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Africa Policy Journal

Topic / Environment and Energy

Why climate action is critical to the future of unemployed youth in South Africa

Cover photo source: @JamesGranelli_ on Twitter

Twenty-five years ago, a group of South African high schoolers from an under-resourced township school rallied and made their way around the globe to participate in a youth environmental summit hosted in the US. What was unusual was the rhetoric around it. “Why is a group of colored youth heading abroad to discuss something as lofty as the environment? Should they not be focused on preparing for their final school exams, on getting a job after school?” came the indignant mutterings from within and outside the community the youngsters hailed from. 

As one of those very high schoolers, I now contemplate the growing voice of South African youth on climate action and ask myself how to support young people in maximizing the benefit from a just and equitable environmental transition. One could assume that unemployed young South Africans have other things occupying their minds. The failing public education system that they can typically escape only if their families can afford the alternative is one factor. The high rate of unemployment, with 1 in 4 South Africans aged 15 – 24 being active in the labor force[i], paints a bleak picture. Youth of color are disproportionately impacted by unemployment. It is not a large leap to also assume that the climate is not high on the agenda of the disenfranchised young South African. That could not be further from the truth. 

In a UNICEF South Africa U-Report poll in 2021 of over 3,600 respondents of whom three-quarters were aged up to 24 years old, 65% of the respondents reported optimism that the green economy would be a source of future employment[ii]. However, this requires increased investment in relevant education and a “just and equitable transition towards an environmentally sustainable and inclusive economy”, states the report. South African policy should support and underpin education and skill development for this envisioned economy.

Young South Africans are taking ownership of climate action into their own hands. The South African Youth Climate Change Coalition and similar youth mobilization groups have a growing and influential voice in the conversations on net-zero transitions. They liken the urgency for climate change advocacy and participation to that of the Apartheid struggle. It is not insignificant that justice and progress was achieved in part by the work and sacrifice of South African students. As the legacy of the student uprisings live on in improved access to education and language equity in schools, so should the vanguard of climate change be driven and indeed led by our young people who shall inherit the consequences of government and businesses’ (in)action. This begs the question: How do our youth gain the networks, tools and skills to navigate, mitigate and thrive in the aftermath of the environmental crisis we are handing them if we fail to take effective action now?

Climate change has a devastating impact on jobs[iii]. Extreme weather is just one manifestation of this. One could simply reflect on how severely “Day Zero” and the 2016 to 2018 drought impacted Cape Town’s economy with devastating losses of tens of thousands of jobs[iv] in traditional youth employment sectors like agriculture and tourism. Yet, in the response to climate change, comes opportunity. While some jobs will be eliminated in environmentally harmful or energy-intensive industries, and yet others replaced or substituted as industry transforms, new jobs will be created. Studies show that a transition to low-carbon economies and mitigation of past carbon emission impacts results in a net increase in job creation[v]. The green economy and its products and services is a fertile ground for economic opportunity and job growth. It would require the building of requisite skills and access to unlock the economic potential of this burgeoning sector. 

A desire for action and jobs on the part of South African youth provides a timely opportunity to the South African government to create specificity around its job creation goals and initiatives to address both the opportunity in climate change and growing youth unemployment. It would do well to critically look at the country’s policies on job creation and the enabling mechanisms including Broad-based Black Economic Empowerment skills development[vi] spent by the private sector, National Skills Fund and the Department of Higher Education and Training[vii], Youth Employment Services[viii], Expanded Public Works Programs[ix], and the Public-Private Growth Initiative[x]. The South African government must create a targeted and meaningful climate action track for economic growth and job creation. Training and education programs are necessary to build the skills needed in the climate transition, and decision makers must provide an enabling policy environment to fund and create the requisite skills required by jobs arising from, and indeed displaced by, climate change.

While a group of high school misfits tried and failed to build traction in environmental change 25 years ago, we must now support this current generation of youth. Young people must be enabled and equipped to ensure that South Africa grows through an equitable and economically viable energy transition. This requires policies which support the development of job-specific skills needed to benefit from new jobs arising from the loss of employment in sectors vulnerable to climate change, and equitable access to economic opportunities inherent in an effective climate action.