Solidarity Trust questions legality of national service

A new organisation made up of Zimbabwean and South African church leaders, the Solidarity Peace Trust, has questioned the legality of national service introduced by the government two years. It says apart from the scanty budgetary mentions in 2001 and 2002, the issue of whether national youth service should be introduced has never been formally debated in parliament.

In its 73-page report released recently, the trust appeals to church leadersint he Southern African Development Community ( SADC) region to speak out and condemn the Zimbabwean government for promoting the militarisation of the country's youth. "We appeal to Commonwealth countries to maintain and intensify the isolation of the Zimbabwean government and to make disbandment of the youth militia one of the conditions that must be met before our nation can be readmitted into the international community," the report says.

Zimbabwe was suspended from the Commonwealth last year. Its suspension is due for review at the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting to he held in the Nigerian capital , Abuja, from December 5 to 8. Nigerian Pesident Olusegun Obasanjo and South African President Thabo Mbeki have been at loggerheads with Australian Prime Minister John Howard over the suspension with the two African presidents arguing that the suspension expired after one year in March.

The trust is chaired by the Archbishop Pius Ncube of Bulawayo with Bishop Rubin Phillip of KwaZulu Natal as his vice. The report was endorsed by Crisis in Zimbabwe Coalition, Zimbabwe National Pastors Conference, Ecumenical Support Services,Harare Ecumenical Working Group, and Christians Together for Justice and Peace.

The trust appeals to Zimbabweans to demand the immediate cessation of the national youth service training programme; the closing of all training camps across the country; the surrender to lawful authority of all weapons now in the hands of the youth militias; thorough investigation of all crimes committed by the youth militia and prosecution of those responsible for murder, rape, torture and arson, with priority being given to bringing to justice those responsible for inciting and encouraging these brutal crimes; and the setting up of a truly national forum of civic and church leaders to determine a comprehensive programme for the rehabilitation and reintegration of former members of the youth militias into society.

"It takes great wickedness for those in power to be prepared to sacrifice a whole generation, the youth of the nation, in order to maintain their own hold on power," the report says. "But that is precisely the wickedness revealed in this report. The youth of Zimbabwe are being used, and abused, in a most cynical and calculating way by the very people entrusted with responsibility for their welfare.

"Behind the mask of a programme bearing the innocuous title 'national youth service training' lurks a pernicious evil that threatens not only to destroy the nation's youth but also to subvert many of the core Christian values upon which the nation was built. It is the great merit of this report that it tears off this mask and exposes to full view the inner workings of this scheme. With the publication of this report no longer will there be any possible justification for the old excuse 'I didn't know', whether coming from a Zimbabwean or the international community."

The report says the national youth service training programme masquerades as a youth training scheme that imparts useful skills and patriotic values when in reality it is a paramilitary training programme for Zimbabwe's youth with the clear aim of inculcating blatantly antidemocratic, racist and xenophobic attitudes. "The youth militias so created are used as instruments of the ruling party, to maintain their hold on power by whatever means necessary, including torture, rape, murder and arson," the report says. "Having been thoroughly brain-washed, the youth militias are deployed to carry out whatever instructions they receive from their political commissars, on the understanding that they will never be called to account by this regime for any of their deeds."

The report details the use of the militias by those who control them to carry forward the ZANU-PF political agenda in everything from manipulating election results to controlling the food distribution process to the party's advantage. "While the militias are trained and incited to commit grievous violent crimes against their fellow citizens, it is also a fact that many of them have become victims of human rights' abuses themselves in the course of training," The report says.

"The most conspicuous example of this abuse is the rape, and multiple rape, of young girls by the boys undergoing training with them, and by their military instructors. The resulting pregnancies and infections with sexually-transmitted diseases, including HIV, not only devastate the lives of the youth concerned but are creating a terrible legacy for the nation.

"Those responsible for instigating this vile system have introduced into the body politic, a cancer, which now spreads through the nation unchecked and leaves destruction in its wake. The nation's youth are being deliberately corrupted and brutalised, and then deployed to wreak havoc among the people, for no other purpose but to carry forward ZANU- PF's political agenda.

"The moral, spiritual and physical well-being of a whole generation of Zimbabweans is being sacrificed for the short-term political advantage of those in power, with incalculable long-term effects upon the very fabric of the nation. How, we ask, will it ever be possible to reintegrate these young people into the communities that they have terrorised?"

The trust says this is an outrage against which every single peace-loving Zimbabwean, together with the whole international community, should rise up in angry protest. " Every youth whose future is thus threatened, every parent, every grand-parent, every brother and sister - indeed every responsible citizen with a care for the well-being of the nation - should stand, shoulder-to-shoulder, and say 'No!' to this evil scheme," the trust says.

"As Church leaders, to those who are responsible, we reiterate the words of the prophet Jeremiah: 'Woe to the shepherds who are destroying and scattering the sheep of my pasture! declares the Lord'. And we remind those who deliberately corrupt the nation's youth of our Lord's most severe warning: 'If anyone causes one of these little ones who believe in me to sin, it would be better for him to have a large millstone hung around his neck and to be drowned in the depths of the sea," the report says.

The trust says, the appalling danger posed by the youth militia training must be faced with the utmost urgency. It requires a united response across the nation. "Our particular constituency is the Church, and therefore our call for an urgent and united response is first directed to the Church, which nominally accounts for some 70 per cent of the population. But the call is wider and should embrace all men and women of good will who desire peace and harmony for the nation," the trust says.

The report says, though former Youth Minister, Border Gezi told the Chronicle in April 2001 that cabinet had already approved the national youth policy, so there was no need for government to seek parliamentary approval before implementing the programme, little attention was paid to this by the opposition Movement for Democratic Change and civic groups, probably because of "the seemingly innocuous syllabus presented, the small budget formally proposed which suggested the training would be on a similarly small scale, and the enormous number of other problems the nation had to face".

Initially only $24 million was allocated for the expansion of youth camps with $400 million being for provisions. But last year the budget was hiked. The report says the government has already spent more than $2 billion on the youth militia this year.

The report says at no point since the June 2000 election was the issue of introducing national youth service ever publicly debated in a meaningful forum by civil society, existing educational institutions, or the churches. It was only after the system was in place that the public became aware of the real nature of the training and began to feel the impact of the youth brigades.

The report says when the programme was started there appeared to be no need for legislation regarding participation because it was presented as "voluntary". It was only in July last year that the new Minister for Youth Elliot Manyika announced that the youth service would be "compulsory".

"The compulsory nature of the national youth service is therefore legally dubious. This notwithstanding, the government is already enforcing its proclaimed policy that those who do not have a national service training certificate will be denied access to employment in the civil service, and to all post school training facilities funded by government, including vocational training, universities and colleges," the report says. "Since the beginning of 2003, qualified candidates have had the experience of being initially accepted to nurse training or teacher training, only to be asked for their youth training certificates on arrival at the relevant institution. Failure to produce these has meant dismissal from training."

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