Johannesburg - As soon as June next year, young people could find themselves forced to become part of a youth military programme as government tries new ways to contain spiralling unemployment.
Over the past few weeks, the presidency’s national steering committee has held marathon meetings amid pressure to finalise details of a youth service programme that could see government sending young people, from the age of 18, to the army for military training.
And the clock is ticking as the deadline for the full roll-out of the plan has been set for June next year.
The ANC-led alliance has already called for the urgent implementation of an improved National Youth Services (NYS) programme in which the SA National Defence Force (SANDF) and various government departments will play a role.
This expanded, multisectoral youth service is set to benefit millions of young South Africans, most of whom are unemployed.
However, there have been differing views on whether it should be compulsory for all young people to join the army as part of national service requirements.
In a interview with City Press last month, ANC secretary general Gwede Mantashe said he would support the reintroduction of conscription, which was scrapped in South Africa in 1994.
“We moved away from conscription too soon. Naturally, we would actually say that every youth person may serve an X number of years or months in the army to be trained because the army is the most equipped structure that could deal with young people in a structured way.
“Actually, the best engineering capacity in the country is in the army. So that’s what we should be thinking about,” he said.
However, Dr Bernice Hlagala, who is the director of youth development in the presidency, told City Press the draft framework had ruled out compulsory military training, but it could still be changed.
The draft has yet to be presented to the deputy minister in the presidency, Buti Manamela. If he rubber stamps it, the youth military programme will then be tabled at Cabinet for a final decision.
“The primary aim of the NYS is not military. There are many aspects to it, like encouraging youth to volunteer at old-age homes or government departments and acquire skills in the process.
“We will identify exit opportunities but we can’t create the expectation that everyone will be absorbed where they provide services. But for those going to the army, we are saying – in the draft – that it is voluntary,” said Hlagala.
Although reintroducing conscription may go against the spirit of the Constitution, Mantashe said “the country must do what it needs to do for the country to work”.
Manamela established the national steering committee to drive the process towards a better youth development programme, as one of the interventions touted in the national youth policy 2020, which was recently adopted by Cabinet to deal with youth unemployment.
The ANC and its allies believe military training will tackle the social alienation of youth, gangsterism, alcohol and drug abuse – and instil discipline, patriotism and volunteerism.
Hlagala said it was envisaged that some participants would emerge as professionals including doctors, pilots and engineers, while others would take on technical and artisan jobs.
The department of rural development has successfully implemented its youth service plan, the National Rural Youth Service Corps (Narysec), in partnership with the SANDF to train youth between the ages of 18 and 35.
Under the programme, army generals are tasked with whipping young people into shape before they enrol in Further Education and Training colleges.
Hlagala said the proposed NYS plan would give participants, including those who have not completed high school, the opportunity to further their studies, on condition that they give back to their communities. Hlagala said funding would be sourced from National Treasury once Cabinet approval was obtained.
Meanwhile, General Fumanekile Gqiba, head of the Narysec college in Thaba 'Nchu in the Free State, told City Press that some of his programme’s beneficiaries were now employed or running their own construction businesses. He said the only way to deal with social ills and ill-discipline among young people was to force them into the army – but not for combat training.