Reason Wafawarova on Thursday
We did not want to train a militia. We wanted to develop a national youth who is disciplined, patriotic and self-reliant, as well as one who is a responsible citizen, who promotes and fosters national unity. In fact, we centred the NYS programme on the three pillars – patriotism, unity and nationhood.
LAST week on the 20th this paper carried an editorial comment with the title above, and I was challenged to share with fellow Zimbabweans my intimate experience with the National Youth Service programme, if only to have a deeper insight of the programme.
It is common knowledge that the NYS was reduced to a political football by both the opposition and the ruling party, and the programme suffered greatly to the extent of losing its national outlook, credibility and integrity. Up to today many Zimbabweans believe that the official name for the programme is “Border Gezi”, while others even think the derogatory “Green Bombers” is the official name.
The main reason for this is that when the opposition used the private media to vilify the programme for its own ends, the public media was totally uninterested, except perhaps for ZBC, who allocated to us a 6am 30-minute weekly slot to outline the aims and objectives of the programme.
I was tasked to carry out this duty in 2001, and we had to explain ourselves on television in the time allocated, plus another hour-long call-in programme at Radio Zimbabwe each Thursday. That was with Joseph Panganai.
Sadly the television programme came to an abrupt end after one newly appointed minister watched it one fine morning in 2003. The politician was uncomfortable with the limelight the programme was giving to a junior officer, and he ordered an immediate end to it.
For some reason the good minister did not think the radio programme on Thursdays was a threat to his monopoly to fame, so that one survived.
I became part of the National Youth Service programme in April 2001, after a surprise invite to a brainstorming session that was happening at the Department of Youth Development some day in January of that year.
I received a call from Dhewa Mavhinga, who was just finishing his term as the Student Representative Council president at the University of Zimbabwe at the time. I had known Mavhinga as my junior at the university since the late nineties. He asked me where I was, and I happened to be in the Harare City Centre at the time.
He told me he was in an important meeting at Zanu-PF Headquarters, and he urged me to come over immediately. This building was where the Youth Development Department was housed.
When I got there I realised there were senior members of all the uniformed forces in the room, plus the then Director of Youth Development, David Munyoro, as well as other staff from the Youth Ministry. Also in attendance was the newly appointed deputy director responsible for the proposed programme, Brigadier Boniface Hurungudo, or Cde Mao (May his soul rest in peace).
Mavhinga introduced me as someone he trusted to be highly knowledgeable in youth development affairs, and I was allowed to follow proceedings and also participate. A Mr Mutema had invited Mavhinga in his capacity as a representative of students.
At the end of the meeting it was agreed that I was to develop a concept paper for the “National Service” programme, and I proposed to rename it the “National Youth Service”. The proposal was accepted with reservations from some in the room, mainly because the country already had an Act on the National Service (1978).
The concept paper was developed, and I was later asked to present it at an all-stakeholder three-day workshop at the Great Zimbabwe Inn. Literally every single ministry was represented, as were a significant number of civic organisations, plus the war veterans.
After I made the presentation on the concept paper, we had successful deliberations, and Minister Gezi instructed that I was to be co-opted into the team at the Youth Development Department, after Brigadier Hurungudo had suggested so.
I was in the civic society sector then, and I then left to join the ministry in April of 2001.
As soon as I joined, I realised that the implementation of the adopted concept paper was going to be problematic, and not in a minor way. Those with a military background and the war veterans wanted the programme to be a military one, mostly for the need to align the initiative to familiar turf.
I vehemently opposed this idea, arguing that the NYS was to shape up as a civilian programme because that was exactly what it was, and precisely why it was being administered under a civilian line ministry.
We generally agreed on subjects like Entrepreneurship, Disaster Management, Survival Skills and National Orientation, but there were serious contentions on the subject Drills, which some wanted to be called “Military Drills”.
Some of us wanted drills without weapons training, while others wanted basic weaponry included. At one time a military truck with rifles left Harare for Mount Darwin, and we had to do a serious scare campaign to get it back before it passed Mazowe.
We did not want to train a militia. We wanted to develop a national youth who is disciplined, patriotic and self-reliant, as well as one who is a responsible citizen, who promotes and fosters national unity. In fact, we centered the NYS programme on the three pillars -patriotism, unity and nationhood.
After we thought we were done with the matter of militarising the NYS, we had another hurdle to clear, and this time it was to do with separating the programme from the party Zanu-PF.
I personally had helped recruit 12 political science graduates from the University of Zimbabwe into the programme, who were immediately labelled the “Wafa Team”, and that in a very cynical way.
Their role was to take care of training national orientation, and they of course teamed up with seasoned orientation experts from the war veterans sector, some of whom had done a lot of mobilisation and orientation work during the liberation struggle.
