The changing climate means increased levels of uncertainty and instability for everyone’s future, and in South Africa it is young, black Africans who are amongst the most vulnerable to the climate crisis. The development of any nation lies in its future generations, and yet the youth often have little to no influence on decisions that will impact them directly. The transition to a low-carbon economy and other climate change-related strategies are some of those important topics where youth participation falls short.

To see this lack of youth representation, one need look no further than the entities formed to tackle these issues: the Presidential Climate Change Commission, for example, or South Africa’s delegation to the United Nations Convention on Climate Change’s annual Conference of Parties (COP).

Over the past 18 months, I have attended many forums purporting to address South Africa’s climate change mitigation and adaptation plans building up to net zero by 2050. At the forefront of and most vocal at these meetings are always older, privileged people who profess to be most concerned about “future generations”. Conspicuously missing, however, are the voices and views of those who comprise those future generations – the youth, especially those of colour and those from marginalised, underprivileged communities. Their voices have been alienated despite the fact that by far the majority of people living in South Africa fall within this group.

We should not confuse the absence of youth voices with a lack of interest in the topic. The youth is interested – it is just that most of us are not meaningfully engaged or empowered to participate in these processes. This often leads to young people not feeling inspired to immerse themselves in tackling climate risk, despite being one of the most vulnerable groups. In addition, climate-related education is sorely lacking and in the rare cases that it is provided, it is almost always from an urban lens. Rarely are the issues packaged to be understandable and practical for everyone, especially for those in rural areas. This reinforces the incorrect and dangerous idea that climate change is an issue of the elite.

Greater and more meaningful efforts to engage and empower youth (from all backgrounds) in decision-making processes are important and urgent. This can be done through several approaches, including capacity-building, providing youth-friendly education and supporting community programmes for youth engagement initiatives. A concerted effort is required to ensure that a crucial portion of the population is not left out of decision-making processes about the future of the country.

The voice of the youth cannot be tokenised and minimised. Although it has become the norm for those in power to speak on behalf of others, without meaningful involvement of those most impacted by the climate crisis, any subsequent processes or plans lack legitimacy, efficacy, and invaluable perspectives. Everyone impacted should have a proper opportunity to engage in processes and provide solutions, not just the privileged few with access to decision-making power.

I challenge anyone that is in a position of power, or is part of any climate panel or other forum discussing the future of the planet, to speak up about the lack of diversity in these conversations.

Young people have a right to be heard and must be part of the solution. We are the most impacted in many cases, we are creative and capable, and we are the future.

Do not neglect our voice. Include us. Listen to us.

This article was first published in the Daily Maverick on 14 February 2023.

By Nomfundo Mdluli

IMAGE: 123RF / france68

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