South Africa’s National Youth Service Programme well underway

By Salah Elzein Mohamed

After nearly ten years of deliberation about a national youth service in South Africa, and two years of intensive planning, 2005 finally saw the National Youth Service (NYS) up and running on a national scale as a national government initiative.

In October 2003, the government adopted the National Youth Service Implementation Framework which aims at defining the concept of a national youth service; generating opportunities for young people to develop skills and connect to their communities through service; mobilising resources to support NYS programmes; and establishing institutional mechanisms for the implementation of the NYS.

Following a number of pilot and demonstration projects in infrastructure provision, home-based care, agriculture, conservation, tourism, youth development, and community development, the National Youth Service was launched on 28 August 2004.

The NYS policy framework identifies higher education students, further education and training students, unemployed youth, and youth in conflict with the law as primary groups to be targeted for the National Youth Service. However, the initial target of the NYS in the first phase of the roll-out is unemployed young people.

The NYS concept

NYS is a special government initiative that seeks to contribute to the enhancement of youth as present and future social capital in South Africa. The concept of NYS is understood as the “involvement of young people in activities which provide benefits to the community whist developing the abilities of young people through service and learning”. [13] The policy, as outlined in both the Green Paper on National Youth Service and the NYS Implementation Plan, emphasises that the NYS is not a programme intended to displace the current workforce, nor a programme involving bidding for tenders in competition with community contractors, nor waged work, and not a mechanism for financial reparation.

The NYS policy framework outlines core operational principles that underpin the implementation of the NYS programmes. They include:

  • Service-learning: to allow participants to develop skills, gain a better understanding of their communities, and have an opportunity to learn about people from different backgrounds.
  • Sustainable development: linking NYS to community planning as well as regional and national priority needs to facilitate resource mobilisation.
  • Incentives to support participation: a range of incentives are offered during and after service. Thy may take the form of a stipend for food, transportation and accommodation; accumulation of credits towards part or full qualifications; loans to support potential entrepreneurs; reference letters for preferential consideration in employment; and educational awards to allow for access to further education and training as well as higher learning.
  • Accredited learning: restructuring training in the NYS to meet the requirements of the National Qualification Framework (NQF) and related system of credits.
  • Developing a culture of self-reliance: participants will be provided with opportunities to build a sense of accomplishment and self-confidence.
  • Partnerships: the nature of the NYS and its success depends to a large extent on partnerships between all the stakeholders and existing organisations.
  • Selection of sites: the selection of NYS sites will be based on the consideration of the communities’ greatest needs. Thus NYS will provide tangible benefits to the communities where it is performed.

The roll-out of the NYS

The roll-out of the NYS is carried out by a National Youth Service Unit (NYSU) and the Partnership Project Team (PPT). The PPT, chaired by the Minister in the Presidency responsible for youth, oversees the roll-out at the national level. A National Youth Service Unit, which reports to the PPT has been established to deliver the NYS.

The National Youth Service Unit draws from the expertise of exiting public institutions such as the Umsobomvu Youth Fund, the South African Youth Council, the National Youth Commission, government departments and agencies, and non-governmental and private sectors. The provincial youth commissions play a significant oversight and co-ordinating role in the implementation of the NYS, and provide an important link between the three tiers of government.

The policy framework provides that at the initial stage (November 2003 to March 2006) the focus is to harness the existing resources and capacities of government departments and institutions rather than setting up a separate initiative with its own resource base. The focus of the roll-out is to align existing government programmes with the objectives of the NYS. These programmes include the Expanded Public Works Programme, Working for Water, learnerships, and the South African Defence Force programmes.

In addition to harnessing the existing resources from government departments and institutions, and facilitating the capacity building initiatives of the NYSU, the Umsobomvu Youth Fund provides the bulk of the administrative and operational funding for the initial period. It is also anticipated that funding for the training components will be provided for by the National Skills Fund. In the longer term, after March 2006, there will be different financing streams available to the NYS, including a possible allocation from the Medium Term Expenditure Framework.

An important aspect of the delivery of the NYS projects is the training of technical assistants whose role is to ensure the quality of project design in a system of decentralised implementation of the NYS projects. Under the supervision of the relevant NYSU programme manager, technical assistants support government departments at the national, provincial, and local levels to scope the service area, draw the relevant stakeholders into a consultative planning process around the project, determine an implementation plan for the project, develop the budget, and produce the project documentation.

Scale and spread of NYS projects

By the end of March 2005, there were twenty-four registered NYS projects involving 11 892 participants. These projects are spread across the health, construction, environment, education, agriculture and social development sectors.

At national level, there are two projects in the health sector involving 5 250 participants; four projects in the environment sector involving 2 170 participants; one project in the education sector involving 500 participants; one project in the social development sector involving 450 participants; and one project in the agriculture sector involving 20 participants.

At provincial level there are:

  • six projects in the health sector (two projects in Gauteng and one project each in the Western Cape, Limpopo, Free State, and KwaZulu-Natal) involving 1 568 participants;
  • seven projects in the construction sector (three projects in Gauteng, two in Mpumalanga and one project each in the Northern Cape and Western Cape) involving 1 510 participants;
  • one project in the education sector in Gauteng involving 122 participants; and
  • one project in the social development sector in KwaZulu-Natal involving 100 participants.

As shown by the chart below, almost 60 per cent of the expected participants in the NYS projects will be deployed in the health sector.


The NYS projects have tangible benefits for both the participant youths and beneficiary communities. For example, in a literacy programme in the Free State Province, unemployed but qualified youth were deployed in Qwaqwa, one of the areas with the lowest literacy rate. In return the youth who participated in the project acquired skills through the training they received from the Sector Education and Training Authorities. Ultimately, all got employed after the programme in Project Literacy, which focuses on adult basic education and training for disadvantaged sectors. [14]

Another example was in the Integrated Home-Based Care Programme. After completing the 12-month programme, some of the young people who participated would have acquired credits towards being counsellors and others towards becoming auxiliary nurses. In the field of housing, the quality of government subsidised housing was significantly improved through NYS. In the North West Province, about 800 houses were built by young people participating in an NYS project. The money that could have been paid to the contractor was used to improve the quality of houses built. As a result, bigger houses with three bedrooms were built. [15]

These experiences suggest that the South African NYS has succeeded in providing opportunities for young people to undertake service in a range of sectors. Furthermore, the integrated and developmental approach adopted by the NYS seems to be contributing to the growth of the young participants through their acquisition of skills and experience, and is enhancing their longer-term prospects of employment. It is also having an impact on the communities in which they are working.

[13] The South African National Youth Service Policy Framework as approved by Cabinet.
[14] Sello More, Research Manager at the National Youth Commission, interviewed by Thandile Khumalo.
[15] Ibid.