Youth Against Climate Change in South Africa: “There is a major lack of representation in the movement”


Most of food production in Africa is shouldered by small scale farmers and the majority of farmers are women. Alarmed by the effects of climate change on her family’s farm Ayakha Melithafa from South Africa’s Western Cape joined an environmental school club and engages now in a national and an international youth movements for climate justice.

Porträt von Ayakha Melithafa

The interview was conducted by Imeh Ituen, research assistant at the Chair of Global Climate Policy at the University of Hamburg and part of Black Earth, a BIPoC environmental and climate justice collective in Berlin.

You are part of the climate justice movement in South Africa. What motivated you to join the movement?

My mom and my community. As a Black person living in South Africa, I have a history of farmers in my family. My grandma was a farmer. My granddad was a farmer. My great grandparents were farmers. After 20 years of working as a teacher my mom took it upon herself to actually become a farmer, too. So I've always had a personal connection to nature and I was taught from a young age how to look after nature.

That’s also how I noticed that the state of nature was deteriorating. At the farm we would see the dry grass and half-empty dams. For us that was super stressful because we grow crops and keep livestock. That's when I went to the internet and I found out about climate change. Seeing how much my mom was struggling because of the droughts that hit us, I couldn't just sit down and watch. I knew I had to act.

How did you become active in the climate justice movement after you learned about climate change on the internet?

In the beginning, when I found out about climate change I was very anxious. With all of the information I was reading it felt like the end of the world. But when I looked around, I didn’t see that people were taking appropriate action. During that period of my life, I was just waking up without having any idea what to do. Looking back, I would say I was in a state of climate anxiety and depression. But I knew that I wanted to do something, I didn't just want to be complaining.

At school I had the opportunity to join an environmental organisation called Project 90 by 2030. Together we learnt about the science behind climate, made our own solar power banks and went to plant gardens at nearby schools. Through Project 90 by 2030 I also met Ruby Sampson, who first introduced me to the Fridays for Future movement and what Greta Thunberg was doing. Ruby had started a group called the African Climate Alliance that regularly organised protests in South Africa against climate inaction. After I joined the African Climate Alliance I became the recruitment official. When we were mobilizing for people to join the protests, I was making sure that Youth of Colour were also represented.

Why was it important to you to make sure that Youth of Colour join the protests?

We tried to make sure that a lot of People of Colour were included in the protest because we are the most affected by climate change, even though we contribute the least. There is also a difference in gender. I know this for a fact because the majority of small-scale farmers in Africa are women. The fact that in South Africa Women of Colour are most affected goes back to the history of apartheid. White people still hold a disproportionate share of wealth and land. As People of Colour we are hit by so many injustices at the same time. Poverty, gangsterism, gender-based violence... All of that makes us more vulnerable to the impacts of climate change, yet, it feels like you can't really make time for the fight against climate change because there is always something that seems more urgent. But we are the ones most affected. So, it’s important that we know about climate change and that our demands are heard.

The aim of the African Climate Alliance is to achieve and deliver Afrocentric environmental education and action. Why did you decide on an Afrocentric approach?

I feel like it's very important for Africa to be leading the march against climate injustices since we are the ones contributing the least, yet affected the most. I hate the fact that the movement has been so Eurocentric. And I hate the fact that the lack of representation of People of Colour in the movement made it look white because that perpetuates the narrative that white people are the only people who care about the environment. We recognize that we can't take a Eurocentric approach to African problems. We have to make sure that we are solving the climate crisis in ways that will suit us.

How does this lack of representation impact on your activism?

I would say it really makes it a struggle to engage Youth of Colour. At the beginning, when I talked to my peers at school about climate change, they were saying that this is a white issue, a first world country issue. They would tell me that we have more urgent problems like poverty and gender-based violence.

Many people associate vegetarianism and buying eco-friendly things with the climate movement, but in South Africa that is expensive. It's so much more affordable to get an unhealthy meal full of chicken than a bowl of salad. So here it's perceived that being vegetarian is something for someone who is wealthy, and in South Africa that's mostly white people. It’s almost like white people don't have any other struggles, like they're not living in dangerous environments, and the police is actually responsive to them. So, they are not preoccupied with other things. They can actually express their care about the environment and climate change. But when it comes to Black people, we have to worry about every single thing.

Do you think your peers could relate more if the framing and symbols were different?

Yes, absolutely. There is a major lack of representation in the movement. You see white people doing this, white people doing that, white people going out and leading the march. I don't I don't feel like white people are the only ones doing that. I see a lot of people in the Global South that actually work their whole lives to raise awareness about the environment and work every single day to make the environment a better place, but they don’t get the media coverage. The lack of representation has an impact. It makes it hard for people to understand why I do what I do.

You are working on a documentary about activism in the Global South at the moment. What is your motivation to do that?

