A few jokes with the president made the 18 top matric achievers feel at ease when they were presented with the Thabo Mbeki Matric Merit Awards at the presidential guesthouse in Pretoria yesterday.
The achievers were recognised by the Thabo Mbeki Education Trust for their excellence in their matriculation examination last year.
Before sitting down President Thabo Mbeki asked Minister of Finance Trevor Manuel if he had passed matric.
"When I was in matric I had no distinctions, so I don't know what that means," Mbeki said.
The president and the minister of education, Naledi Pandor, congratulated the students in a room packed with premiers and ministers.
"We are very happy for you and the careers you choose. Do not leave the country. We need people like you to improve our country," said Pandor.
The minister also advised the students to "watch out for too much alcohol and parties".
The president said he felt honoured to spend time with them.
"It is us who are feeling honoured to be in your company, and it gives us pride to see you doing so well.
"There are many things that require people of your intelligence in this country and I am hoping to hear about how well you are doing."
The students will be given financial support for tertiary studies irrespective of their field of study.