The rise and fall of Botswana’s youth community service

By Lebina Shabe

Botswana’s youth community service (Tirelo Setshaba) was founded in 1980 following a recommendation by the Presidential Commission on Education. It was terminated by the government 20 years later in 2000, largely due to economic reasons.

The aim of the non-military youth service programme was to promote youth community service in the country. It was also intended to be a nation-building process that had the potential to integrate youth from diverse ethnic backgrounds into the national economy.

Although Tirelo Setshaba was originally established as a study scheme, the programme was changed to a community service that incorporated senior secondary school leavers who had completed their O Level examinations. After five years, the programme was transformed from a voluntary scheme to a compulsory one-year service for all school leavers, as a prerequisite for entrance into tertiary and university level institutions as well as employment in the government sector.

For two decades, the participants in Tirelo Setshaba engaged in a medley of activities including agriculture, education, health, local co-operatives, rural industries, and social and community development. Education drew the biggest share of the participants with approximately 40 per cent working in primary schools. They were assigned to remote villages where they were attached to government, parastatals or non-governmental agencies.

A major criticism of the programme was that it benefited a small elite while marginalising the majority of youth (about 83 per cent) who did not have access to senior secondary education.

Dr Morena Rankopo, a lecturer in the Department of Social Work at the University of Botswana, [6] wrote a paper about Botswana’s youth community service based on his personal experiences as a former participant in 1985–86, and a field officer in 1990. Dr Rankopo argues that Tirelo Setshaba had far-reaching outcomes for participants, communities and the nation as a whole. For the participants in the scheme there was attitudinal impact in that they developed a more favourable outlook towards disadvantaged members of the community, which in some cases served as a career pointer after these young people had discovered themselves.

In addition, there was an economic benefit. Apart from the monthly stipends, which were slightly higher than the minimum wage, participants were introduced to a culture of saving through a compulsory savings account and supported their families through family needs allowances. Participants also gained opportunities for experiential learning because they were not only exposed to the workplace environment, but also to real life preparation.

Dr Rankopo points out that despite Tirelo Setshaba’s organisational problems, its conceptual framework could be used as a model to set up youth community service in Botswana and other countries. Please click here to access the entire paper.

[6] Dr Morena Rankopo is also Botswana’s in-country research leader for VOSESA’s five-country study on civic service and volunteering. To read more about the study, visit the June edition of this newsletter at