Our Burning Planet


Change will come not from power but youth, so step aside, say climate activists

Change will come not from power but youth, so step aside, say climate activists
Intersectional activist Raeesah Noor-Mahomed, activist Otsile Nkadimeng and Daily Maverick journalist Onke Nguka at The Gathering: Earth Edition. (Photo: Felix Dlangamandla)

For many young people facing the prospect of a rainbow nation in ashes, climate activism is a crucial space for expression and recognition. It is a platform to be heard as the leaders of tomorrow… and today.

‘When you’re talking about a reality in South Africa where the future is non-existent for us at this point, where we’re not fighting over the rainbow nation but we’re fighting over the ashes of that rainbow nation, we must then expect young people to get up and say: ‘Well, we appreciate your contribution, but I think it’s time you step aside and actually get on with the business of [the day].’”

These were the words of Otsile Nkadimeng, matric activist, lead organiser of Fridays for Future South Africa and co-founder of the Sundial Movement, at Daily Maverick’s The Gathering: Earth Edition on Friday. He was speaking alongside fellow young activist and artist, Raeesah Noor-Mahomed, on the expectations of young people in the context of creating a sustainable future.

Young people have stepped up to the plate in terms of action around climate change due to the failure of existing leadership – social, political and economic – to prioritise creating a functional state and addressing climate change, as the biggest threat to humanity right now, according to Nkadimeng.

young climate activists

Intersectional activist Raeesah Noor Mohamed, activist Otsile Nnkadimeng and Our Burning Planet journalist Onke Nguka during the panel discussion on ‘expectations of youth’ at The Gathering Earth Edition on Friday, 26 May 2023. (Photo: Felix Dlangamandla)

He pointed to young people’s role in creating a “vision document” for a climate-resilient future, the South African Youth Climate Action Plan. This plan rests on five pillars: intersectionality, good governance, advocacy and activism, systemic transformation, and environmental sustainability.

“It was formulated by multiple stakeholders brought together by youth at the South African Institute of International Affairs, and what this document lays out is… the principles [of] what does the climate adaptation response look like? What is it supposed to look like?” he said.

“It looks like us… ensuring that frontline communities are at the front of this response; that capital, when it’s invested, is invested in areas that are going to ensure that those people are safe and taken care of.”

Read more in Daily Maverick: Solving South Africa’s energy and environmental crisis is ‘not a moonshot, it is within our grasp’ – De Ruyter

Nkadimeng listed many South African organisations where young people could get involved in climate justice, including the African Climate Alliance and Extinction Rebellion. His own organisation, the Sundial Movement, acts as a “climate network” for high schools, allowing pupils to engage and take collective action on key issues.

“The truth is that as activists, we are there to keep the checks and balances where the people in power actually failed to maintain the checks and balances with our system. So, to do that, to some degree we need to operate outside the system,” he said on the role of activists in politics.

“But that doesn’t necessarily mean that we can’t be part of finding leaders that we can get into office.”

Matric learner,  activist Otsile Nkadimeng, during the panel discussion on ‘expectations of youth’ at The Gathering: Earth Edition. (Photo: Felix Dlangamandla)

South Africans need politicians who give them a sense of confidence in their future; leaders who don’t just speak well, but have experience and know what they are doing, said Nkadimeng.

“We’re trying to inspire Generation Z to say the change that must happen in this country can only happen when we as young people show ourselves to be a group that is one, informed about the situation in the country, two, willing to take action on it, and three, willing to vote,” he said.

In all spaces, people needed to encourage young people to lead, he continued, especially those from marginalised communities.

“We must all recognise that change will not come from those who have had power for a very long time but that change will come from a new generation of young young people that want to lead.”


When engaging with the climate crisis, it is important to acknowledge its roots in capitalism and the exploitation of the Global South, according to Noor-Mahomed. Its complex history means it intersects with other social issues such as poverty, gender-based violence and racism.

They pointed to the fact that many of the poor communities that are prone to winter floods in the Cape have their origin in the spatial segregation under apartheid.

Intersectional activist Raeesah Noor-Mahomed discusses ‘expectations of youth’ at The Gathering: Earth Edition. (Photo: Felix Dlangamandla)

“We have to keep intersectionality in mind, in every context but especially a South African context, because climate [change] is a big problem but for so many people – because of the historical injustice and inequalities on the ground – they don’t really see it as an immediate problem because their immediate problems are: ‘What am I going to eat today? Where am I going to sleep tonight?’”

There was a need for “mutual learning” in a system where there were layers of privilege and marginalisation, they continued. While the nature of the system was not one person’s fault, the matter of accountability remained.

“I very much believe that it’s a privilege to be an activist. It’s a privilege to have the choice to be an activist… not everyone has that option.”

“With looking at what people can do, I think [it’s] learning from each other, trying to understand each other, but also holding each other accountable,” said Noor-Mahomed. DM

Absa OBP

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  • Johan Buys says:

    maybe we need more youth with STEM training and experience rather than intersectional activists concerned with marginalization and capitalist injustice :/

    As to the old people, we’re not all agter die klip 😉 Some old, even old white toppies, were doing energy and environment before Gen Z existed as a buzz-word.

    No argument from me on getting the youth out there to vote and to vote based on the actions rather than words of political parties.

  • Jane Crankshaw says:

    “Actions speak louder than words” – one awaits the actions with interest. Voting is one thing but taking care of one’s own physical environment is probably more important now more than ever….let’s see a little bit of that happening too!

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