Two leading South African political formations are mooting a return to military service as a way to address what they see as socio-economic ills among the youth.
The apartheid government abolished whites-only compulsory military duty in the early 1990s, but for a generation national service was a rite of passage.
Business Day reports the Young Communist League (YCL) “has called for the defence force to open up for national service in order to give SA youth career options, and to prepare for any future foreign aggression, but stopped short of using the term conscription”.
The YCL is the youth wing of the SA Communist Party (SACP), a close ally of the ruling African National Congress (ANC). Both organisations are known to have the ear of ANC President Jacob Zuma.
Also suggesting a return to military service is the Congress of the People (COPE), a recent break-away from the ANC that is led by former defence minister Mosiuoa Lekota.
COPE concluded their launch conference on Tuesday and had promised to publish detailed policy statements by then. This has yet to happen but media reports say COPE policy head Smuts Ngonyama (who until recently served the ANC in the same capacity) believes the question of military service for South Africans “should be debated because the South African National Defence Force did not have the capacity to patrol borders and rural areas effectively”.
The YCL, by contrast, want the youth prepared to repel an invasion and seemingly also see the military as a way of creating employment for the young while correcting the shabby education most would have received and correcting for the state`s failed skills development programme.
The Times newspaper says YCL secretary Buti Manamela told a press briefing ahead of its recent “national council conference” that military training should be provided to school leavers who are struggling to get into institutions of higher learning.
The paper added Manamela said the government would have to “redirect” much of the funding it was giving to sector education and training authorities (SETA) as well as the National Skills Fund to the military. The SETAs are the government entities charged with skills development.
Business Day added that in addition to addressing unemployment, military service would improve discipline among young people as well as their “general access” into the mainstream economy in addition to removing them from the temptation of crime.
Another perceived benefit was that military education would amount to a saving on social grant payments.
“It has to be understood as a national service … within the context of the current intervention in the form of Setas where young people are earning a particular wage, in a period of a year or so, and accumulate particular experience with which they can then go and get employment elsewhere,” YCL deputy secretary Khaye Nkwanyana said.
But interviewed by The Sunday Times Manamela put the emphasis on military skills: “We think the most important thing for us is the military skills we think the country needs.
“That`s important because in this era, where the United States can easily attack Iraq etcetera, we think we need stability in that regard. Our view is that we`d rather be ready as a country in terms of defending ourselves. If you`ve got a group of young people who have been trained in military skills then, even if they pursue other careers, you can always ask them to serve in the military”.
Asked who would attack SA Manamela said one never knows. “In the context of this global instability you just never know.
“Look, with regard to defending your country, we don`t think there is anything called sufficient. The more you have the better.
“We`re not talking about people who will permanently be in the system. We`re talking about people to whom you give military education for a period of 12 months.”
The SANDF stepped up youth recruitment in 2003 when it introduced the Military Skills Development System (MSDS) as part of its Human Resources 2010 strategy. MSDS recruits currently serve for two years, allowing for adequate training time as well as deployment, often on peacekeeping missions elsewhere in Africa.
While defence minister Lekota was keen to push the number of annual recruits to 10 000, but a lack of funds meant an average of only 3000 joining the colours every year.
Manamela also called for a discussion of the role of the youth in peacetime, saying the military should have been used to rescue marooned residents during recent storms in KwaZulu-Natal and to help fight raging forest fires in Mpumalanga and Western Cape. “Our view is that soldiers during peacetime should be used for humanitarian relief,” he said.
Statistics SA last year July estimated the population at 47.9 million people, of whom 51% were female. Life expectancy at birth was estimated at approximately 49 years for males and 52 years for females, the estimated overall HIV-prevalence rate was about 11% and around 5.3 million people were living with the disease. The average South African was 24 years old and the population mix was 79.6% African, 8.9% coloured, 2.5% Indian/Asian and 9.1% white.
The population estimate also gave a 5-year age cohort breakdown, providing a glimpse at the upper number of volunteers the military could expect:
· 0-4 5.177 million
· 5-9 4.997 million
· 10-14 5.090 million
· 15-19 4.775 million
· 20-24 4.675 million
· 25-29 4.335 million
· 30-34 3. 863 million
The state statisticians put unemployment at 23.1% this August, but trade unions generally believe it to be double that and disproportionate among the youth and blacks. The Solidarity union also expects the global economic turndown to cost at least 24 000 people their jobs in coming months.
Manamela did not define “youth” but the ANC typically considers people up to 35 as eligible for membership of its youth league. If all are encouraged to volunteer for military service, the SANDF could attract several million recruits.
The response to COPE and the YCL`s call has generally been favourable.
Democratic Alliance deputy defence spokesman Hendrik Schmidt says national service “in the SANDF or an institution rendering a public service, such as the police and Correctional Services might prove to be beneficial.
“National servicemen are normally paid much less and the type of work in respect of many public services does not require post-matric education. In principle it should be beneficial. The practical consequences can only assist in alleviating basic minimum services which are urgently required.”
The DA will shortly be releasing a raft of policy documents, including on defence, policing, border control and service delivery.
Institute for Security Studies defence programme head Major General (Ret) Len le Roux says that “given the unemployment and number of young people who turn to crime as a means of survival, national service is a good idea.
“It must however be national in the sense that it is not only restricted to the military but also for service in the police, health, public works departments etcetera. It must also allow for those who do not wish to join such as university students or young people who can secure jobs to be exempted.
His colleague, Henri Boshoff, called the proposals a “fantastic idea”, but said it was not economically feasible. “Who will you enrol, who won`t you enrol? You don`t want to make the army a welfare organisation,” he told Business Day.
University of Stellenbosch academic Dr Francois Vrey adds that there are several alternatives on offer “and it is important to know which one is foremost… national service as community service, military service or some hybrid model.”
Very adds that the YCL and COPE`s call can be seen as political mobilisation ahead of next year`s general election and is therefore not necessarily “based upon a reality of what national service entails”.
Disarmament and demilitarisation lobbyists locally, and aboard have in the past argued against military service, saying it militarised society, diverted resources from the civilian sphere to the military and led to inefficient resource allocation. They also argue that involving the military in development and disaster relief tasks atrophies those state and private institutions tasked with that function.
Gun Free South Africa could not immediately comment on the issue and the Ceasefire Campaign could not be reached.