Bring back conscription

Roy Blumenthal.

We’re willing to work

The fact that 30,000 young people were willing to travel to Pietermaritzburg and run ‘till they dropped to get 90 traffic cop jobs tells me something about the state of hopelessness that must be filling the lives of most South Africans. It also tells me that they’re willing to do whatever it takes to earn a living.

A nation-building tool

So here’s my proposal. Let’s bring back national conscription. But this time, instead of shoring up a white apartheid-based illusion, let’s make it a nation-building tool. Instead of making it male-only, let’s include all young South Africans.

Current situation: systemic hopelessness

Our matriculants leave school with a piece of paper that they know in their bones is meaningless. They know that their matric really won’t help them get a job and that only a very few lucky people will ever be employed. So they leave school feeling that they have no future.

This extends to children entering the schooling system too. They know that the end point is meaningless. And their education trains them for a world they haven’t experienced, and probably never will.

The system is a self-perpetuating mill of disappointment and hopelessness.

Create a culture of hope

We have to create hope. How? By giving school-goers something valuable and meaningful to work towards when they leave school. By giving them a life they can be proud of. By giving them a sense that the knowledge they’re accumulating in class will actually be useful to them and to the country.

We have to create a culture of hope: the system must be a self-perpetuating spiral of accomplishment, skills-development, goal-achievement, and self-adjustment.

Conscription: democratic socialism in a capitalist world

Capitalism in South Africa requires skilled labour. Our education system is churning out semi-literate, hopeless people. Our capitalists have to hire many candidates in the hopes of training a few who might one day prove capable.

So let’s throw some proven socialism into the mix. Let’s outsource a myriad of tasks to a conscripted workforce. They leave school, hop on a train, and journey to a part of the country they’ve never experienced.

They get given clothes, food, shelter, and a stipend that they can spend or save or send back to their families. Right off the train, these young individuals will already feel valuable.

Then they get some basic training: discipline, manners, and some rudimentary skills. They get streamed. Some will work the land. Some will make roads. Some will repair power lines. Some will drive, build, teach, and cook. Some will work in higher-level jobs, according to their abilities.

After basics, they get deployed for three months in a particular job. Three months later, they get re-deployed in another job entirely. They have a report card that follows them around for life. It contains evaluations of their skills, attitudes, abilities. Most important for prospective employers, the report card contains the real-world outcomes of their individual contributions.

When conscripts hit certain skills-accumulation milestones, their stipend increases, and they gain rank.
Two years later: hordes of well-rounded individuals who are capable and immediately employable

Two years gives each young person eight three-month stints of exposure to worlds of experience. That’s one basic training stint, and seven different real-world jobs. This gives them a pretty impressive resumé.

This is a powerful tool for employers, because it gives them candidates they don’t have to gamble on.

Community-building is a win for the country

The country wins too. All sorts of projects can happen. These young people will be able to literally make our country with their own hands. And minds. And hearts. They’ll build friendships. They’ll learn what they need to learn to succeed in a world they now have been able to sample. They’ll learn about the value they already bring to the world, without any further education. The biggest thing they’ll build is the confidence to hope for the future.

Long-term value: generations of true citizens, committed to contributing, committed to adding value

This is not a short-term thing. It’ll cost a lot of money, and there’ll be a lot of teething pains. But it can be done. And it should be done. Because it fixes something that is fundamentally broken in South Africa -- the sense of hopelessness that comes from a ‘gimme’ attitude in a country unable to give.

Let’s open up the old military bases. Let’s get the old soldiers out of their retirement homes. Let’s find a way to get community service on our national agenda. Turn Nkandla into a kibbutz. Spend sums of R280 million on things that count, not on some man’s vanity. Our country is much more important than the wealth of politicians.

Capitalism gains. The country gains. Our people gain. And we build a world of truly educated hope.

Roy Blumenthal is a writer, creativity-unleasher, workshop facilitator, and illustrator. His main business involves translating people’s words into pictures, live, on a big screen, as a replacement for PowerPoint.  Follow Roy’s tweet-stream at royblumenthal for cutting social commentary, snarky cartoons, and genuine engagement. You can also contact him through his website.