“We don’t know when the rains will come”: Why climate change is a children’s rights issue

Businesses have a duty of care when it comes to the climate crisis, according to teenage climate activist Ayakha Melithafa, who delivered the keynote address on the final day of the Trialogue Business in Society Conference. Aside from working to reduce their carbon footprints, they should try to educate their stakeholders and provide opportunities for work in the green economy. Above all, they should provide resources and support, particularly to young people who bear the brunt of the climate change.

“Youth are disproportionately affected, along with people of colour and poorer communities,” Melithafa told delegates. “During the drought in Cape Town, children were unable to go to school, or sent home early from classes, because there was no water. This is affecting our everyday lives and we are expected to just be resilient and ‘stick it out’.”

For Melithafa, whose mother is a small-scale farmer, the climate crisis is not an abstraction but a terrifying lived reality. “I saw first-hand how the drought was affecting farmers who rely on rain to grow crops and feed cattle. When you see your cows dying, you see money going down the drain,” she said. She began to conduct research on the internet, to find out what had caused the situation, and came across information about climate change. “As a black teenager in South Africa, you are going to ask yourself, ‘What is climate change? Where is it coming from?’,” she said. “That’s when I learnt that global warming is real, and we might face extinction if we don’t change the way we live.”

Upon learning these facts, Ayakha “got stuck in climate anxiety and depression”, wondering why nobody else was responding to the crisis. “I thought, ‘What is the point of even trying to make a change?’ It seemed that nobody cared. But one thing that gave me hope was going online and seeing I could join initiatives where other people were actively trying to make a change. I identified people with the same drive as me,” she said. She joined Project 90 by 2030, a social and environmental justice organisation striving for a low-carbon economy by 2030 and was exposed to possible solutions to the crisis.

She also joined the African Climate Alliance, a youth-led affinity group focused on combating climate inactivity. She protested as part of the FridaysForFuture global climate strike movement, which focuses on climate injustices around the world and, together with Swedish climate activist Greta Thunberg and 14 other children, she submitted a legal complaint to the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child, which asserts that not tackling the climate crisis is a violation of children’s rights.

She also spoke at the World Economic Forum. “We are in a revolution, and so much change is happening all over the world, which gives me strength,” she said. “I can represent other children and show them it is safe for them to be active in these spaces. I can definitely say I have fulfilled my purpose as a young person.”

At the same time, she argued that it is not up to young people to “fix a world that we did not break”, and asserted that everyone should work towards finding solutions.

“I know that we’re facing a lot of socioeconomic injustices, like poverty, gender-based violence, xenophobia, migration and so on, but it’s important for us to stand up, stand together and acknowledge that the crisis we are facing right now cannot be solved alone. We have to understand the intersectionality of these crises and come together to raise more awareness and hold those in the wrong accountable,” she said.

She said that young people had to decide whether they were going to join other youngsters driving change or whether they would become complacent and tell themselves that others would deal with the problem. “In the past, we’ve seen how powerful young people can be – especially here in South Africa, with the Soweto uprising – and I truly believe that if young people stand together and really bring about social change, we will conquer and live in a fruitful, lower-carbon society that is still full of resources, and we will thrive,” she concluded.