Is national service a good idea?


Our youth is our most pressing national security question.

President Jacob Zuma this month reminded us that 70% of the South African population of some 49 million is younger than 35. He earlier this year added that 50% of people in the age group 18 to 24 are unemployed.

In her budget vote Minister of Defence Military Veterans Lindiwe Sisulu earlier this month noted this statistic as well as the sad fact that 16 years into nonracial democracy young people are still leaving school “with no skills and no prospect of being absorbed into a labour market that is already is glutted.”

She added that “television footage of service delivery protests will show you that at the forefront of this, in great majority are our youth. With excessive anger and misdirected energy and frustration etched on their faces. We as a country can ill afford this. Our youth are an asset and we must direct them properly.” Amen to that.

Later in the month she reportedly told the ruling African National Congress’ Youth League the South African National Defence Force will through national service “provide an opportunity for young unemployed youth to learn basic military discipline, leadership and strategic thinking whilst acquiring much needed technical skills that they will use in their entire life.”

The minister added national service will provide unemployed young people with opportunities that they can only dream of. “Whilst undergoing a two year basic military training in one of the SANDF services (SA Army, SA Air Force, SA Navy and SA Medical Health Services) they will also learn various skills and also get practical work experience they can use in the future. Our programme would be recognised by institutions of higher learning, so many young people will get experiential training and opportunities to put their theory into practice,” Sisulu was quoted as saying.

So far good. The intent is commendable, noble and good. But what about the proverb: “The way to hell is paved with good intentions.”

Despite what has been said about the scheme by advocates and critics, too little is known about the details to reach any firm conclusions.

Bearing this in mind, some tentative concerns can be raise:

First is the issue of scale: Sisulu plans to introduce an “unavoidable” system – not compulsory – but unavoidable. Writing in the Independent Group newspapers in mid May she explained the apparent contradiction by saying the Department of Defence, in conjunction with the departments of basic and higher education, planned “to provide tailor-made programmes which respond in the most direct fashion to the demands of the modern economy. We thus envisage a programme that provides the best of military discipline and provision of critical skills… This is what will make the initiative attractive and almost unavoidable for … young people who are condemned to the periphery of their economy through no fault of their own.”

At face value economist Mike Schussler estimates up to 1.5 million youth may want to avail themselves of this “unavoidable” training every year. The SA Institute of Race Relations in a critique of the idea notes of this group some 400 000 will have graduated high school – pass matric in SA parlance. Just 150 000 matriculants will go on to tertiary education and just a fraction of these will graduate, illustrating just how SA manages to combine acute unemployment with a severe skills shortage.

Can the DoD realistically take on this number? The military has huffed and puffed in the face of persistent underfunding to accommodate just 5500 youths a year as part of its current two-year Military Skills Development System. This now employs some 11 000 youths aged between 18 and 24 at a cost of about R1.872 billion a year, or about R170 000 per youth,according to the Department of Defence’s Strategic Business Plan.

Thus concern number two: what will it cost? Multiplying the latter cost with the maximum cohort number gives one the impossibly large figure of R255 trillion. If its a two-year programme, as is the MSDS, that’s R510 trillion, which is more than the total government expenditure bill of FY2007/8. (The total 2010/11 budget is R818 billion, rising to a planned R888 billion next year.)

The sheer numbers and cost of a full scheme will swamp government, let alone the defence department and its current R30.7 billion budget. While the R170 000-a-year may presumably pay for salaries, clothing, food and training,there is also the question of housing: the DoD has nowhere near the barrack space required and much of what it has, is in a squalid state. Tents may suffice in the short term, but the cost of building or refurbishing barracks will further add to the bill.

Clearly, the cost and scale precludes total conscription, which brings one to concern number three: dashed expectations. Sisulu’s spokesman Ndivhuwo Mabaya recently said the DoD gets “62 000 applications for 5000 posts”. Clearly, many who expect enrollment, training and the prospect of employment, may be disappointed. Could this trigger violent service delivery protest?

Crucial too is the training provided. Sisulu is quite right that much of the nation’s secondary and tertiary education poorly prepares the youth for the world of work. Numerous studies have shown the disjoint between the training provided and the skills sets required in the real economy. At present SA is over-producing lawyers and accountants. What we need more of are scientists and engineers. Other studies have shown that even these graduates are not immediately ready to work, there being a discernible gap between student life and the workplace. But I digress.

Sisulu spoke about tailor-made “programmes which respond in the most direct fashion to the demands of the modern economy” and “provides the best of military discipline and provision of critical skills.” Can the DoD do better than vocational high schools, Further Education and Training Colleges as well as technical and academic universities.

Secretary for Defence designate Mpumi Mpofu recently told a job summit organised by the Young Communist League military training would be minimal and may come only “at the end.” That is probably good, as general infantry skills, for the sake of this argument, is not readily transferable to the civil economy. Skill at digging trenches, for example, can be acquired elsewhere.

Mpofu said the intention was to provide a core of skills allowing the youth to obtain employment while also giving them civic education and instilling patriotism, along with a value system that emphasises the protection of democracy. Participants would eventually be given priority for entry in the public service. “We’d prefer public servants that have been in the national service than those who have not,” she added. So far so good, although some critics would say this was also how Zimbabwe’s “green bombers” were packaged.

Mpofu continued that it was envisaged that employers would view the programme as an internship or learnership providing an accredited qualification, but the programme was also meant to give participants skills that would allow them to become entrepreneurs able to explore opportunities in housing provision, among other areas. Sisulu has, meanwhile, talked about the SANDF providing scarce skills such as pilots, doctors and sailors. But not every serviceman or woman can become a pilot or sailor or qualifies to study medicine. Not everyone can or wants to be an entrepreneur and despite the size of the housing backlog, there is a limit to how many building tradesmen the economy can absorb, bringing us to a further set of dashed expectations and perhaps further social turbulence.

Lastly, there is the governance question of the DoD fixing the failures of education. It may be better to fix education, the more so when SA is already a global leader in education spend. Quentin Wray of the Business Report newspaper wrote in November 2007 that SA then already spent “more on education – on a per capita, absolute and percentage of GDP – than many other countries” including most of the developed world. Spending a fortune in scarce national treasure via the DoD to provide the youth a comprehensive education to repair the damage of their incomprehensible miseducation may be ineffective, inefficient and bring about a whole new series of expectations that ultimately cannot be met. Sisulu has diagnosed a real and urgent problem, but national service may be the wrong prescription.