THE proposed relaunch of the controversial National Youth Service (NYS) programme ahead of next year’s election is unlikely to benefit Zimbabweans given that graduates of the programme have in the past been used to cow and brutalise opposition party supporters and pro-democracy activists.
By Hazel Ndebele
President Robert Mugabe last Saturday called for the return of the NYS programme while celebrating his 93rd birthday in Matobo, Matabeleland South. His calls, however, received criticism from many Zimbabweans who view the programme as beneficial to Zanu PF and not the country.
Unlike in other countries like Nigeria and South Africa, where national service promotes national values and instils discipline and true patriotism among youths, in Zimbabwe the graduates of the programme have been conscripted into Zanu PF youth militia.
The graduates have in the past helped Mugabe and Zanu PF retain power by unleashing a reign of terror — especially in rural communities — where they routinely perpetrate the torture, assault and intimidation of opposition supporters and activists.
Owing to their reputation for violence, and the fact that they don green uniforms, graduates of the programme are widely known by the nickname Green Bombers.
“There must be a National Youth Service. I don’t know why we have slowed on this one. We certainly must start the National Youth Service programme,” said Mugabe.
Zimbabwe will hold general elections next year, hence suspicion and concern that Mugabe’s call might be a way of ensuring the activation of terror groups.
The programme was introduced in 2000 by the late Zanu PF national commissar, Border Gezi, with the first camp established at Mt Darwin in 2001. The NYS programme churned out thousands of graduates throughout the country.
According to the United States Country Reports on Human Rights Practices for 2010, the NYS, which was suspended in 2007 due to lack of funding, provided militia training to approximately 80 000 youths at more than 150 camps.
The youths took part and became integral members of Mugabe’s violent policies, including taking part in land invasions.
Mugabe has on numerous occasions defended NYS, saying the training programme is necessary to instil national pride, discipline and moral uprightness among the youths.
However, many parents are against their children taking part in the programme because they fear their children will be introduced to violence. The rampant cases of sexual abuse have also been a cause of concern for parents given that many young girls got pregnant while undergoing studies.
Political analyst Maxwell Saungweme said resistance of the NYS was because of the way the programme was run, unlike in other countries.
“In Nigeria the youth corps are taught to be law-abiding citizens. In Zimbabwe the youth are taught to rape, beat up, main and kill opposition party members,” he said. “We have good examples such as Nigeria where the youth service corps programme is professionally done to instil national and patriotic values to graduates before they join the regular workforce. This helps graduates to be responsible citizens and they are given a certificate at the end which helps them in being employable in any sector. The Zimbabwean programme was a strategy to brainwash youth and feed them with sloppy and one-sided Zanu PF propaganda that extols people such as Mugabe instead of inculcating national and patriotic values.”
South Africa describes its NYS as a “national project that is aimed at engaging young people in a disciplined process of a valued and necessary service to the community in which they live, while increasing their own skills, education and opportunities to generate income”.
Saungweme also said Zimbabwe has urgent issues to deal with which do not include the reincarnation of the dreaded youth service programme.
The proposal to relaunch the programme also comes at a time government is broke and is struggling to reduce its bloated civil service. If NYS is relaunched, government will have to channel some resources towards the programme yet it is struggling to pay civil servants on time.
Political analyst Eldred Masunungure said the relaunch of NYS is unnecessary and should not be on the list of priorities for government.
“Previously, NYS brought anguish across all ages, the curriculum will be heavily skewed and in favour of Zanu PF. The youths will be trained to be Zanu PF law enforcement agents. Historically, there was a public outcry of the programme which led to its suspension,” said Masunungure. “The resuscitation of NYS is most understandable from the Zanu PF perspective which is preparing for 2018 election and Mugabe wants to make sure he leaves no stone unturned so that it can win the election resoundingly as it did in 2013. Relaunching the NYS is the ruling party’s comprehensive preparations.”
Masunungure said government’s priorities are in the wrong direction.
“Doctors downed their tools and yet their grievances are not being heard. Those resources to be deployed to NYS should be channelled towards more important things like health and education which Zimbabweans yearn for.
Government’s priorities are out of sync with reality,” he said.
Social and political commentator Blessing Vava said the template used by government was wrong.
“It was a politicised programme that was used to use the youth to perpetrate violence against any dissenting voices towards Zanu PF. As long as it is being spearheaded by the same government, we should rest assured that the template will be the same,” Vava said. “In essence, it is a good idea, but the manner in which Zanu PF has been doing it is fundamentally wrong.”
Saungweme said in the Zimbabwean programme, loyalty to Mugabe is regarded as the definition of patriotism and at the end the youth are an extension of Zanu PF electoral violence machinery.
“Mugabe realises that Zanu PF faces a big challenge in 2018 if opposition (parties) coalesce and field one candidate.
There is therefore no prize for guessing why the troubled and ancient leader wants the spectre of the dreaded youth programme to be reincarnated. The programme spells horror and awakens ghosts of elections these young women and men were used as apparatus for violence,” he said.