DEFENCE and Military Veterans Minister Lindiwe Sisulu wants to bring back military service for school leavers.

"I am proposing formally through Parliament that the country considers the possibility that in the next year we create national service where all youth will be gradually absorbed into our training facilities," she told Parliament during her budget vote yesterday.

The apartheid government's forced conscription of white male school leavers into the army was controversial and eventually spawned an "end conscription" movement.

At the press briefing before her speech, Sisulu said national service would be voluntary, and that school leavers would not be conscripted.

But just hours later, Sisulu said: "This will not be a compulsory national service, but an unavoidable national service".

She did not explain exactly what "unavoidable" meant.

"The biggest problem we have in this country is the discipline we have in our youth," she said, adding that she visited new military recruits last month and saw a "forging of racial harmony".

Sisulu said finding "white and Indian children singing in Zulu" just two months after joining the defence force - and knowing that 50percent of all 18 to 24-year-olds were unemployed - were reasons to restore national service.

She said putting youth into the defence force would also keep them away from service delivery protests, which tend to be led by young people "with excessive anger and misdirected energy and frustration etched on their faces".

Yesterday, the ANCYL supported the initiative.

"We resolved in our lekgotla to encourage our members to take part because we believe that the (military) training will help to enhance levels of discipline and it will strengthen patriotism among the youth," said league secretary general Vuyiswa Tulelo.

But Gauteng-based Unemployment Youth Party chairperson Themba Mnisi said the plan was to indoctrinate the youth. "Government should create jobs in other sectors and not try to confine young people in the military.

"Young people are desperate and they will unfortunately jump at anything, even if it is not their career choice. We live in a democracy and we do not need a highly militarised society."

PAC secretary general Mfanelo Skwatsha said the national service plan would backfire.

"The PAC has always been critical of pumping a huge budget into the army when there is no immediate threat of a war. Government should channel funds towards creating sustainable jobs.

"In fact, we think the army should be trimmed down. What will happen after six months when those youth find themselves on the streets with military skills? They will rob banks and commit crime."

South African Security Forces Union president Bhekinkosi Mvovo said his union would support Sisulu's plan.

He said the defence force's existing skills development programme should be overhauled so that recruits leave with useful skills.

"We need to expand the time that the youth spend in this programme - to five or even eight years - so that some can be trained as doctors and teachers."