How is the African Climate Alliance organized?
ACA started out as a grassroots youth-led group that organised as an interschools climate council with an adult supporters group. Over time, a number of the young adult supporters saw the need to formalise the group as an organisation to make room for fundraising to support the work, as well as to make the movement more accessible.
Eventually ACA formalised into an organisation that has a small team and a number of programme focuses, with education at the heart of all we do. The organisation has a board that oversees our accountability to ethical governance, while the organisation remains dedicated to serving its growing youth network. ACA also works in alliance with other civil society organisations in South Africa and on the African continent.
At the beginning of ACA, you were oriented towards the European climate movement. When was the turning point to an Afrocentric approach?
It wasn’t an intentional move to orientate ourselves towards the European climate movement. There had just been a call from Fridays for Future for a global climate strike and many people responded. It was an outlet for the helplessness many were feeling as a result of what we were reading about climate change and experiencing in our home country.
„We intentionally shifted our focus to building climate literacy“
Based in Cape Town, we had already come close to running out of water, whilst many people in the city have never had access to drinking water in their own homes in the first place. In the very beginning when organizing the first few protests, there was a realization that the call for children to skip school and coming together at a central point to protest didn’t take into account the disparity in education facing South African youth, alongside the lack of access to inexpensive and safe public transport.
This meant that the protests and organising groups were dominated by young people who had financial and racial privilege. We intentionally shifted our focus to building climate literacy to grow the movement and make it more accessible to all.
What are the biggest differences between Eurocentric and Afrocentric climate movements?
There are various stratifications within the climate movement in both Europe and Africa so it is not necessarily appropriate to speak of it in a way that homogenises it. However we have seen that in some subsets of the Eurocentric climate movement, there is a heavy focus on the science of climate change and tunnel vision of focusing on climate change alone. Often this leads to oversimplified fixation on technological or market based solutions, or blaming the problem on overpopulation alone. We do not deny that science is important and various solutions have their place.
However in Afrocentric or global south movements, we are aware that colonialism and capitalism are the root causes of climate change. This approach means you cannot focus on climate alone, you need to have what we refer to as an intersectional approach. One that looks at history, at social issues, at various interconnecting elements to the crisis and what possible solutions could be.
„We are also looking within Africa to find and develop solutions to our problems“
When we say Afrocentric we also mean that we are prioritising education and solutions that focus on people living in Africa as a place that has been heavily extracted from in the name of ‘progress’ and ‘development’, and which now faces significant climate impacts.
We are also looking within Africa to find and develop solutions to our problems. Because while we believe in global collaboration and solidarity, there is ancestral knowledge here that is rooted in sustainable thinking and right relationship with the land.
Are there also commonalities?
At the heart of the idea of climate justice is to call for a better present and better future for all. To take care of the one home that we have.
In an interview with the Heinrich Böll Foundation, Ayakha Melithafa explains that the Afrocentric climate movement needs its own approach to solving the problem. What does this look like?
It means taking into account the specific challenges that people face on the African continent which also varies from country to country. One example is ensuring more equal access to the movement itself. Such as providing data for people to attend education workshops or download educational resources about the climate movement.
„We want to equip young people to take action in their own communities“
Or, when there are protests, it means mobilising in the face of spatial apartheid and challenges with affordable and reliable public transport. It also means looking to local contexts to understand what communities need and how they can take ownership of climate solutions in their own way, rather than assuming a one size fits all technological fix is what people want or need.
„Youth unite for climate justice“ is one of your slogans. Why is reaching out to African youth in particular so important?
Youth in Africa face incredible challenges from historical to current injustices that impact their daily lives. With our work we want to equip young people to take action in their own communities in ways that make sense for them.
You yourselves are a youth-led organization. Why are young voices so important?
Young voices are not always given serious consideration at decision making level – even though the future will impact young people the most. Young voices also bring a fresh, energetic and dynamic perspective to challenges. That is why we believe in the power of young leadership while still respecting the importance of wisdom from our elders and the impact that intergenerational organising can have.
What reactions do you get from politics and society?
We get a variety of reactions. Some do not take us seriously, others celebrate what we have to say, others bring us into spaces but in a way that tokenises us rather than acts to truly hear what we have to say. Some politicians and spheres in society also aim to discredit us because we pose a threat to their often corrupt fossil fuel interests.
On your posters you repeatedly read the slogan „System Change not Climate Change“. How does the system need to change?
The system needs to change to be one that prioritises people and planetary wellbeing over profit. It needs to shift into a model which isn’t trying to fit a finite planet into an infinite economic growth model, and which does not extract from and poison the global south for the benefit of the global north’s economy.
„we believe in the power of young leadership while still respecting the importance of wisdom from our elders“
People are also part of what makes up a system. That means people, particularly who are affluent and live in the global north, need to change the way they live. To not aspire towards luxury and excess at the expense of everyone else, the planet, and eventually themselves.
One of your Instagram posts reads: „Everyone is unique and everyone has something beautifully different and valid to bring to the table when it comes to the climate justice movement“. How do you implement this in your work?
We focus on a variety of programmes which look at different ways of addressing the climate crisis. We also encourage young people in our network to hone in on their unique skills and passions, and to use that towards contributing to a better world. Be it through art, writing, policy engagement, advocacy, administration or more.
In Germany, climate movements are often criticized for being too white, academic and privileged. Do you share this criticism?
To be white, privileged or well educated is not a reason not to form movements and to mobilise. In fact, the power that comes with those identity factors allows for privilege to be wielded responsibly. From our perspective, the criticism comes more from when those in these movements do not attempt to see past their own blind spots, or lead the movement arrogantly and without concern for those who are most impacted by climate issues.
This leads to things like assuming that people in Africa and the global south should follow their lead, or the global south seeing our own messaging co-opted without credit. We have also seen a lot of tokenisation of black and brown activists by white European activists putting undue pressure on people to ensure that black and brown voices are heard. A lot of this comes from a good place but sometimes has a negative consequence. So while we truly want to work together across country, class and colour lines, we need to be able to have hard conversations.
What kind of criticism do Afrocentric climate activists face in African society?
Many people do not feel that it is fair that Africa is expected to ‘transition to a green economy’ when much of the continent has not yet had the benefit of a fossil fuel economy due to the fact that this has been hoarded by the global north. There is sometimes lack of trust and resistance to the climate movement due to concerns that it may bring about a new kind of green colonialism.
„we advocate for decentralised and socially owned cleaner energy options“
As climate justice activists based in Africa we understand this fear – which is legitimate – and are working to ensure that we stand against the climate crisis being used as an opportunity for the global north to continue with its extractive and unequal ways of working with Africa. Furthermore, we advocate for decentralised and socially owned cleaner energy options which benefit our people and local economies. We, however, also need to work to ensure that our leaders do not use this as an excuse to obstruct the movement.
Jute bags have become a symbol of climate-conscious everyday life in Europe. Is there an African equivalent?
Environmental consciousness is intrinsic to indigenous African ways of being. For very long this was considered backward by European nations, but today these ideals are repackaged and sold back to African people in the form of conscious consumerism.
What would you like to see from the Eurocentric climate movement?
International solidarity is incredibly powerful. It was a key element of bringing down the apartheid system in South Africa for example. Now it can and must be used again. People in Europe have the power to listen to the needs of people in the global south and use their proximity to power to call on their leaders to change their systems and stop sacrificing the global south.
How can our readers support you?
They can donate to our organisation to support our work and share our messaging with people in their networks.