Deputy Commandant Ndlovu runs one of the camps for Zimbabwe’s national youth training programme — which he swears is above political allegiances. Yet, quite unaware of the irony, he’s wearing a campaign T-shirt from the last election, which is decorated with face of a ruling-party legislator.
On paper, the 90-day programme is meant to instill a “sense of responsible citizenship among the youth”. Zimbabweans between the ages of 14 and 30 are prepared for “the world and for work in their country”.
But since its inception in 2000 and the deployment of the first trainees in December 2001, it has been dogged by a welter of criticism and demands for its disbandment. The main complaint is that it is simply a ruse by the ruling Zanu-PF government to brainwash hapless youths, and turn them into a militia for terrorising the opposition.
Southern African church groups working under the auspices of the Solidarity Peace Trust point out that the need for national service has never been formally debated in Parliament — and that there is no legislation controlling its implementation.
The trust also notes that school leavers are denied access to tertiary training and civil service posts, including those in teaching and nursing, without proof of their having completed the national service.
Bongani (not his real name) was part of a group of 1Â 000 trainees that graduated in July last year at the Border Gezi Training Centre, named after the deceased Cabinet minister who suggested the programme.
He says recruiters from various branches of the government — including the army, air force, police and national parks department — made regular visits to select trainees who could join their ranks. Representatives from nurse and teacher training colleges also selected trainees, some of whom were taken away before they finished the programme.
Bongani himself has since joined the army. But he doesn’t have much praise for the youth service.
“Most people go there just to build up their lives,” he says. “You’ll be desperate for a job. You’ll be having no choice. It’s not that people join whole-heartedly.”
The 19-year-old describes the training as “half-military” with much emphasis being placed on drills — although he was not trained to use a gun. Physical exercise and national history formed the biggest components of the programme.
However, Bongani says the teaching of history is selective and seems to exclude unpalatable episodes in Zimbabwe’s past — like the heavy-handed government response to an insurrection that arose in the south soon after independence in 1980.
“The bad things they don’t mention,” he says. “They don’t talk about the [opposition] MDC [Movement for Democratic Change], but mention that Britain is imposing sanctions and we have to defend our country. The way they talk to you, it’s like they want you to be on their side.”
From his small office in a secluded former army barracks at Guyu in southern Zimbabwe, Ndlovu maintains that recruits are merely given an understanding of nationhood, culture and gender tolerance — as well as some lessons in post-colonial history that they may not have received at school.
This updated syllabus could include the assertion that neighbouring “Botswana is claiming our land up to the Khami Ruins” (just outside Zimbabwe’s second-largest city of Bulawayo), because Botswana says the landmark was named after Sir Seretse Khama: the country’s last colonial-era prime minister and first post-independence president.
Mozambique — chips in Mafunga, Ndlovu’s fellow trainer — sees the land up to the Odzi River in Zimbabwe as its property.
The Solidarity Peace Trust believes that the national youth service programme merely pretends to be a training scheme that imparts useful skills and patriotic values to the youth.
“The reality is a paramilitary training programme for Zimbabwe’s youth with the clear aim of inculcating blatantly anti-democratic, racist and xenophobic attitudes,” it says.
The group has catalogued atrocities allegedly perpetrated by the national service trainees in the run-up to presidential elections in March 2002, and concluded that trainees were used as instruments to maintain Zanu-PF’s hold on power by whatever means necessary — including torture, rape, murder and arson.
Before the 2002 poll, adds the trust, “militia had been deployed to 146 camps around the country, in close proximity to, or in some cases even sharing, venues for voting”. The election was subsequently won by President Robert Mugabe.
As a result of these reportedly violent tactics, the national service trainees have become known as “the Zanu-PF militia”, the “Border Gezis”, the “Green Bombers” (because of their uniform) and the “Taliban”.
David Munyoro, permanent secretary in the government ministry responsible for the programme, dismisses criticism of bias towards the ruling party, saying only whites could have reason to complain. (Authorities in Zimbabwe are frequently at loggerheads with the country’s minority whites, whom they accuse of funding the opposition and supporting international sanctions.)
“For a black person, I’d be surprised,” Munyoro says. “What’s wrong with a programme that tries to give you an identity of your country?”
He also claims that enlistment is purely voluntary: “We need to design it in such a way that one feels he’s not a man until he’s gone through it.”
However, in a 70-page report, the Solidarity Peace Trust notes that “the youth militia is now referred to by government as compulsory”.
Bad publicity, reports of acute food shortages in the training camps, alleged sexual abuse and the ridicule to which trainees are subjected have combined to reduce the attractiveness of the training programme — and it is not clear whether the desired number of recruits is enlisting.
Nonetheless, the Solidarity Peace Trust estimates that by the end of 2002, about 9Â 000 young men and women had passed through training in the five main camps, which are mostly former army barracks. Up to 20Â 000 youths may have trained in less formal surroundings, often primitive camps at district level.
Following the implementation of controversial land reforms four years ago, Zimbabwe has suffered extreme hardships, including food shortages and triple-digit inflation. Earlier this month, it was reported that the European Union would extend the sanctions imposed on Mugabe and other notables in 2002 to protest against human rights abuses and alleged vote-rigging. — IPS