases like ‘bursaries for medical students’, etc. and you’ll get many sites to look at. NSFAS is another avenue you can explore if you are in really difficult financial circumstances.  


What does a doctor earn in South Africa?

The earnings of doctors in South Africa can and do vary greatly from doctor to doctor. It is affected by all sorts of factors like the region they’re working in, the institution they work for, if they’re in private practice, if they’re specialists, the level of competition, how experienced they are, whether they’re established or just starting out – the list goes on! 


However, it can be said that doctors are amongst the most highly-paid professionals in South African society.  So though it’s difficult to supply definitive figures here, the average yearly earnings of a doctor in South Africa would be around R808,000, which would be in the region of R414,00 per hour. Entry-level medical posts begin at about R273,000 per annum, but can then rise steeply to close on R2,400,000 per year. 


So are you enthusiastic and determined about following your dreams of becoming a doctor? Obviously, it’s self-evident that doctors do very important, worthwhile and indeed life-saving work. And it is interesting to note that South African doctors generally have an excellent reputation, and are very well-regarded all over the world. Becoming a doctor is an excellent career choice for the right person, ensuring a fulfilling, rewarding and lucrative profession.   

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