Youth leadership shamed

2010-12-21 00:00

THE World Youth Festival co-hosted by the National Youth Development Agency (NYDA) and the World Federation of Democratic Youth (WFDY) was supposed to bring together thousands of future leaders to reflect on how better to advance youth development in the aftermath of the global financial crisis.

But the festival will now be remembered for dismal organisation, loitering delegates and a public kissing festival.

This is a mammoth blunder on the part of the NYDA and does major damage to the cause of alternative ideas on global affairs and progressive thinking in response to the mantra of neoliberalism and the Washington consensus.

The festival has its origin in the anti-imperialism that was given impetus by the failure of victors of World War 2 to address the specific demands of colonised and suppressed people. It was given further momentum by the Soviet Union during the Cold War. But with the end of the Cold War, the idea provided home for a large number of ideological stances opposed to the neoliberal paradigm, from grass-roots organisations in the developing world to centre-left youth formations in the West. Like the World Social Forum and the Food Sovereignty Platform, the festival idea has provided space for the marginalised to offer a plurality of ideas for overcoming inequality, poverty and unemployment that the neoliberal paradigm has failed to offer.

Precisely because the festival tended to attract young people belonging to various strands of the political left, they became festivals of ideas as well as arenas for networking. Festivals could, therefore, not take extreme and unpragmatic positions on global matters as these were moderated by carefully structured discourses during festivals.

The last festival held in Venezuela in 2005 attracted some 25 000 young people from 144 countries and focused on drivers of economic and social transformation.

Of course, the festivals have always attracted militant and sometimes narrow political agendas, some statist and others anti-state. Some expected Venezuela to become nothing but a bashing festival, but The Youth of the Fifth Republic, a youth league of Hugo Chavez’s party, was well organised. The party focused the meeting on the serious exchange of ideas and kept the delegates occupied in designing a new agenda for the world. The same can be said of Cuba.

In both cases, as in others too, the event was organised by political formations themselves rather than a state agency like the NYDA, unless one should consider it so infiltrated by political activists that it has virtually become a political platform.

South Africa became the host after Belarus pulled out at the last minute in 2009, leading to the postponement of the festival to 2010.

I doubt if the NYDA thought thoroughly about how to organise and use the festival to contribute to the marketplace of ideas. I wonder if they discussed a body of ideas they would have wanted explored and put forward at the festival. But that the NYDA wanted an arts festival is clear, which is why it may be remembered for the dramas rather than ideas.

It became clear months ago that the NYDA was poorly prepared to host and direct the festival to generate or fortify existing ideas on a better world for youth development. When the chair of the NYDA, Andile Lungisa, could not convince radio listeners about the value of the festival, trouble started. By the time it emerged that even the budget had not been done properly, there was already a cloud over the week-long event.

It was, therefore, not surprising that the festival programme and logistics were a shambles. Some delegates were not properly transported and accommodated. Some breakaway sessions were badly planned and poorly attended.

Lungisa, who made sure that he did media liaison, was a poor reflection on the NYDA that he heads and the ANC Youth League of which he is a vice-president. He just did not have convincing answers to questions about the rationale, budget, logistics, and value of the festival. He failed this test dismally and so did the NYDA.

By messing up with the festival, the NYDA has also given the country a bad name where the Venezuelans did well. Without pockets of excellence in other programmes to make up for this, the NYDA has scored an own goal and helped those originally opposed to the idea of the NYDA. It will have fewer supporters in public platforms.

This is a bad omen for the future of South Africa’s leadership in international affairs unless the NYDA and associated youth formations learn their lessons. The first is that there is no substitute for competence and excellence in its work. Crude political deployment is bad. Otherwise, in future they will mess up even bigger platforms for South Africa as they ascend the leadership ladder in their political organisations into government.

• Siphamandla Zondi is the executive director of the Institute for Global Dialogue, but writes in his personal capacity.

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