Four SA teens, concerned about the climate crisis, have taken to boycotting classes on Fridays in an effort to get government to heed their call to action
They are young, smart and daring, and that’s not all: They are on a mission to change the world and will do almost anything to attract the attention of government.
This includes sitting on the pavement outside the entrance of Parktown High School for Girls in Johannesburg, holding placards and banners to protest against government’s inaction regarding the climate crisis.
Dressed in civvies, the four youths who have embarked on this campaign – which includes missing classes on Fridays – are Raeesah Noor-Mahomed (17), Munnira Katongole (16), Jacob Gordon (14) and Benno Leibowitz (14).
It may seem extreme to some, but the four are taking it upon themselves to do more than turn a blind eye at the ever-present dangers presented by obvious changes in our weather patterns.
The idea was sparked by Raeesah, a matric pupil at Parktown High School for Girls.
“I have been following the climate crisis for quite a while and attending the Extinction Rebellion, or XR, protests [referring to a global environmental movement whose aim is to use nonviolent civil disobedience to compel governments to address the climate emergency],” Raeesah said.
“But this whole thing with the fires in Australia and the floods in Indonesia – I just got really angry. Australia did not see this coming and our ecosystem is very similar to theirs. So, it is possible for something like that to happen here.”
She said if anything like these disasters were to hit South Africa, it would be much harder for the country to recover than it would be for a developed country such as Australia.
“If I know that, shouldn’t the people in government know that? And if they know, why aren’t they doing anything? I decided that I’d had enough and wanted to do something to get their attention in a drastic way.”
She said her school was in support of her bold protest.
“They are very supportive of the cause, but being an educational institution, they are concerned about having pupils outside busy protesting and not learning.”
Although she has missed some classes, she has been able to catch up.
Very few pupils have joined the protest action as parents will not consent to it.
Inspired by Swedish climate activist Greta Thunberg (17), Raeesah started out as a lone protester more than a month ago, before Munnira joined her.
“Initially, I was scared. It seemed like a huge sacrifice. But as I thought more about it, I realised what a great and powerful, smart and symbolic way this is of trying to attract the attention of the department of environment, forestry and fisheries,” said Raeesah.
“There has been some response from the education department, but we are not sure if they are responding because we are missing school or because we are doing it for the sake of the climate.”
An astute pupil from King David High School in Victory Park heard about Raeesah’s protest and decided to join her. Jacob, who is in Grade 8, said his main reason for doing so was the rapid rate at which certain species were going extinct.
“In the past 100 years, there have been 477 extinctions recorded – and those are only the ones we have discovered. There are probably many more species that went extinct before we discovered them,” he said, adding that there were various factors contributing to this, but the main one was the climate crisis.
Jacob believes that one in every 10 extinctions has occurred directly because of the climate crisis.
“I love nature. I want to be a conservationist when I grow up. If things keep going the way they are, I won’t be able to be a conservationist as I won’t have anything to conserve.”
Jacob said he was disheartened by his school’s willingness to post his interviews but its unwillingness to support him in bringing this protest to its doors.
Albi Modise, spokesperson for the department of environment, said the ministry was aware of the pupils’ protest campaign.
“Minister Barbara Creecy has noted the pupils’ concerns about the climate challenge. As a department, we appreciate the fact that young people are taking a stance against the climate crisis, but we remain concerned that when they do, it should not affect their schooling.
“The minister will be hosting a stakeholder engagement event on the climate crisis with pupils from across the country, including the pupil from Parktown High School for Girls,” said Modise.
A Global Movement
Despite evidence of the effects of the climate crisis, many people are still in denial about whether changing weather patterns and the waste that is clogging up the world’s oceans occur as a result of climate change, or whether humankind is to blame.
Most South Africans are unaware of the disastrous effects of the climate emergency that has taken hold.
Without drastic action by government, our country – and the world at large – may be altered forever.
It is with this in mind that XR was launched in the UK in May 2018, when youths in London orchestrated a series of protests in the hopes of getting government to declare a state of emergency.
They blocked bridges and occupied major spaces in the city, using peaceful methods to draw attention to their cause.
The XR movement in Gauteng has launched a few initiatives.
These involve park clean-ups and holding protests outside the Gauteng legislature every Friday.
Their biggest gathering takes place on the last Friday of every month.
City Press observed a small group of protesters standing outside the legislature on Friday, backed by a loudhailer, banners and flyers.
They blocked the road in front of the building until members of the Joburg Metro Police Department told them to move on to the pavement.
Bongani Xezwi, an activist and researcher at Soweto Sukuma Sinqobile, explained why he is part of XR.
“We have been fighting with government about service delivery, and some of these services – such as water shortages – are ultimately linked to climate conditions. This affects us directly. We want government to start working on this urgently.”
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