The army isn’t the right place

2010-06-04 00:00

IN a recent SAfm radio programme, an SA Defence Force spokesperson was interviewed about Minister of Defence Lindiwe Sisulu’s plan to introduce a national service programme. It proved to be controversial and many people phoned in to raise concerns about it. Their points included fears that it would be used for propaganda purposes, just as occurred in the past.

One of the objectives of the programme, apparently­, would be to teach young people good citizenship and patriotism. At a certain level, most people would agree that these are virtues that need to be encouraged, but both require interpretation and when that is done by authorities that have a particular outlook, the results may not be acceptable. Adolf Hitler, too, wished the German youth to be encouraged in their citizenship and patriotism. I am not suggesting that Sisulu’s motive bears any resemblance to Hitler’s, but raised eyebrows are invited, nevertheless, especially since the programme is to be offered within the defence force.

This presented a concern to me, too. The concept of a national service programme to keep the youth occupied and to provide a framework in which they may learn skills and achieve a greater readiness for the workplace is entirely supportable. The department’s spokesperson herself highlighted some of the critical issues, without realising that she had done so. She denied that the programme was designed to produce soldiers and stressed that the objective would not be militaristic in any way. Nor would it be conscription. But, its value would lie in the discipline that would be instilled in the youth. She was unable to clarify where the funds would come from since, as callers pointed out, the Department of Defence is labouring under a slashed budget and much of its capacity has been eroded. The infrastructure which, it is claimed, makes the defence force the ideal context in which to provide the programme, has been allowed to crumble over time and many facilities­ are now in disuse. The longer the discussion persisted, the clearer it became that locating this programme in the Depart­ment of Defence is inadvisable for a host of reasons. A call from someone representing the Department of Social Welfare was enlightening. She gave information about a programme, similar in nature, that was already being run by her department. Perhaps they should work together, she suggested.

I think it is highly likely that this programme will not be implemented. Often when projects are discarded, the essential idea gets discarded as well. In this case it would be a pity. Our country needs extra hands. We have too many idle youth with too few skills and even less hope of a productive occupation­. A national service programme could bring these together­ in a constructive way. Its value would not lie directly­ in enhanced citizenship and patriotism (that there is a perceived need for these to be encouraged in a youth programme is a further indictment of the current value of school education), but in constructive occupation, in the process of which skills would be learnt, discipline promoted and the value of citizenship reinforced. For employers, this, I expect, would carry a value equal to work experience­.

In order to implement such a programme, a considerable amount of integration would have to be achieved. It would require a lot of effort on the part of several government departments to put it together and run it successfully. This requirement alone might be beyond the government’s capacity. It would also require money, but I think this could be found — our country has found money for a number of less constructive projects, after­ all. The nongovernmental community, with its existing base of community service, could be valuable, if its efforts could be harnessed in a common cause.

Here’s a thought. A programme of this nature does not need to be national in scope. We have unemployed youth in abundance. We have a critical need for things to be done both in the city and the rural areas. We have a strong nongovernmental base, and we have people with the commitment and skills to make it work. Can we not do it here?

• Andrew Layman is a former headmaster and now the CEO of the Pietermaritzburg Chamber of Business. The idea behind national service is a good one, but it should be implemented differently.

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