This is service overkill
Scissors Ngidi is in the final year of his BA degree. It has cost the family dearly to keep this first-generation university student in higher education.
Scissors often felt the pressure to drop out and start earning money for his single mother, who is also raising five children still in school.
But Scissors soldiered on, achieving averages of 75% and above in his majors, sociology and anthropology.
Despite his heavy workload, Scissors did voluntary service in the surrounding communities of Botshabelo and Heidedal, teaching life skills to high school pupils.
Scissors even offered to work free of charge for the bank that gave him his bursary as a token of his appreciation for their support.
The bank paid him anyway and this money allowed him to finish his studies.
Because of his character, competence and confidence, the bank offered him a job doing research surveys of their clients as soon as he graduated from university.
His university also wanted the talented Scissors to stay on, offering the young man direct access to a Masters in Sociology and a firm promise that he would be appointed as a lecturer upon his graduation.
I meet, teach and lead young people like Scissors every day of my life. I thought of these promising young students when I heard yet another proposal from politicians to make community service programmes compulsory for university graduates.
The story of Scissors highlights the dangers of an otherwise good idea.
To begin with, extending the time it takes for a student to achieve a degree and therefore full entry into the workplace brings unnecessary hardship on those ready to work.
What we should be talking about is reducing the number of years it takes to obtain a degree in South Africa, including doing away with the antiquated honours degree so that students can directly enter into Masters studies after the baccalaureate.
Keeping young people from full employment could be read as a political trick to keep unemployed or unemployable youth out of the marketplace or in jobs forced on the public or private sector at a price.
Making community service compulsory has the further disadvantage of forcing young people to serve rather than invoke the spirit of volunteerism.
True, some youth will discover the value of service if it were made compulsory, but that kind of coercive logic works better with children in primary school than with young adults for whom the persuasion of exemplars among parents and politicians should be the standard of appeal.
That is precisely the problem, of course; what young people witness daily is a predatory elite feeding shamelessly at the public trough, the opposite of what inspires a commitment to community service.
Nor should the state be demanding community service from youth. It is better to incorporate community service as part of the training for a relevant degree. There are powerful examples of such a strategy in social work, psychology and teaching, to mention only a few.
My two children are now both completing their year of public service; the one is paid, the other not. But what is crystal clear is the academic rigour required to meet the standards set for professional practice. The profession, not the politicians, are in charge of service learning.
What the central prescription of a political party cannot do is add value to the many ways in which students serve communities during their three or more years of formal study.
I have been astounded how young people - at their own cost and sometimes at considerable risk - reach out to the poor and the marginalised through myriad campus-based activities.
Universities should rather be funded to encourage such service alongside what is formally integrated within the qualification structure for a degree.
Young people, all over the world, are idealists who believe they can change the world. The easiest way to kill this idealism is to subject this spirit of service to regulatory mandates by the state.
Of course I want students to do community service. Learning to serve carries deep meaning and adds inestimable value to a formal degree. But the momentum for such service must lie outside of party politics and state bureaucracy.
What should guide community engagement are the professions and campus career services (formally), and student affairs and administration (informally), without extending the academic years of study.
What is being proposed would be an additional financial hardship on Scissors Ngidi; and it might destroy the spirit of volunteerism that society should cultivate.