Compulsory military conscription to be reintroduced in South Africa

As early as June 2016, the youth of South Africa could find themselves forced to become part of the youth military programme currently being debated by the ANC. City Press reported that a national steering committee has held numerous meetings as pressure mounts for them to finalise the details of the proposed youth military programme. Should it be implemented, the programme would see youths as young as 18 years old enter military service.

Dr Bernice Hlagala, director of youth development in the presidency, stated that the proposed National Youth Service (NYS) plan will give participants, including those who have not completed high school, the opportunity to further their studies, provided that they give back to their communities. “Funding will be sourced from the National Treasury once Cabinet approval is obtained,” she explained.

Although there are still differing views regarding whether or not participants in the NYS will be forced to join the army, lobbyists in favour of the project believe that military discipline will be the most effective way to tackle numerous social issues. These include the social alienation of youth, gangsterism and drug abuse. The programme will also instill discipline in the youths as well as create a greater sense of patriotism in South Africa.

The project also serves as an effort to reduce unemployment rates. Hlagala said that the
aim is for participants to gain skills in areas of profession that include doctors, pilots, engineers, technicians and artisans. It is unclear, however, what effect the NYS will have on students already enrolled in institutions of higher education.

South Africa has not had compulsory conscription of youths between the ages of 18 and 35 since 1994. ANC secretary general, Gwede Mantashe, told City Press in an interview that although reintroducing conscription may go against the spirit of the constitution, “the country must do what it needs to do for the country to work”.

The practice of compulsory conscription into the South African Defence Forces, which was most strictly implemented in the late 1980s, only applied to white men under apartheid. Those who were in university were allowed to apply for exemption on academic or religious grounds. However, as the violence in the country grew worse towards the end of the apartheid era, the rules regarding exemption also became stricter, making it virtually impossible to obtain.

Jeremy Bernstein, a former student at the then University of Durban-Westville explained that “students opted to leave the country to avoid answering the call to service”. This spawned movements such as the End Conscription Campaign, which greatly influenced the decision to abolish the practice in South Africa’s new democratic dispensation.

No explicit provisions have been made for the youth who have already attained university degrees or for those still in university should the NYS project be implemented. However, it is likely that the same statutes that allowed students to be exempt on academic and religious grounds would be implemented again.

Words by Kimberley Nyajeka

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