The interview: Ayakha Melithafa

The 19-year-old climate activist is making her voice heard across South Africa and beyond. She speaks with Uyapo Majahana about climate anxiety, life lessons and getting beyond tokenism.


How did it all begin? What inspired your involvement in climate activism?

This journey began in 2017 when my province, the Western Cape [in South Africa], was experiencing a water crisis caused by a drought. My mother was, and still is, a small-scale farmer and our family depended on her produce for our food and livelihood. But the drought was bad, the livestock started to suffer and the crops withered. This affected us all – our cows, sheep and goats became so skinny and some even died. It was so painful to see my mother, other small-scale farmers and commercial farmers frustrated as they tried to make the most out of an impossible situation.

Things got worse and restrictions were imposed on everyone. Each household had to make do with 50 litres of water per day. It was quite devastating to see children, including some of my classmates, unable to come to school because they had skin rashes or diarrhoea after having to use polluted water for bathing and drinking.

All this made me angry and I began to question why it was happening and investigate what was causing the drought. That is when I came to terms with climate change and a spark was lit.

Since our leaders are failing us, we really should try to be active citizens and participate in these spaces as much as we can, so we can hold them to account, because no one is coming to save us

Can you describe your early involvement in climate action?

When I first learnt about the deplorable state of our planet I became super climate-anxious and depressed. I struggled to get my motivation up. But then I joined a climate school project, School 90 by 2030, and I immediately started to get back on my feet because we were learning not only about the climate change problems that were happening, but also about the solutions.

I began to speak on radio stations and got to be interviewed by newspapers. I also interacted with my community members and shared why I believe people should care about climate change and get involved in climate action. Before long I was part of the African Climate Alliance, which organized a climate protest in Cape Town against climate injustices and inaction here in South Africa. In 2019, I also had the opportunity to join the Rights of the Child petition, a lawsuit where the children of the world took world leaders to court for neglecting our human rights.

I strongly believe our world leaders should take more pronounced climate change action, otherwise it shows they do not care about children. All of the decisions that are being made right now impact children now, and more so in the future as we are the ones that will have to live with them.

What kinds of activities are you currently involved in?

I am currently working on developing a climate awareness programme that will be rolled out in South African schools – we will be launching the pilot in Cape Town. This comes after a realization that there are low rates of climate literacy and consciousness in our schools. I am also part of the Western Cape Education Council, having been appointed by the Education Minister Debbie Schaefer to be part of this commission to advise on how they can better incorporate climate change into the curriculum. I am counting on young people to help me strengthen the education system in this province.

You are also part of the Presidential Climate Commission (PCC). What is that experience like?

It’s quite interesting that I joined the PCC by calling President Cyril Ramaphosa out during a meeting, and asking him why he is not doing anything about climate change. In response, he allowed me to be part of this commission. At 19, I am currently the youngest commissioner. It has its challenges but I have seen how beautiful it is for young people to be involved in these spaces because we too get to have our voices heard. Initially, I struggled to make sense of the complex terms and technical policy language that was used in the meetings, but I am glad we were all open about it and we have communication channels to help each other understand, so we can all contribute meaningfully. I like that we get to visit some of the most affected communities to research what we can do to make them feel more comfortable about the just energy transition process.

As a young woman, do you feel like you are being taken seriously?

Sometimes I feel like I am being used as a token. But I have seen my contributions being implemented – for example, making community engagement meetings more accessible to the youth by having them at times when they are back from school. I am also happy that they are broadcast live on Facebook and on local radio stations. Since our leaders are failing us, we really should try to be active citizens and participate in these spaces as much as we can, so we can hold them to account, because no one is coming to save us.

How do you balance school work and all the stress that comes with climate activism?

Nature is my best friend, and my mum really helps. She knows when I am getting overwhelmed and she is able to say no for me. She has taught me to decline invitations to participate in activities that would overwhelm me.

How can we ethically include children in climate change activism when they might not understand it or its structural causes?

Children are very creative and innovative, so we need to focus on making it fun. For example, if you are teaching them about how trees help the environment, it’s always best to go and teach them outside. We also need to include things that they love in order to conjure up a winning formula.