It was not long before we received complaints that the “Wafa Team” was not sloganeering before they started their lectures. We had named our first NYS Training Centre in Mount Darwin Border Gezi, and this was in honour of the late Minister Border Gezi, who had died in a horrific car crash just days before we opened the centre.
So I drove to Border Gezi Training Centre in September 2001 to address this slogan issue.
I created numerous enemies for myself after I declared that the programme could not benefit either Zanu-PF or the nation if it did not carry a national outlook, and that party slogans by their very nature had no national outlook.
My immediate boss Brig Hurungudo supported me in principle, but was too careful to disappoint his fellow war veterans within the programme, which is why he sent me instead of carrying out the correction himself.
So there was this fine day when Director David Munyoro went to address staff at the centre, and he was ordered to chant Zanu-PF slogans before saying anything. When he tried to explain that he could not do so with a national programme, there was a scuffle whose details I will spare for now, but it was bad.
We soldiered on, and we reached an official agreement that there would be no sloganeering with trainees.
Then came the placement desk that came directly under me. We had a duty to place all NYS graduates into either tertiary institutions or into employment. Our first group had 1 000 graduates, and 600 of them went to the Prison Service, with the rest joining the civil service, the police, and the army. A few went for training as nurses, teachers and some to polytechnic colleges.
This group was deployed between December 2001 and February 2002. After that we had an intake that trained for six months, and we then opened Dadaya, Guyu, Mushagashe, Kamativi, Vumba and Chikwerengwe in that order, with as many as about 70 000 youths graduating by the end of 2005.
I left the ministry at the end of 2004. The placement desk was problematic in that some Zanu-PF officials wanted to directly meddle with the job placement process because they saw this is a way of personalising the youngsters for their own selfish ends.
Some of these party cadres would take along NYS graduates to party functions, and some of the graduates loved the invitations, especially those who saw patronage as the only way to better their lives.
The most surprising part of the NYS program is that it was never allocated an official budget, and that apart from a handful of us at the head office, all staff at the centers was not part of the then Public Service Commission establishment.
In short the NYS trained over 70 000 graduates without official recognition from both Treasury and the Public Service Commission. We paid staff through what the Ministry of Finance Department called “viraments”. Initially we made bulk withdrawals and paid cash salaries, and later we delegated this function to the provincial offices.
We had countless meetings with Treasury and the Public Service Commission, but not even a single agreement ever came to fruition, despite the Commission chairman always attending our numerous passout parades, one of which was officiated by His Excellency President Mugabe.
Zimbabwe we are one and together we will overcome. It is homeland or death!
Now we see this worrying discourse within the youth in Zanu-PF, and we have an editorial calling for the resuscitation of the NYS to help fix the quagmire. I am aware there is something going on in the name of the NYS at the moment, but that is just the symbolic cry and effort of a remnant few, in the Midlands I think.
I am in constant touch with these comrades, like I am with a wide range of the programme’s graduates; and I can say after the 2006 abrupt halting of the programme, we cannot proceed and progress unless the Government gives the noble cause the attention it deserves. Not even the Youth Minister is buying much into the current efforts from what I have gathered.
The NYS programme created a vanguard youth that resolutely stood against foreign meddling in the affairs of Zimbabwe, and some of us are proud of that feat. It created youths with a new orientation, and some of these youngsters were deployed in the various sectors of our economy, and they became the new outlook of patriotism.
But we never got anywhere near what we envisaged. We had numerous challenges within and without the programme, and I have endeavoured to explain a few of them here.
We created young business people through the programme, and there is one forensic audit expert in Harare whose motivation and drive came from his days in the NYS. There is a top musician whose father asked me to send him to Kamativi “kuti ambonofunda mufana uyu comrade”, and he was in our Air Force before he abandoned the gun for the guitar.
The success stories are far too many to mention, but we could have done far more with more support and goodwill.
I went to Ghana in 2003, and they have had the Youth National Service as they call it, since 1975. I saw prominent people who came through the programme, including Cabinet ministers and so on.
The case of the National Youth Service is a national matter, not some cheap populist endeavour to secure the fortunes of bankrupt politicians.
We can once again embark on this programme with the genuineness it deserves, and indeed we can create in our nation a youth of responsible citizenry.
In my four-year stay with the National Youth Service I worked under four different permanent secretaries and four different ministers, and that did not make cohesion and continuity any easier. Some of these senior officials were absolutely counter-productive, if not anti-NYS.
The NYS programme was not only politically vilified, but also resisted by the status quo within the public service, and even looked down upon by a significant number of Cabinet ministers – of course privately.
We would need to resell and repackage the NYS in a non-partisan way if we are going to successfully revive this very noble programme.
Zimbabwe we are one and together we will overcome. It is homeland or death!
Reason Wafawarova is a political writer based in SYDNEY, Australia.