Following the lead of Swedish climate activist Greta Thunberg, thousands of school learners across the world are boycotting their classes every Friday to protest against inaction over the climate crisis. In 2020, learners in South Africa are starting to take up the cudgels. One of the first will be Raeesah Noor-Mohamed who last week released a video on Instagram explaining her intentions. Maverick Citizen spoke to her during her school break on Wednesday.
Raeesah Noor-Mahomed is an ordinary 17-year-old schoolgirl. She’s worked hard throughout her school life, done well in her exams, and has dreams and ambitions for her life. But last week, she deliberately steered her life into uncharted territory. For six long hours, hours that she described as “lonely and hard”, she sat outside her school, Parktown High School for Girls in Johannesburg, and began an indefinite Friday boycott of her classes.
That’s five classes of 55 mins every Friday, potentially a lot of learning.
From the pavement, she read out her manifesto (see below), which she put on Instagram, as young activists are wont to do.
“It was a long day,” she says, admitting, “I almost gave up and went back to class.”
I asked Raeesah what is motivating her stand? She says, while schools “touch on climate change, they don’t discuss it seriously”. “I first heard about it in geography in grade 8 or 9. Then I started to learn more through social media. As I did, I wondered why, if people know so much, we are doing so little.”
“Then I discovered Greta. She’s super super cool.”
Raeesah’s stand is at this point very much a one girl stand.
“Half my teachers think I’m stupid and the other half are supportive. But I’m lucky because the supportive ones are willing to help me catch up one-on-one.”
“I met my headmistress last week, but she doesn’t think I’m going to make an impact.”
Some of her friends admire her stand, but she’s not putting them under pressure to join her because she knows “school’s too demanding”, especially in her matric year.
So far, the Department of Forestry, Fisheries and Environmental Affairs, to whom she has written, has ignored her. She says she would like to meet Barbara Creecy, the minister.
I ask about her family. Her answer is that while they have followed and been influenced by her changing what she eats, they are ambivalent and “not completely supportive” about boycotting classes. “They are very worried, considering it’s matric year”.
So, it really is a brave stand and I wonder aloud whether she’ll be able to sustain it? She responds thoughtfully. She knows there are many obstacles ahead “mainly in the form of people”. She’s also worried that missing lessons could be classified as bunking and she could face disciplinary action. But she has mentors and close friends. Her former history teacher told her that “it’s hard when you are presented with a choice between two rights (going to school or boycotting), but then you must do what’s right for you”. She also mentions the support of Candice Chirwa, a young menstrual health activist, who will join her protest on Friday.
“I don’t know how I’m going to manage. But I do know I’m stubborn and persistent.” Perhaps that’s why the message on her WhatsApp number says “The truth is a blood that, once unleashed, cannot be put back in the bottle.”
After 10 minutes, our quick call is up. The school bell is ringing and I can hear the sound of learners in the background.
I wish her well, because on the issue of climate change, you’re either with the activists or against them. As the call ends, I think to myself that it is often by such individual stands that movements are born and society reforms.
This is her statement:
“My name is Raeesah Noor-Mahomed and I am 17 years old. I have a message for the Department of Environmental Affairs and the rest of the South African government.
The climate emergency is getting worse and worse. People and animals are dying. Infrastructure is being destroyed. The fires in Australia are just one of many results of climate change that we are seeing and are continuing to see. It will get worse.
We need to act fast. And we need to act now.
South Africa is already feeling the effects of climate change. The heat and droughts we are experiencing is a result of global warming and the situation will get more intense. Over the next few years, the weather conditions will get more extreme. We need to do everything we can to combat and lessen the effects of climate change.
We need to.
But we aren’t.
This is a call for you to listen to the youth. I have a list of demands for you that need to be listened to and discussed.
The list consists of:
- The total banning of single-use plastics with a month’s grace period for organisations to organise a way to recycle it and become more sustainable.
- Start to transition away from using brand new paper and only use recycled paper, or digital platforms.
- Start using solar power in government-owned buildings and public places.
- Place recycling bins in public spaces.
- Make climate change a compulsory part of the curriculum.
- Make recycling mandatory in government schools.
- Start using eco bricks in the development of structures.
These are the small things you need to do. It’s something. But not enough. What we really need from you is to admit that there is a climate emergency and discuss and debate it in Parliament. Treat it like it is. An emergency. Not a minor threat.
We need to start transitioning away from mining, especially coal mining. You cannot say that this can’t be done because people will lose their jobs if your excuse for not implementing sustainable methods is a lack of funding and human capital. There is always a way. It can be done.
We need to reduce our carbon footprint drastically and fast. We need to completely transition to renewable energy.
We need to implement much more sustainability in the agricultural sector.
My demand is that you declare a climate emergency and listen to what the scientists and activists, and youth have been saying for years about the changes that need to be made.
I am in matric this year. It’s a crucial year. But what’s the point of investing all my effort into a future that I will never have because of climate change?
So I have decided that if you refuse to listen to my message and deny that there is a climate emergency, I will boycott school every Friday until a climate emergency is declared and you are open to discussions about becoming more sustainable. I will sit outside my school building every Friday protesting against your denial of the climate crisis.
I am putting my education on hold to fight for the future you are stealing from us.
I demand that you listen.” MC