Pretoria - President Jacob Zuma has thrown his weight behind the youth festival which opened in Tshwane on Monday, saying the event was vital for the development of young people across the world.
He said the successful opening of the 17th World Festival of Youth and Students in South Africa was a demonstration of the depth of commitment among the country's youth to address the challenges facing the world.
The opening ceremony, at Lucas Moripe Stadium in Atteridgeville, was reminiscent of the scenes seen during the World Cup in June, with all the glamour that accompanies state events, including the traditional 21-gun salute, national anthem by the Navy Band and a fly-past by South African Air Force.
Zuma, whose entourage included Tswane Mayor Sputla Ramokgopa and World Federation of Democratic Youth President Diego Vierra, heaped praise on the country's youth for helping organise the event, saying the festival emphasised the message that was conveyed through the recent FIFA World Cup, that the world was most welcome in South Africa.
He expressed his delight at the turnout by the youngsters from all over the world, with the National Youth Development Agency confirming that delegates from more than 100 countries had arrived in South Africa by Monday. This set the highest attendance numbers in the 65-year history of the event. Zimbabwe, India and Korea sent the largest delegations with numbers ranging from 500 to 2 000 people from each country.
"We are saying that this country, which was isolated for so many years due to the evils of apartheid, has opened its borders to the world for progressive events of this nature. Young people should be provided the space to contribute to the economic, social and cultural developments in their countries," Zuma said.
He said the conferences, workshops and cultural activities that will be part of the event over the next eight days, provided a rare opportunity for the youth "to engage and reflect" on the developments in their various countries and suggest practical solutions to their governments. The Presidency had paid R29 million towards the event, with the National Lotteries Board forking out R40 million.
"As a country, we believe that if the youth are the future, then they should play an active role in shaping that future," Zuma said.
He noted that leaders such as Nelson Mandela made their impacts during their years of youth and that their values have proved enduring and changed the world. Also, people who swelled the ranks in the liberation struggle from the 1940s were the youth.
"Therefore, we cannot undermine the vitality of youth, much as it presents its challenges, it can make lasting imprints in the society".
Earlier, ANC Youth League President Julius Malema, speaking in his capacity as President of the National Preparatory Committee, told the delegates and locals who packed the stadium that during the times of apartheid "it was the youth that kept the fires burning."
"We are here today to herald the first fight in the struggle against imperialism and we will not be apologetic about it," Malema said, amid loud cheers and whistle blowing.
Constantly referring to Mandela and former Cuban leader Fidel Castro as his heroes, Malema said young people must fight for universal access to free education and health care, as the two leaders had done.
"Education is not a commodity...it is a right and all of us just like Nelson Mandela and Fidel Castro did, we must continue to fight for that right to education," Malema said.
He lashed out at what he called greedy leaders of the day, while countries such Swaziland, Britain, Morocco and the United States were not spared of his criticism either.
Vierra said South Africa was chosen to host the festival not only due to its geographic positioning but because of the history of the country's youth struggle against apartheid and racism.
"There is no democracy if not everyone is free and the young people of South Africa knew that when they took against the system and defeating imperials at this conference is a must and not an option for all of us," he said.
According to the event programme, daily conference presentations will give delegates an opportunity to discuss social, political and economic issues towards the development of young people. These will include right to employment, economic issues, environment and development; public, free and universal access to education, science, culture and information; democratic rights, freedoms and human rights and the struggle for peace, sovereignty and solidarity against imperialism.