The African National Congress Youth League’s (ANCYL) National Executive Committee (NEC) is to undergo two weeks of military training in September to get a taste of what the defence department’s “unavoidable national service” will be like.
Defence and Military Veterans minister Lindiwe Sisulu ten days ago proposed the reintroduction of an “unavoidable” system of national service to discipline the youth. “This will not be a compulsory national service, but an unavoidable national service,” Sisulu told Parliament in her May 4 budget vote.
Reaction has been mixed with media commentators largely hostile to the idea and the ANCYL and others supportive. Sisulu proposed a national service system “where all youth will be gradually absorbed into our training facilities. What we offer is skills that each would be able to build on, we offer training in discipline that which would create a sector, whether public or private, which is firmly grounded in a purposeful sense of tomorrow.
“What we offer is education, in essential respect for each individual and authority: an element you will all agree is not in abundance in our youth,” the minister said. “After due consultation with all necessary stakeholders, we intend to introduce a bill that will provide the necessary legal framework for the creation of national service.”
Sisulu added that “throughout the world the defence force, that great social equalizer, is used for precisely the purpose for which we propose it should be used for here. Young people are leaving school with no skills and no prospect of being absorbed into a labour market that is already is glutted. Any 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.”
President Jacob Zuma Wednesday in his response to the debate on his budget vote noted that 70% of the South African population of some 49 million are younger than 35. He earlier this year added that 50% of people in the age group 18 to 24 are unemployed.
Sisulu last week welcomed “the positive response from young South Africans of different political affiliations” on her proposal. She said many young people have written to her to express their happiness and appreciation of the project, The Times newspaper reports. The minister said they shared the same message that national service would provide them with a passage from the streets of poverty as they would learn new skills in the SANDF that would prepare them for the work environment and day to daylife challenges.
The ANCYL and the Young Communist League also expressed their support for national service and requested urgent meetings to share with her how they viewed national service and to understand all the details. Sisulu met the ANCYL and its tempestuous leader Julius Malema yesterday. A Department of Defence (DoD) media release says she told the NEC the proposed national service would to be managed and implemented by the SANDF would “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 reportedly told the NEC that the 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.
In the DoD statement the NEC again welcomed the programme and called for its urgent implementation. The ANCYL statement added the organisation, the youth wing of the governing party, would “support the programme and will advocate within its members and also ensure that young people who are the immediate beneficiaries of the programme know about it and also embrace it.”
Malema said the ANCYL “have been calling for this programme for a long time, we would want the minister to ensure that no young person is turned away when the programme starts, it must start as soon as possible, I also hope that this programme will teach our young people to know their flag, national symbol and our rich history, but as the ANCYL we are ready to mobilise our members and all young South Africans in support of this programme.”
The NEC also urged the minister to ensure that the business sector, other Government departments, municipalities and other law enforcement agencies are linked to the national service and will see the SANDF as a centre or “pot” of skills they can use when they want to recruit people.
“The NEC also resolved that led by their President [Malema], they are available for a short military training in September 2010 to understand the programme and experience what young people will experience, the Minister agreed and necessary arrangements would be made for the ANCYL NEC to undergo military training for a period of two weeks,” the DoD statement says.
The DOD adds that it is finalising policies, the master plan of the project and an assessment of the infrastructure and resources required to implement the project. “The Minister will also table proposed legislation and policy on the programme soon before parliament.” Sisulu was accompanied by the Secretary of Defence designate, Mpumi Mpofu, and advisor Professor Sipho Seepe.
Sisulu is today meeting the Young Communist League on the same issue.
Cost and concerns
It is not clear what national service will cost. The DoD in February said it was at least R7.5 billion underfunded for its primary mission, national defence. It has been reported that the Military Skills Development System (MSDS) costs R145 000 per person a year, meaning a system that incorporates millions of unemployed youths will potentially cost tens to hundreds of billion rand. The current MSDS system, that currently musters some 10 000 youths, is costing the DoD about R1.45 billion. A system with 100 000 youths, a fraction of the available pool, would cost R14.5 billion, just shy of half the current defence budget of R30.7 billion.
It is also not known how this system would integrate with the compulsory community service the medical and related professions must already perform or that young lawyers may soon undergo.
Business Day columnist Khehla Shubane this week expressed doubt that military service would correct the malaise Sisulu and others see in the youth. “The worst-affected in this regard are African youth, many of whom grew up without the family nurturing that should have moored them in sound values,” said Shubane. “The poor socialisation of this youth is a result of the failure of the family in that community as a primary agent of socialisation. The nuclear African family has succumbed to a litany of attacks — starting with the migrant labour system and lately the explosion of teenage pregnancies as a result of alarming promiscuity — and risks being replaced by single mother- and child-headed families.
“The virtual destruction of the schooling system in African townships has led to the crime-infested streets emerging as the dominant platform in which basic values are transmitted. The battle to rebuild the African family as a key institution of socialising young people is by far the most important undertaking we can make. On its own, conscription will not resolve the problems facing the youth,” he added.
The opposition Democratic Alliance party’ defence spokesman David Maynier says the offer of military training was “a serious error of judgment.” He added it is “imperative that the defence force does not get drawn into party politics: a two week period of military training for Julius Malema and senior members of the African National Congress Youth League (ANCYL) risks politicising the defence force and undermining the principle of non-partisanship of the SANDF.”
He called on Sisulu to take steps to protect the defence force from being used as a political tool and to reverse her decision to allow the training.
Pic: ANCYL President Julius Malema