• Laura Pollecut
Conscription propped up the apartheid government. Without its regular intake of white youth, the apartheid regime could not have stayed in power as long as it did. The movement against conscription gained ground in the 1980s and was one of the contributing factors to the then government’s decision to enter negotiations. Finally after the first democratic elections in 1994, conscription became a thing of the past when South Africa introduced a voluntary professional army.
Off and on since that time various defence ministers have suggested that there should be military service, but the most forceful argument has come from the current minister of defence and military veterans, Ms Lindiwe Sisulu. In May 2010 she announced her intention of enlisting unemployed youths in a “national service programme”. She pointed out that it would not mean the reintroduction of military conscription — notwithstanding the fact that although it would not be compulsory, it would be unavoidable!
Knowing that she was treading on sensitive ground, Sisulu explained her call by saying: "We're very aware of the emotive issue of national service, that is why we are underlining that it is not conscription.”
Because of perceptions that the high crime rate and service delivery protests have their origins in the “ill-discipline” of the youth, she used words that carry weight, as if national service in the military was the solution to the problems. "We would like to have a period in which we take your children and give them a bit of discipline,” she said. In a glossy supplement selling the SANDF in the daily press and entitled “In your defence”, she continues with this theme, “...we will be taking them out of a state of idleness and mischief by providing them with a chance to become productive members of society”, and more words to this effect. She also speaks of building “tomorrow’s leaders”, as if military training is the only training that can do this.
As one letter writer, Keith Gottschalk, noted on the suggestion that the South African National Defence Force be expanded more than fivefold, this is not a good idea given that recent information has shown “the SANDF lacks the budget and managerial competence to maintain and repair much squalid housing of its existing personnel; has soldiers leaving base with nothing to do an hour after reporting for duty; and has to leave new aircraft unused in storage”.
At the time Minister Sisulu made the announcement, she said it was hoped that the necessary legislative changes would be passed within a year, but it would take time to prepare the infrastructure required, so it would take about two years at the outer limit. She also promised consultation on the issue but whether that will include demilitarists and anti-conscription activists is doubtful.
But notwithstanding that there is no legislation on the statute book at this point, the army is taking advantage of the fact that millions of schools leavers do not have jobs and lack opportunities to continue their studies. In January Minister Lindiwe Sisulu, welcomed over 4 000 youths — first intake for the year — into the SANDFs Military Skills Development System (MSDS). The MSDS programme is a two-year voluntary service system with the long-term goal of “enhancing the South African National Defence Force's deployment capability. Recruits are required to sign up for a period of two years, during which they will receive military training and further functional training in their first year of service. During the second year of service, depending on the duration of their functional orientation, they will be deployed where needed and given the opportunity to apply their knowledge and develop their skills.” Not only will these “volunteers” be fully employed for two years, but they will also receive a cash bonus of R18,000 (GBP1,600) on completion. To the best of our knowledge, no other government department offers this kind of deal!
Then there is the state arms manufacturer Denel. Still top heavy with white technocrats, the company bemoans the lack of skilled technicians and says — with some irony we might add — it applies the principle of “cradle to grave” in an effort to hold on to its skilled staff!
According to the 2010 Annual Report, the company is currently providing 83 bursaries to pre-employment students, a number of whom will remain with the company after the completion of the their work-back obligations. As noted, large numbers of school leavers are without funding for tertiary education and it is therefore not surprising that star pupils are lured to the arms industry. Denel advertisements for these bursaries solicited a response of 2,600 applications.
But Denel goes further than this in seeking talent for the industry, it visits universities and works closely with individual professors in its effort to improve its ranking as a preferred employer. Through the Armscor (the defence procurement arm) Ledger Fund programme, funded by the Department of Defence, Denel has a close relationship with all universities. Denel sponsors students for post-graduate studies through this fund.
Denel is even in high schools. The Denel Youth Foundation is apparently involved in improving the performance of learners from poor communities who did not pass matric in mathematics, science, biology and accounting. Admirable we are sure — if they were not grooming them for careers in the arms trade. And like the SANDF, they too claim to be teaching these pupils “relevant life and leadership skills” in order to prepare them for “employment”. Then there is the Schools outreach programme. Although not aimed at poor communities and those who did not pass matric, it has similar objectives.
The SANDF and Denel have massive communication resources at their disposal. Glossy advertising and public relations make all this seem very attractive. Those of us who argue that there are other ways to serve your country and gain skills rather than go into the SANDF or seek employment with arms manufacturers, find it difficult to inform them of the alternatives and to promote a society committed to non-violence and an anti-war stance.
Laura Pollecut works with the Ceasefire Campaign in South Africa, which recently affiliated to WRI.