Fear that National Youth Service can erode academic freedom

Student leaders in Zimbabwe are concerned that the reintroduction of the Zimbabwe National Youth Service (NYS) may compromise universities’ enrolment processes and threaten academic freedom in the country’s higher and tertiary education institutions.

This comes after the Zimbabwean Cabinet approved, on 12 July 2022, the National Youth Service Policy Guiding Framework and National Youth Service Implementation Matrix: 2021-2025.

The government says the framework is informed by the Zimbabwe Constitution; the Zimbabwe Youth Council Act; the African Youth Charter (2006); the Declaration on Youth Development and Empowerment in SADC (2015) and the National Gender Policy (2013-17).

According to a cabinet press briefing, the policy will inculcate patriotism and provides a “framework for grooming well-disciplined youth, who exhibit Zimbabwean values and identity”.

The briefing also reviewed that recruitment to the programme will be voluntary but “graduates of the programme will receive first priority when enrolling into higher institutions of learning, including polytechnics, teaching, nursing, the army and employment in the civil service”.

This has raised concerns, particularly from students who are opposed to the policy, amid fears that this will likely result in a compromise when selecting students for enrolment by tertiary institutions and pose a threat to academic freedom as well as closing the few available employment opportunities in civil service.

Speaking to University World News, the University of Zimbabwe Students’ Representative Council President, Allan Chipoyi, said that giving priority to National Youth Service graduates may compromise the university enrolment process as it provides a ‘cheat code’ to students who fail to get competitive results at O and A levels.

“There is a possibility that youths who fail to garner competitive results at ordinary and advanced levels will simply attend the National Youth Service to get first priority when enrolling for higher education.

“This will obviously disadvantage the other candidates who would not have attended the National Youth Service programme but would have obtained more competitive results in their exams,” he said.

A threat to academic freedom?

Chipoyi is also concerned that Youth Service graduates may be used by the state to police and spy on professors and students in higher education institutions, thereby potentially threatening academic freedom.

“The National Youth programme may be a good programme but I don’t think that giving first employment priority to its graduates is a good thing because this will close out the already few available employment opportunities to non-graduates of the programme,” he said.

“I am also very worried that the National Youth Service graduates will repeat what was done by their predecessors back in 2008. I fear that these people will take us back to the political violence of the June 2008 elections whereby the ‘green bombers’ [National Youth Service graduates] were responsible for terrorising people, burning homes and so forth. It doesn’t sit well with me that the programme is being reintroduced by the government just before a major election next year,” added Chipoyi.

Boris Muguti, another student, who is the Zimbabwe National Students Union (ZINASU) legal and human rights secretary, told University World News that the National Youth Policy is an attempt by ZANU-PF (the ruling party) to capture all colleges around the country and close the democratic space in campuses and would be a progressive move only if Zimbabwe were a truly democratic country.

“It was going to be progressive if the National Youth Programme was being done in good faith. But we are aware that the National Youth Programme is in the hands of ZANU-PF.

“It produces young people who are fully indoctrinated with the ZANU-PF ideology. Once those people are given an upper hand to enrol in institutions of higher learning, they will fill colleges around the country and that will mark the death of academic freedom in Zimbabwe.

“These young people will use their toxic ideology to recruit more students and harass students who support opposition political parties,” said Muguti.

“The National Youth Programme has a history of producing radical ZANU-PF young cadres. Giving them first priority when it comes to employment is a shame.

“It is also an attempt to break the labour movement by deploying young and intolerant ZANU-PF activists to the working class. They want to limit the operations of the labour movement or even infiltrate and capture trade unions,” added Muguti.

The benefits of youth service

However, Ntando Dumani, a development thinker and practitioner who co-authored a 2021 white paper titled Re-thinking the National Youth Service Program in Zimbabwe said that, if giving first priority to NYS graduates doesn’t preclude all the other enrolment criteria by higher education institutions, then there is no need to panic over the reintroduction of the programme in as far as the universities’ enrolment process is concerned.

“The National Youth Service is not a bad thing and is not peculiar to Zimbabwe. Similar programmes exist in countries such as Kenya, Nigeria and Ghana and in some of these countries one will not be able to proceed to higher and tertiary education without first completing the National Youth Service,” Dumani told University World News.

“We, however, need to be cognisant of the fact that the NYS in Zimbabwe is not happening in a vacuum. There is a context to it and what government officials are saying needs to be qualified. The NYS may not affect academic freedoms but concerns around it are justified because of its history where its implementation was highly politicised in the 2000s.”

Dumani also cautioned that it is a bit too early to react to comments made by the government as things will only become much clearer once the final policy document is produced and the government begins to implement the programme.

“It is all about how it will be done. We have to wait to see how the final documentation, wording and implementation will be done,” said Dumani.

Historical context of the service

Zimbabwe had a similar national youth programme back in the 2000s. The programme was first introduced in 2001 and discontinued or suspended in 2007 due to resource constraints.

Back then, it was popularly referred to as the ‘Border Gezi Training’ with reference to the late Border Gezi who introduced the programme when he was the minister of youth, gender and employment creation when the programme was introduced.

Although it had its successes, the previous NYS was faced with challenges and marred by controversy, which affected its sustainability and credibility as a national development programme.

Despite denials by the ruling party, ZANU-PF, the National Youth Service was widely viewed as an extension of ZANU-PF. The state-owned The Herald newspaper, for instance, reported on 23 July 2018 that the National Youth Service Graduates’ Association is an affiliate organisation of the ZANU-PF Youth League.

The ‘green bombers’, are widely believed to have been the major proponents of the 2008 electoral violence, which is why there is scepticism about the timing of the reintroduction of the programme.

In their 2021 publication, Isabel Mwonzora-Simango and Dumani recommended that the government should ensure that the NYS is a truly national, independent and non-partisan youth programme, open to all youth who qualify.

The document, ‘Rethinking the National Youth Service in ZImbabwe: White Paper’ also recommended that the programme be rebranded and reoriented to embody values that would benefit the youth and the nation.

The government plans to incorporate more than 100,000 youths into the National Youth Programme in the next five years. Young people who will enter the programme are expected to be trained for six months at 21 institutions that the government will set up around the country. There are expected to be two training intakes each year.