Is reintroducing conscription good for the country?

Conscription, like slavery and detention without trial, grossly violates an individual's right to his (or her) life. Having said that, this article offers merely a brief history that speaks for itself.

In 1993 an new Defence Act abolished compulsory military training for young white South African men. The response to the new system was a January 1994 stampede of volunteers 'from a large variety of cultures.' Studies soon found South Africans reluctant to serve in part-time army reserves, preferring to be defended by a full-time professional army of volunteers.

Soon after the 1994 'rainbow' election, 10 000 Citizen Force whites were called up to report to the Lohatla Battle School for camp duty and a conventional forces exercise. Fewer than 1000 responded. Defence minister Joe Modise announced a moratorium on call-up prosecutions, effectively ending the SA National Defence Force's policy of "secondary conscription".

37 000 white conscripts had chosen to do their national service in the police. This police reserve force was abolished in 1996 after similar low responses when mobilising members for short-term service. South Africa had gone AWOL from the militaristic ranks of 66 (now 57) conscripting countries. SA and 65 other countries now score highly on the 'military conscription' component of the Fraser Institute's annual index of economic freedom.

In mid-1996, however, the SA Interim National Medical and Dental Council announced two years of compulsory vocational training for medical postgraduates, to begin in 1998. The Department of Health responded to outraged trainee doctors by claiming this was not "community service by the back door."

Several elderly and female white journalists and ministers of religion spoke out earnestly on privileged youth, state funding, noblesse oblige, communalism, nation building and public spirit. An elderly doctor wondered if 'the system' demands the same self-sacrifice of other subsidised graduates such as engineers, accountants, teachers, lawyers and dentists. The SA Brain Research Institute suggested conscripting all young male and female adults to do some form of community service, including assisting limited trained police manpower to fight the escalating crime wave. In late 1997, Health Minister Nkosazana Zuma legislated 12-month community service for doctors and dentists, saying her scheme so impressed her cabinet colleagues that they wanted to introduce it in their departments.

The PAC's Dr Costa Gazi called compulsory service unwelcome, disruptive and unproductive, merely a sentence to be served. Applauding the contribution to development, an editor asked why single out doctors? What about lawyers? And in early 1997 Justice Minister Dullah Omar aired a year's compulsory internship for law students. He gained the support of Constitutional Court president Arthur Chalskalson who asked objectors to suggest other solutions to the legal aid crisis. In 1998 Omar endorsed a sweeping revamp of the legal aid system using his new conscripts to man rural legal aid clinics.

A National Youth Commission green paper asked President Mandela for forced community service by all higher education graduates as well as a tax on all university and technikon graduates. The ANC Youth League hailed this as a big step towards achieving a national youth service.

In 1999, Land Affairs and Agriculture Minister Derek Hanekom proposed community service for graduating veterinarians. Community service for teachers could not be ruled out "if other professions are doing it", said the education department. The Pharmacy Amendment Bill provided for one year's compulsory service by pharmacists from 2001. The health department considered the same for "scarce skills" including occupational and speech therapists, physiotherapists and psychologists. When dental community service began in July 2000, over half the 1999 graduating class of 220 had gone abroad after costing taxpayers at least R10m in training subsidies.

Later that year, Defence Minister Mosiuoa Lekota publicly considered reintroducing some form of military conscription to replace ageing SANDF members. The Black Sash called it scandalous to mimic the previous regime, though former End Conscription Campaign spokesman Chris de Villiers "personally would have no huge objection." Research Surveys reported 40% of respondents in favour of a possible reintroduction of military conscription, with 62% of blacks and 30% of whites opposed. The ministry then hinted that any conscription system was likely to be voluntary or a random call-up rather than dragging people away. Lekota claimed to dislike the term "conscription" which 'carries with it the overtones of compulsion'. After a major public fuss, deputy defence minister Nozizwe Madlala-Routledge announced that military conscription was not after all on the cards, but voluntary national service was a possibility - on the principle that it would not be compulsory. Later the minister announced plans for a 'patriotic movement aimed at alleviating poverty and unemployment' by training about 10 000 volunteers every year.

In 2001 the SA Students' Congress 'agreed to seek for a compulsory community service to be rendered by students to the community.' A study found that compulsory community service has failed to get doctors making a meaningful contribution in the most short-staffed hospitals in the country, owing to poor allocation and lack of senior doctors to supervise. Another study suggested it could be exacerbating the tendency of young doctors to leave the country. Over a quarter of doctors who graduated between 1990 and 1997 were working abroad in mid-2001. Almost half of Pretoria University dentistry graduates doing their community service intended leaving the country, the future for dentists being "not as bright here."

For 2003, national and provincial health departments conscripted (also for a year) eight more health professions, namely radiographers, physiotherapists, speech and hearing therapists, occupational therapists, environmental health officers, dieticians, clinical psychologists and professional nurses. Zimbabwe planned compulsory youth service for high-school leavers, to include training in patriotism. Education Minister Kader Asmal again raised the possibility of community service for newly qualified teachers.

The Health Professions Council of SA elected to double the compulsory one-year medical internship period to two years from mid-2004. Medical students who appealed to health minister Manto Tshabalala-Msimang to revoke the decision found that she lacks that power, but health department approval is needed to bring the new draft regulations into effect. A survey found that over 70% of fourth and fifth year trainee doctors would rather emigrate than face two years of internship. Gauteng Health Standing Committee chairman Dr R A M Salojee saw the urge of medical students to leave as a cogent reason for the introduction of community service, 'not the other way round'.

Experts from the health and education fields proposed that practitioners in all professions including law, engineering, accounting and journalism should do a stint. Netcare found it hard to understand why nursing students who pay for their own training should, from 2005, have to work for one year in a public institution. The Anti-Privatisation Forum thought students should be made to believe in the country and be patriotic. Early in 2004 the opposition Democratic Alliance withdrew its support for communal service by health professionals, viewing its implementation as violating their constitutional right of choice in the matter. One citizen suggested that making taxpayers "repay" their own money as community service is double taxation, and this logic means all citizens should do government service. Be careful what you suggest!
The military conscription issue came full circle In October 2004. If SANDF chief General Siphiwe Nyanda's ambitious drive to recruit over 41 000 defence reservists fails, he says government will consider reintroducing military conscription. But there are no immediate plans for such a drastic step, and SANDF reserves head General Roy Anderson has no fears about getting people to volunteer.

Government is now working on plans to introduce a period of compulsory community service for all graduates from universities receiving state subsidies. In November, Minister in the presidency Essop Pahad and labour minister Membathisi Mdladlana said the principle is generally accepted in cabinet.

Given government's 70%-plus electoral support, the headline question of whether conscription's good for the country has thus been answered democratically enough. No doubt what's good for individuals will continue to guide their actions. However, compulsory community service is likely to be grouped with 'military conscription' in country ratings, which could reflect badly on South Africa as we compete with less authoritarian emerging countries for investors' perceptions and funds.

Author: Dr Jim Harris is a freelance researcher and writer. This article may be republished without prior consent but with acknowledgement to the author. The views expressed in the article are the authorÂ’s and are not necessarily shared by the members of the Free Market Foundation.

FMF Feature Article \4 January 2004
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