17-year-old Ayakha Melithafa from Cape Town, South Africa, was one of the 16 climate activists from around the world, including Greta Thunberg, who signed a legal complaint with the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the child this September. The account was lodged against Argentina, Brazil, France, Germany and Turkey.
She’s also a recruitment official for the African Climate Alliance, a champion of environmental action in rural, often overlooked areas, and a key proponent of calls to diversify the climate movement.
The young activist told told the website Maverick that she didn’t want climate activism to be associated with people who could ‘afford’ to live more environmentally-friendly lifestyles — particularly as she is clear that the “people that are often affected the most often don’t cause the problem.”
“I want people to know that not only privileged people are aware of climate change. They aren’t the only ones that experience problems. Many privileged people might be protesting because the quality of the water is getting bad, but people of colour have been drinking that water all along, and they feel lucky just to have water,” she said.
“We do need more people of colour in the fight against climate change.”
Melithafa became vocal about climate justice in 2018 after she joined Project 90 by 2030, which is an NGO fighting to cut the country’s carbon emissions by 90% by 2030.
Her struggle has a deeply person component: Water shortages meant her mother was not able to plant crops this year, threatening the income and future of her farm and her family. The unpredictability of the weather is a key factor in her life, and recent droughts have seriously impacted on their lives by killing cows –and forcing people to drink dirty water.
Melithafa doesn’t strike from school, arguing that it’s “not ethical” when parents struggle to pay for school fees. She also calls for an immediate stop on the extraction of coal, oil and gas in South Africa, urging world leaders to see the problem globally, rather than through their own country-specific lens. “This is our world, not ‘I have my country. You have your country,” Ayakha said.
She tells the Mail and Guardian that people in the Eastern Cape have issues that are not necessarily the same as for those living in Cape Town — yet they don’t get the same attention, as people don’t know how to panic and complain to the government in the same way.
This is why she considers it her mission is to educate people — especially young people in rural areas — about climate change. “We need to make people aware. We need to educate more youth, even in the remote places in South Africa, and around the world, so they can stand up with us. We need them to share their heartbreaking stories about how climate change is affecting them,” she says, adding that her plan is to study environmental law to educate people and advocate for the environmental and economic rights of poor, rural people.
“I see my future being a desert. I’m seeing it being so hot that it will become uninhabitable and there’s no life or biodiversity. I see us going into extinction. So I don’t really see a future if there is no action now.”Tags: Activism, Climate crisis, South Africa