Opinion | The State of Environmental Education Amongst South African Youth: A Reflection

Youth Protest, Durban South Africa, 2021.

June 16 is an important day in South Africa’s history. In 1976, more than 20 000 students from the township of Soweto stood united in protest against the passed laws oppressing their education during the Apartheid regime. The directive from the Bantu Education Act stated that  Afrikaans had to be used on an equal basis with English as a language of instruction in secondary schools. This was in addition to the already segregated schools and universities, poor learning facilities, overcrowded classrooms, and poorly trained teachers.

Many young people lost their lives in this fight for fair education. The day is commemorated annually as a national holiday in South Africa. In the present day, the youth still plays a role in bringing about revolutions in the country. In 2016, South African students led a protest movement called #FeesMustFall. The protest aimed to stop the increase in university fees and urged the South African government to increase its funding of universities. Another recent example of the youth leading a movement, is the Global Climate Strike, known popularly as the Global Week for Future, where the youth demanded that world leaders address the threat of climate change.

I believe that the youth, if appropriately engaged, could bring about change in the environmental sector. Schools in South Africa are not adequately teaching about environmental issues. I am 22 and before joining the GAIA team, I did not know about the social justice implications of the environmental challenges we are facing. 

My perception of waste pollution was that the public littered too much and our city was underfunded to implement proper waste management solutions. I never considered that the solution to the plastic problem is to stop producing so much plastic in the first place. 

It was also the first time I heard the word “Incinerator”, and I have been learning about the effects of incinerators on the communities they are built in. In addition to this, I have learned that zero waste is more than the lifestyle approach I have seen on Instagram. The idea is that before we start encouraging reusing and recycling waste, measures need to be taken to ensure that we do not have that waste in the first place. 

There are also tangible ways that we can make change, like through holding corporations accountable for their packaging with brand audits, and demanding legislation changes for waste dumped in Africa, under the guise of development. I have also seen waste pickers, the real heroes on the ground dealing with the waste crisis. They recover reusable and recyclable materials and re-entering them into the economy. And yet they are marginalized and under-supported in the country. 

South African youth need to get involved in the environmental justice movement. This is not only a topic reserved for the upper-class kids, who are ‘woke’ enough  to care. It’s something we should all be invested in. All schools, including mainstream public schools, who are often in communities most impacted by pollution, are an excellent space to facilitate discussion on these hard topics

I believe that we are a generation of youths that have proven to be revolutionary. Like the youth of 1976, I believe that if we were to show a united front, worldwide, a revolution could be started and we could unite in creating awareness that could ensure we all live on a planet that we are able to enjoy and live peacefully in for many more years to come.


Zamawela Shamase is a communications associate for the GAIA Africa team, based in Durban, she is also a journalism student at the Durban University of Technology.