We want to use the documentary as an educational tool to get more People of Colour aware of the climate crisis. This year the film “I am Greta” came out, which tells the story of Greta Thunberg. But this comes from a different perspective. With our own documentary we want people from the Global South to see climate change through their own eyes. We have decided to call the documentary “The House is Burning”, to highlight that in the Global South, we are already experiencing the impacts of climate change every single day.

You are one of 16 children who filed a petition with the United Nations Committee on the Rights of the Child in September 2019. Tell me a little bit about this.

With the petition we take the world to court for not attending to our rights as children by neglecting the climate crisis. It was super important for me to represent the Global South because we are already facing the impacts of the climate crisis and will also be most affected in the future. But I also wanted to put a spotlight on South Africa and hold the government accountable. We might not be contributing the most, but we are still heavily reliant on coal as a source of energy, and we need to change that.

You are part of different groups and initiatives. What are your preferred ways of mobilisation?

For me it’s a mix. I definitely like challenging policies and speaking directly to people in places of power to make sure that our voices are heard. But I also love activism on the grassroots level, especially, talking to schoolkids about climate change. I just love seeing their faces light up when I tell them about my journey and how I got to where I am. When I'm on the farm with my mom I like going around and talking to the other famers. I see how proud I make my family, and how proud I make my community.

Last month, Fikile Ntshangase, an anti-mining activist in South Africa was murdered for her efforts to fight the expansion of a coal mine. Do you also experience intimidation?

The murder of Fikile Ntshangase was a big shock to us at the African Climate Alliance. It just confirmed once more that the threat is real. We have talked about what measures we can take to lower the risks and make sure that we are safe. There is no doubt, when you stand up to the government and powerful corporations you are under a lot of pressure. It is scary to think that this can put your life in danger. It really shook me up this time, but if it means that future generations might inherit a world that's actually liveable then these are risks I am willing to take.

The case of Fikile Ntshangase also shows how diverging economic interests can cause dangerous rifts in communities, when their thinking about just transitioning away from coal in South Africa.

I definitely think about the people working in the mines, who will lose their jobs. They depend on the income to support their families. Transitioning to renewable energy must involve retraining these workers so that they can work in other fields, like installing solar panels for example. It will be better for their health and it will definitely benefit the greater good if we move to renewable energy.

However, especially marginalised communities who lose out need to be heard and prioritised in the decision-making process. When it’s just people at the top making all of the decisions without consulting us, they're not really fixing the problem because they don't know what we need.

What gives you hope and pushes you forward?

Definitely, the youth that I fight alongside with. I feel like the power lies in the youth. I love the fact that we are so outspoken. Other generations have just kept quiet, but we are the ones that are actually challenging the norms, not only in regard to environmental issues. I see people standing up for the LGBTQI+ community, for People of Colour and other minorities.

The climate justice movement is led by young people. If we are given the knowledge and the resources, we will definitely stand up against all the injustices we are facing and fight for our future. In my old primary school, for example, they make eco bricks and plant their own garden. That gives me a lot of hope. I really wished that education about the climate crisis was incorporated into the school curriculum. I see it as one of the key demands in the memorandum we as the African Climate Alliance presented to the South African government.

Do you ever get discouraged?

I do get a bit discouraged. We haven’t heard back from the government about the memorandum we gave them in March 2019. After all of the protesting we did, we found that South Africa is still moving forward with coal and oil. Even though the science is on our side, they are still moving forward with their plans. It is a bit discouraging when you see people in places of power making stupid decisions because of profit. Profit that is not even going to benefit the country, but only their individual selves. That really makes me angry. They seem to forget that you can’t eat money or drink oil. I would like to ask them this: when the last tree is cut down and you will be left with your billions, what will you spend it on if there is no Earth?

How can people in the Global North support your efforts?

They can stand in solidarity by using their platform to share information and support our demands. It’s important that we realise that we are not separate. We have to come together and join forces. But we also need to understand that we don’t always face the same issues and our perspectives can be different. I feel the need to elevate each other to make sure that all perspective are getting heard

This series of interviews is called “ReGain Space - the Future is Now”. What does it mean to you to regain space?

It is important that marginalized people take up space and refuse to be walked all over. When I look at the history of resistance against apartheid in South Africa, I become more confident in myself, my colour, my skin, my language, my being. It's easier to speak up with that confidence, when you know where you are coming from.

What is your message to activists, and young people in South Africa, in Africa, and beyond?

We can't afford to be passive. We can't afford to pretend that we can't see what is happening around us. It's our duty to make sure that the earth remains beautiful and productive for the people to come. This is not the time where we can just sit around and do nothing. This is the time for change. So, don't sit down and let the world beat you up. Even if the odds are stacked up against us, know that we can make it.

Ayakha Melithafa is an 18 year old South African environmental activist. She was one of 16 children and teenagers to file a complaint to the United Nations Committee on the Rights of the Child for failing to adequately address the climate crisis. She joined the African Climate Alliance at an early age and strives to reduce the carbon footprint of her country by a turn from coal and gas to renewable energies. She raised her voice as a Black young women at several national and international conferences to fight for a future for generations to follow.