Cape Town’s Day Zero scare raised a new generation of young climate activists

The Theewaterskloof Dam is more than 100% full, making it hard to believe that only three years ago Cape Town was bracing for Day Zero, when its taps would potentially run dry.

Several years of low rainfall led to a debilitating drought in the Western Cape and Eastern Cape from 2015, with fears that freshwater reservoir levels supplying Cape Town would fall below 13.5% of capacity and most of the municipal water network would be shut down. 

Although the city averted the crisis through water restrictions and other interventions — and the rains came — the anxiety it created about climate change gave birth to a new generation of young climate activists, including 23-year-old Gabriel Klassen who grew up on the Cape Flats.

“The moment it became real for me was when we first faced the harsh effects of Day Zero,” he said. “We always hear about the situations but experiencing the countdown to the days before [the] city had no clean drinking water due to the climate crisis was the moment it hit me.” 

Klassen believes education is vital if more young people are to take an interest in climate change, which has wide ranging implications for food, land and water security as well as health.

After finishing high school, where he volunteered in an environmental leadership club, Klassen became a volunteer and youth mentor for Project 90 by 2030, a social and environmental justice organisation where he gained experience and skills in climate activism. 

He is now a project coordinator for the African Climate Alliance and is involved in numerous projects. 

“The reason I have chosen to be a part of the fight for environmental and social justice is I, as well as many in this world from marginalised and frontline communities, suffer due to the climate crisis, the inactivity by our government, and the social injustice that intersects,” he said.

“If we don’t tackle climate change and the environmental breakdown that we are already experiencing, we will not have a future or a present to live in.”

Lockdowns over the past 17 months or so in response to the Covid-19 pandemic have brought many aspects of daily life to a halt for many around the world, but Klassen says youth climate activists have been busy working to form a unified voice on the subject.

“While physical action has halted amid the pandemic for obvious reasons, I can say for a fact that community mobilisation and actions have not. 

“We have taken the time as youth and adults alike to build knowledge and grow our movement in this time and know that when it is time we will stand stronger together,” he said.

Rather than being defeated by the host of daily problems facing millions of unemployed young people in South Africa, Klassen said it was important for them to understand what was at stake regarding the environment.

“Many of us are unable to mobilise because we either don’t know what is going on due to lack of environmental education in school or because our priority is elsewhere. 

“The majority of our country’s youth are unemployed, so the idea of marching for climate justice does not seem important for them,” he said.

“We need intersectional messaging and action. Helping all to see that tackling climate injustice and mobilising for a just transition are ways to inspire new and green jobs and opportunities while simultaneously tackling social and economic challenges.”

Klassen is hoping that representation will change at the United Nations climate conference (COP26), set for Glasgow, Scotland, in November, when countries gather to recommit to mitigating the climate crisis. 

“I believe we need more than just representation in Glasgow. Representation in the past has been tokenism and ceremony. We need deep inclusion that allows our voice to move and inspire change,” he said. We need the generation of yesterday to stand with us as we move forward. We cannot do it alone. They know the system and in order for us to create systemic change that will impact all positively, we need them to be with us through the journey.”

Klassen is among several young climate activists in South Africa who are driving change and action in youth circles.

From 16 year-old Kiara Nirghin in Johannesburg, who is listed as one of Time magazine’s Top 30 Teens after she invented a drought solution and won a Google science award, to 10-year-old ​​Romario Valentine, who is close to a record for beach clean-ups in the Western Cape, South Africa’s teens are waking up to the reality of climate change and getting involved in finding solutions to fix it. 

Tunicia Phillips is a climate and economic justice reporting fellow, funded by the Open Society Foundation for South Africa

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Tunicia Phillips
Tunicia Phillips is an investigative, award-winning journalist who has worked in broadcast for 10 years. Her beats span across crime, court politics, mining energy and social justice. She has recently returned to print at the M&G working under the Adamela Trust to specialise in climate change and environmental reporting.

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