Meet the young activist from Mitchells Plain who’s fighting for a greener world

Mondays have become meat-free days in Lisakhanya Mathiso’s home in Mitchells Plain. 

Her mother, Nontobeko, insists on it.

The 18-year-old climate activist, who lives in Tafelsig, believes she has played a key role in nurturing environmental awareness in her family.

Her uncle, Thanduxolo Gola, has started a vegetable garden in Khayelitsha, where Mathiso was raised. “The other day I saw my mom reading an article on climate change and I felt like, yes, I must be doing something right,” laughs the youth leader for the African Climate Alliance (ACA), a youth-led climate advocacy group.

Mathiso, who is also a graduate of Project 90 by 2030’s YouLead Initiative, strives to teach South Africans, particularly in poorer communities, about climate literacy. 

She draws inspiration from her close friend, fellow climate activist Ayakha Melithafa. “She is very hardworking, stands her ground and makes sure that she won’t rest until people take notice of what we are doing, and people join the climate movement and become more involved,” Mathiso says. “She inspires me to carry on making people climate literate and educating people about climate change.”

It’s not always easy, she says. “Sometimes, when I want to talk about climate change here in the township, people will say to me: ‘Lisa just stop with the rich people’s business because climate change is for rich people, it’s for wealthy people or privileged people — the kind of people who are exposed to climate change research.’ 

“They say that I must stop preaching to them, because they’re very poor and are stressing out about a better way to make a living, not about the climate crisis. I always explain to them that the climate crisis is one of the contributors to their unemployment and poverty … and that climate change is real,” she says.

“I think that by having a person of colour teaching them about the climate crisis, the people will know that this crisis is not only for privileged people — it’s for everyone. It affects each and every one of us, especially people in poorer communities,” Mathiso adds.

She uses dance to educate South Africans about climate change and pollution. “I’m my own inspiration in a way, because I’m trying to reach out to so many people through different lenses. And the lens I’m coming from is artivism.” 

On Friday last week, Mathiso was part of the local leg of the Global Climate Strike, during which the ACA, several allied organisations, young people in Cape Town and ordinary South Africans gathered in front of parliament, calling for urgent action to address climate change and ecological breakdown.

Contained in their memorandum of demands, which was handed to the government and political parties, was a call for the department of basic education to adjust the curriculum to improve coverage of earth sciences, with a specific focus on literacy in climate change

“Before 2019, I knew nothing about climate change,” Mathiso says. “At school, they don’t teach us enough about climate change — and this needs to change.”

Her fight, she says, is for a greener world. “It’s for us to live longer and for unborn generations to live in a green world: a world where we use renewable energy, where there are plants and trees everywhere. It’s a world where we live with clean air.”

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Sheree Bega
Sheree Bega is an environment reporter at the Mail & Guardian.

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