SAIRR Today: National service is no panacea - 7th May 2010

May 07, 2010
The Minster of Defence, Ms Lindiwe Sisulu, has proposed a campaign of national service to deal with the problem posed by high numbers of badly educated and unemployed young people. However, an obvious flaw in her plan can be found in its numbers.

There has been a lot of criticism of Ms Sisulu’s proposal to reintroduce a form of national service through the South African National Defence Force (SANDF). Much of the criticism has been of an incredulous nature with many commentators suggesting that the SANDF was the last place in South Africa to find discipline, moral fibre, and the will to work. Others have drawn parallels between Sisulu’s plans and apartheid-era military conscription.

According to its annual report the Department of Defence (DOD) had 74 845 employees in 2007/08. Of these 63 570 appear to have been soldiers of one form or another in the SANDF.

Consider then that approximately 600 000 pupils write matric every year of which approximately two thirds pass. A further half a million pupils drop out of the school system every year. In total, therefore, approximately one million young people leave South Africa’s schools every year of which only a third have a matric certificate.

Approximately 150 000 of these pupils will go on to enrol in tertiary education. Some will go on to Further Education and Training Colleges. However, a great number will enter the labour market but will not find a job. Among South Africans aged 15-24 years the unemployment rate was 48.1% in 2009. This rate only counts those young people actively looking for work and not those who have given up looking, or who are studying or travelling or otherwise not interested in working. In total this rate amounted to 1.3 million unemployed young people.

Regardless therefore of whether one counts school leavers with or without matric or unemployed young people, the totals are very high. They are easily ten and even twenty times higher than the total staff complement of the DOD. There is simply no way that any national service programme run by the DOD can operate on a large enough scale to make a real measurable impact on the lives of the majority of badly educated and unemployed young South Africans. That is even if such a programme could have the desired impact.

Lindiwe Sisulu’s concern for the youth may be sincere but a simple overview of available data shows that her plan can never do what she promises it will. She is also not the minister of education, or labour, or social welfare. While it is welcome that she in effect identifies the failures of her cabinet colleagues who are responsible these porfolios, it is doubtful whether she can fix the problem – or even whether she should be trying to. She is the minister of defence and should devote her energies in office to that portfolio. If media commentary is anything to go by, her SANDF is in some trouble. Its public image is bad and it appears to be widely regarded as being as far from ‘battle ready’ as any armed force could be.

The plight of unemployed young people is one for the cabinet to solve of which Ms Sisulu is of course a part. Her energies would be well spent making the case for her cabinet colleagues to be held to account for their failures in labour regulation and the provision of quality education. As its minister Ms Sisulu should know that the army is not some employment or training agency but rather an important institution tasked with the protection of the country. It must not be expected to make up for the fact that some cabinet portfolios have failed badly in doing their jobs. Nor should Ms Sisulu be raising expectations that there are quick-fix or feel -good solutions to the serious national problem of scores of badly educated and unemployed young people.

Fixing the schools and adopting a more pragmatic labour market regulatory environment, while at the same time creating an enabling environment for both domestic and international investment, is the only option available to the Government to deal with this problem. The Government has faired poorly in all these areas and for those failures now faces a major political threat from angry and disillusioned young people. Holding out that there is a quick-fix solution to that problem suggests that while the Government is concerned or even afraid, it is not yet ready to take the tough political decisions necessary to address the root causes of the problem.

- Frans Cronje

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