Reflecting on the National Youth Service

Wednesday, 26 August, 2009 - 13:25

In the five years since its launch, the National Youth Service has witnessed a significant increase in the number of young people participating. The article reflects on the growth of the government-led initiative which has grown from three to four government departments involvement in the implementation to include almost 15 departments at national, provincial and local levels. The National Youth Service
ensured that more than 100 000 young South Africans have directly benefited their communities and the country

In a country with an army of young people who were, and still are out of school, unemployed and unskilled, the South African’s government launch of the National Youth Service Programme (NYS) in Cape Town five years ago on August 24 was a milestone in the youth development sector.

Informed by the policy framework that was initially articulated in the Green and White Papers in 1998 and 1999 respectively, and further elaborated in the 2003 NYS Implementation Plan that Cabinet adopted that same year. The NYS is a government initiative that offers opportunities for young people between the ages of 18 and 35 - especially the unemployed, unskilled and out of school - to contribute to the national development agenda through serving their communities and country, while developing the skills that will support their access to the economy and leadership potential.

The NYS does not, however, target only the unemployed, unskilled and out of school youth. In 1997, the Education White Paper 3 on the Transformation of Higher Education called on higher education institutions to promote and develop social responsibility and awareness among students of the role of higher education in social and economic development through community service. It introduced the concept of service learning in higher education institutions. In 2003, the Founding Document of the Higher Education Quality Committee of the Council of Higher Education developed this further when it identified knowledge based community service as one of the areas for accreditation and quality assurance of higher education.

Learners in high and secondary schools are also targeted by NYS. In 2006, the then Department of Education introduced community service into senior secondary schools as part of the life skills orientation curriculum for the Further Education and Training band. This created opportunities for teachers and learners to become more closely engaged with their surrounding communities through service programmes.

This categorisation of NYS beneficiary targets has strongly influenced the current structure of the programme. Category one involves unemployed, out of school and unskilled young people in a year of service, and comprises accredited learning and skills development, community development and exit opportunities. Category two involves high school learners and university students in community service activities while they study. The last category involves youth and adults in ad hoc community volunteer opportunities.

Five years after its official launch, the NYS is in a phase that has been described as “massification” - the scaling up of NYS projects and the correspondent increase in the number of young people participating in these projects. For example, three years ago there were three to four government departments implementing NYS projects; today there are almost 15 at national, provincial and local levels. Three years ago, a typical NYS project had on average, 100 young men and women participating in it; today a typical NYS project has on average, 300 young participants.

Over the last five years the NYS has witnessed a phenomenal growth and increase in the number of young people participating in it. To date more than 100 000 unemployed, out of school and unskilled young South Africans have, through NYS, directly benefited their communities and the country. Despite the high structural unemployment that has plagued the country over the last 15 years, about 33 percent of these young people have accessed exit opportunities. These have been either in the form of formal employment, self employment or pursuing further education.

This growth has been possible, in part, because of a greater appreciation of the programme within government, particularly at national and provincial levels. The departmental approach to implementing the NYS in partnership with the Expanded Public Works Programme (EPWP) has also contributed to the massification of NYS. This is evident in the approach adopted by departments within the Social and Environment Clusters to roll out NYS projects that have aligned NYS with existing initiatives. For example, the Department of Water Affairs and Forestry is aligning NYS with the Working for Water Programme and the Departments of Health and Social Development have aligned it with the Home and Community Based Care Programme. Other Departments such as Home Affairs and Public Works are implementing new initiatives within the context of their mandates to expand access to services and/or create economic opportunities for the unemployed.

The NYS has also made major inroads in involving higher education institutions in service learning. To date, 9 000 students at higher education institutions have been involved in 88 innovative projects that have benefited communities and the students alike. A future goal is to expand this category of activities to schools and Further Education Training Colleges.

The participation of over 60 000 young people in the Proud to Serve Campaign - an annual volunteer campaign that seeks to engage and encourage young people to positively contribute to the development of their communities by volunteering their time, effort and talent - over the last three years, has entrenched the NYS position as South Africa’s biggest youth volunteer programme. Provincial and local governments have been the pillar of the success of this campaign. The NYS recruited, trained and managed 4 000 volunteers for the recently hosted, FIFA Confederation Cup in South Africa.

Independent evaluations of NYS specific projects over the last five years have shown that the majority of young people who have been through the programme have emerged with:

  • a sense of civic responsibility, patriotism and commitment to building caring and sustainable communities
  • a sense of volunteerism and selfless giving,
  • the ability to recognise the value of hard work and personal responsibility, and
  • he ability to defend democratic values through a lifelong commitment to human rights.

As the then 22-year-old Bulelwa Nana of Khayelitsha said in an interview after graduating from the Educo Africa project: “I am the person I wished to be”.

The National Youth Service Unit’s research analysis has shown that active support from the private sector could result in many more young South Africans getting involved in the programme. However, private sector involvement is a challenge. Past engagements with a handful of companies has to date yielded zero results.

The National Youth Policy (2009 – 2014), which spells out specific youth development interventions essential for effective and efficient mainstreaming of youth development in the socio-economic mainstream, emphasises the role that the private sector should and could play in creating “exit opportunities for programme participants since the NYS provides an opportunity for realising their social responsibility”, and supporting the programme to “reach a diversity of participants through creating a variety of opportunities to serve”.

In addition to building partnerships across the board, especially with the private sector, the policy also outlines four key interventions necessary to enable thousands of young people to serve and benefit their communities while developing their abilities and skills.

These include:

  • mainstreaming and institutionalising NYS,
  • extending the ambit of youth and community service so that all young people, including white youth, have the opportunity to serve,
  • making funding available to ensure that the programme exceeds its impact and reaches many young people, and
  • constantly monitoring and evaluating the programme to determine its impact.

The recently launched National Youth Development Agency (NYDA), which replaces the Umsobomvu Youth Fund and the National Youth Commission, has identified the NYS as one of its key priority programmes. The NYDA sees the NYS as positioned both to contributing to building a cohesive society and also to forging a sense of belonging, fostering solidarity, bridging the divide between youth from different communities and cultures and fostering responsible citizenship and ensuring that young people are included in the overall national development effort.

For this to be realised, as the National Youth Policy emphasises, it will be important that all sectors of society, including the private and civil society sectors to focus on and actively support the implementation of the NYSP in the next five years.

Mathe P Mphale works at the National Youth Development Agency (formerly Umsobomvu Youth Fund and the National Youth Commission) and was one of the founding staff members of the National Youth Service Unit (NYSU). Between 2005 and 2007 he was responsible for the implementation and management of NYS projects in the Social Sector and is currently
responsible for communication, campaigns and stakeholder management for the NYSU. He writes in his personal capacity

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