Professor Fulufhelo Netswera
The big question is what we should do to address the multitudes of our problems as a country, specifically considering that resolving the youth skills and unemployment challenge might unlock solutions to other issues. Perhaps it is time that we seriously consider military conscriptions
It is that time of the year when all matric pupils are applying for university spaces. Some of them should ordinarily be going to the Technical, Vocational Education and Training (TVET) colleges to acquire skills, joining the military and police training academies. However, this will not be happening.
Everyone wants to become a university graduate. So, current and prospective students at this time engage in ritual protests demanding expansion of university access. Those who graduate with university degrees continue to swell the number of unemployed graduates.
This is South Africa of 2021, where unemployment among the youth is estimated to be between 59 and 60% and the highest in the world. It is the same country with the highest gap between the rich and the poor (Gini co-efficient of 0.65) and has overtaken Brazil a few years ago. Brazil itself continues to minimise its wealth gap, and it currently stands at 0.53.
The big question is how we should address the multitudes of our problems as a country, explicitly considering that resolving the youth skills and unemployment problem might very well unlock solutions to other issues confronting us. Perhaps it is time that we seriously consider military conscriptions.
Doomsayers are likely going to chastise the idea offhand as a potential militarisation of the youth. Others will speculate that this can fuel radicalism and weaponise a society that is already struggling to contain various forms of violence.
On the contrary, I think countries with military conscriptions seem to be stable. There are 28 countries throughout the world with compulsory military conscriptions from Armenia to the United Arab Emirates. Among those are three African states – Egypt, Morocco and Tunisia. For some of these countries, conscription is for those aged between 19 and 25 in Morocco and 20 to 35 in Tunisia.
There are numerous lessons to learn from the South African apartheid military ecosystem that benefitted industries such as ISCOR (steel production) and arms manufacturing (ARMSCO) and the downstream supply chain – thereby becoming responsible for millions of jobs. More lessons can be learned from the Chinese social, military projects credited for being the catalyst of industrial prosperity, thereby fuelling rapid economic growth and resolving the employment challenge.
South Africa had compulsory military conscriptions during the apartheid days. This was abolished on 24 August 1993 by then Minister of Defence Mr Kobie Coetsee. One understands why there was widespread resentment towards the Afrikaner youth’s militarisation under a racist regime and why military call-up was objected to and defied by parents and civil society organisations which got weary as their children perished in regional wars in Angola and Namibia.
However, times have changed, and military conscription for South Africa will have a different meaning. It could serve many purposes from nation-building, social cohesion, securing the nation and executing strategic projects of national imperative in ways never imagined before.
Here are some of the reasons why a military solution could, as the African idiom goes, kill too numerous birds with one stone:
A much stronger public works
Not all public services need to be outsourced but only the highly specialised ones. Insourcing public service does not equal communism either. Employ competent managers and infuse the military social programme to support public institutions with basic service delivery from municipal and provincial roads, dam construction, housing construction, sewerage, and water supply systems.
Away with tenders and associated corruption
Infusing a social military programme for essential service delivery will see billions that currently go to few individual tenderpreneurs supporting millions of jobs and addressing skills acquisition and transfer at the same time.
A disciplined society
South Africa is currently regarded as the murder capital of the world. The experiences of the high crime rate, drug trafficking and alcohol abuse, among other things, persists. The nearly 60% of unemployed youth sits idly and are both ill-disciplined and perpetuate these ills. The social military programme can keep our youth focused; provide them discipline, skills and the necessary education while resolving some of our intractable social and economic challenges as a country.
South Africa currently suffers huge skills deficits labelled as critical skills, ranging from engineering and IT to the medical profession. At the same time, the country produces enormous amounts of graduates who end up unemployed. It is not a secret that most advanced engineering, IT, and medical innovations come from well-oiled military establishments. Even basic skills such as electricians and plumbing are very hard to find among young South Africans. The South African military needs to give rise to innovations that spawn construction, engineering and IT industries, among other things.
From social grants to living wage jobs
Estimates are that over 18 million South Africans are on social grants and therefore supported by just over 5 million of those who are informal employment. This state of affairs is untenable.
Estimates are that the South African military is in the region of 40 000 personnel. Countries even smaller than South Africa by either GDP or population have much bigger militaries. For example, Egypt has 450 000, Pakistan 654 000, North Korea 1 300 000 and Morocco 310 000. Why then can’t South Africa afford similar military sizes or even more significant if its military delivers a much needed public good?
However, the implications are that if any of these suggestions are to be implemented, our military would have to be professionalised and turned into the most extensive training centres for a variety of professions that benefits the country’s social and military stability.
The challenge we currently face is that the military has been turned into an institution where one can mainly carry a gun where the interest is in physical security rather than social and economic. This orientation must change and change fast to save South Africa.
When all is said and done, any future direction of this country depends mainly on the political leadership’s resolve. If they continue to choose corruption and prioritising self-interest, these ideas can only remain a pipe dream.
Netswera is the executive dean in the faculty of management sciences at the Durban University of Technology.