Our Burning Planet


Meet the bold Gen Z learner who uses his break time at school for his climate activism

Meet the bold Gen Z learner who uses his break time at school for his climate activism
Otsile Nkadimeng speaking at the Daily Maverick The Gathering 2023 Earth Edition in Cape Town, South Africa. (Photo: Felix Dlangamandla)

To be a teenager at this moment is, to put it as a Gen Z would say, ‘not it’. But young climate activists like Otsile Nkadimeng are fighting for change while also juggling school and planning a future. 

“Gen Z just happens to be the generation that appears when that countdown clock is no longer in hours or minutes, but it’s down to seconds… We don’t have time to say climate change will be someone else’s issue. We cannot shrug off the responsibility.”

These were the words of Otsile Nkadimeng, an 18-year-old climate activist and lead organiser of Fridays for Future South Africa and co-founder of the Sundial Movement, from Edenvale, Johannesburg.

Nkadimeng is in matric at Jeppe High School for Boys, in Kensington. When Daily Maverick spoke to him on Zoom on a Monday afternoon, he was wearing his school uniform. He was in the midst of mid-year exams; having written one that day, he was preparing for another on Thursday. He uses his “break” time for activism work.

Read in Daily Maverick: Change will come not from power but youth, so step aside, say climate activists

The young activist appears eager, expressive and confident. He speaks genuinely about his passions and finding his way in the SA climate activism space. 

Speaking about his activism, he says: “When I first started learning about the climate crisis, it seemed to me, if there’s a problem, it can be solved. But the fact that no one seemed to be doing anything is sort of what activated me. I had to do something… It’s sort of like that John Lewis quote: ‘If not us, then who? If not now, then when?’”

‘Climate shock’

He started in climate activism in late 2019, after hearing Greta Thunberg’s “How Dare You” speech at the 2019 UN Climate action summit in New York. Googling her, he found out about Fridays for Future, the youth-led movement that Thunberg started to pressure policymakers to act on climate change. Fridays for Future South Africa didn’t have open applications at the time, so he signed up with Extinction Rebellion and became an activist.

“I had joined to learn, but that’s where my activism really got started,” he told Daily Maverick.

But Nkadimeng described soon feeling completely overwhelmed by the sheer magnitude and scale of the climate crisis. It would hit him in the early-morning hours — what he calls “climate shock”. 

“The process of me learning about the magnitude and scale of the climate crisis, led me to completely fall apart in the climate space for what was pretty much a year. I shut down… I was just captured by this crisis and not knowing what to do about it,” he says.

There are different terms for what Nkadimeng experienced, of course. It’s also not unusual. Often termed climate anxiety or eco-anxiety, this feeling can manifest as what the American Psychological Association describes as “a chronic fear of environmental doom.”

Otsile Nkadimeng, climate activism

Otsile Nkadimeng at the June 16 Youth Parade for Justice and Peace to the Union Buildings in 2022. This was his first protest with the Fridays For Future group. (Photo: Supplied)

Read in Daily Maverick: Climate anxiety is real. Why talking about it matters

When asked how he learned to cope with climate anxiety, Nkadimeng responded: “The honest answer is I don’t think I do.”

But he gets by with a little help from his friends.

Comfort in community

In August 2022, Nkadimeng co-founded the Sundial Movement, which acts as a network for high schools, allowing students to communicate on the climate crisis and take collective action on key issues. Just months after starting Sundial, the organisation boasts a network of about 31 schools — with 17 located in Gauteng, and 14 in the Western Cape.

An avid debater, Nkadimeng describes how he would network with students from other schools at debating tournaments, and encourage them to join the Movement.

Schools participate by holding school-sanctioned sit-ins, walkouts or informative assemblies about climate change, says Nkadimeng. Parktown High School for Girls, in Johannesburg, and Springfield Convent, in Cape Town, both held walkouts in collaboration with Sundial, late last year.

Nkadimeng said it took creating the Sundial Movement to realise that he wasn’t alone in feeling the way he does about what’s happening to the planet. 

“There’s not really a lot of other people my age that operate in this space – at least in the way I do – that I can talk to about how I feel as a teenager,” he said. 

“Being in this space and doing what we’re doing, literally is on-the-job training. There is no amount of preparation as a young person you can get for the type of fight we’re up against.”

As he met more young people through the Movement, he began to see that many in his generation shared the will to act, but were battling with the thought that it couldn’t be done in the window we have. The importance of community cannot be overstated; we all felt the effects of isolation during the pandemic. He sees the Sundial community as a space to talk honestly, take collective action and to learn from each other. 

Read in Daily Maverick: Eco-anxiety: The mental health effects associated with the climate crisis

“The biggest challenge is battling climate anxiety; battling the notion that we can’t do it… With Sundial, it’s all about how do we [respond to climate change] in the very short time that we have to do so, with as many people as we need to do it, without driving people into the ground.” 

After matriculating, Nkadimeng envisions playing more of an advisory role in Sundial, and intends to turn his attention to Fridays for Future and the youth advocacy group, So We Vote, of which he is the executive director. He also plans to study locally (but not something climate-related — he doesn’t want it to take over his life). 

Otsile Nkadimeng, climate activism

Otsile Nkadimeng pictured at his first protest as a Climate Activist outside Standard Bank on 12 March 2021 against Standard Bank’s financing of the East African Crude Oil Pipeline. (Photo: Supplied)

Similar to the organisations, 18by Vote and Gen Z for Change in the US, Nkadimeng says So We Vote is trying to use social media and Gen Z networks to register young South Africans to vote ahead of the 2024 general election. 

“The name is in response to everything that’s happening in the country,” Nkadimeng says, describing South Africa’s many crises including climate change, gender-based violence, energy and education. 

“What can young people do? The crises are getting worse. What do we do? What we can do is vote. So we vote.”

The Electoral Commission of South Africa (IEC) reported that, of a total eligible voting population of just over 40 million, only 26.2 million South Africans registered to vote in the 2021 municipal elections. 

The mid-year population estimate by Statistics South Africa, published in July 2022, shows South Africa has a population of 60.6 million, with 20.6 million people aged between 15 and 34 years. 

“[So We Vote] is informed by the idea that once a generation becomes a significant voting demographic — registered and with the potential to vote — it scares the hell out of politicians. 

“If the majority of young people registered to vote and actually voted, and [politicians] saw that young people were making up the majority of the voting demographic in the country, there is so much that can change. It would mean politicians would need to hear us, and actually answer us,” he continued. 

Nkadimeng has solidified his place as a leading voice among young South Africans who are bravely calling for action against climate change, and systematic and institutional changes. He hopes that So We Vote, coupled with the work Sundial is doing at a ground level, will help to galvanise young people around climate change and “spark them to be more politically active.” 

“We need to make climate change a massive political issue,” he said. 

“We haven’t not dealt with climate change because there are no solutions. The solutions exist, the people who can implement them exist, it’s just that there are some people who don’t want the solutions to be implemented. And those are the people who are in power, and that’s what we’re fighting.” 

But first, he says, he “needs to fight his exam on Thursday.” That’s just the youth-activism life. DM

To read all about Daily Maverick’s recent The Gathering: Earth Edition, click here.

Absa OBP

Comments - Please in order to comment.

  • Marlize Meyer says:

    Well done Otsile. My term for the anxiety is Environmental Grief. At the age of 67 the battle just seems too big so it is some consolation that this movement is now amongst the youth in RSA.

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