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Beyond youth tokenism, creating active youth climate champions / Blog  / 2022  / Beyond youth tokenism, creating active youth climate champions

On the 15th of June, the day prior to national Youth Day, the Climate Ambition to Accountability Project (CAAP), hosted a two-part hybrid event in commemoration of youth in South Africa looking to make a difference in the climate policy space. The first part of the event involved the launch of the Youth Climate Champions (YCC) programme. The youth of South Africa are often operating on the margins of climate policy spaces and lack the means to voice their opinions in spaces where they can be meaningfully heard. While South African youth are pushing their way forward into decision-making spaces, youth engagement remains fragmented with a stark lack of access to resources, expertise and opportunities. From this background, the YCC programme was borne with the intent of bridging some of these gaps by creating a platform to capacitate young South Africans in addressing climate change and providing the necessary support in order to ultimately improve climate policy and ambition in South Africa.  The YCC launch served as an opening for a range of future youth capacity-building activities such as podcasts, boot camps, training modules, and internships. 

Around 45 youth at the YCC launch developed a word cloud on their role in addressing climate change. The larger the word in the word cloud, the more often it was mentioned in participants’ responses.

The second part of the event was an intergenerational dialogue made up of two youth speakers and two older speakers to discuss the topic of moving ‘Beyond Youth Tokenism”. The dialogue aimed to elevate voices of the youth and explore how these voices can be heard in policy discourse in South Africa. It provided an engaging platform that kickstarted many important discussions and highlighted several generational clashes.

What is Youth Tokenism?

45 youth at the YCC launch provided input on their opinions around youth tokenism. The larger the word in the word cloud, the more often it was mentioned in participants’ responses.

As youth participation is increasingly being advocated for as a necessary and important part of the policy process, more organisations are attempting to include youth in their events. However, this inclusion may sometimes be more ‘tokenistic’ and lacks the substance and purpose that can make these engagements meaningful. The two youth panellists Mitchelle Mhaka from the African Climate Alliance and Khulekani Magwaza from South African Youth Climate Change Coalition (SAYCCC) voiced their opinions on their experiences as young activists in climate spaces. Khulekani outlined that he is often applauded for being young and boldly voicing his perspective, but in reality, it is not only about having the space to speak but more importantly for the content of your speech to be taken seriously and acted upon.  It is not only about granting attention to youth protests and marches but also, to understand the message of those protests and to actively work towards those outcomes. Mitchelle pointed out the confusion, distrust and suspicion that comes with being used as a token in climate spaces. Often youth are only invited into spaces around peak political periods such as ‘Youth Day’ only to be left in the lurch for the rest of the year. While Youth Day events may be used to capitalise on interest and attention, she emphasized the importance of keeping the same energy throughout the year because sustained efforts are where actual change happens. Without consistent engagement, youth activists often feel used when they are invited to a space only to be forgotten, ignored, and minimised.

Generational Clashes


The two panellists from the older generation, Crispian Olver, the executive director of the Presidential Climate Commission and Bulelwa Ngewana the executive director of the Open Society Foundations for SA, both entered the dialogue by firstly, admitting that they may be contributing to the problem, secondly, affirming that they are committed to moving beyond youth tokenism and thirdly, pledging their interests in opening their individual platforms to meaningful and substantial youth engagement. These commitments are reassuring but they brought out a much larger theme in the discussion which was: Trust. The younger panellists opened up this discussion by outwardly asking the older generation ’do you trust us?’ and emphasized that youth are struggling to be trusted as members of society who can provide valuable input into climate decision-making. This was pushed back by the older panellists, in one of many generational clashes, when Bulelwa asked if the trust goes both ways. The youth acknowledge the commitments made by those in power to uplift youth and handover leadership, but often feel that these promises are not being upheld through actionable support. On the other hand, the older generation believes that it is important to co-create solutions and work together in good faith and for younger South Africans to trust that they are working towards a common goal along with the youth. Bulelwa encapsulated this exchange by saying that ‘trust is evidenced by action’ and verbal commitments are meaningless without physical action.

Breaking down the door

The older generation brought forth a second generational clash by advising young people to move beyond the mentality of ‘breaking down the door’. The two senior panellists echoed each other by recommending that youth should transcend actions that involve destruction and yelling down at the older generation as those to blame for the climate crisis. While recognising that protest is a necessary and often useful tool, Crispian expressed the need for young people to increase their repertoire and the number of voices that get into the technical and ‘substantial’ matters of climate change and policy. He said that youth need to recognize the existing structures of decision-making in society and government and drop into them and learn how to influence them instead of ignoring or re-inventing them and they need to be strategic about bringing the concerns to the correct decision-makers who actually have the ability to enable change. In response to this advice, the youth expressed that young people do have a wide repertoire and many voices that delve into the ‘substance’ of the problem and presented the example of the two youth panellists sitting in the room as those engaging in meaningful discussions. Mitchelle stated that it is precisely because youth lack power and there is a lack of youth representation in government that young people feel the need to ‘break down the door’. Finally, the youth panellists pointed out that we should not gatekeep change and each individual should be allowed to express their voices in the ways they are able to. While some individuals can express their voice in eloquent academic jargon, others can only express themselves by throwing glass during protests in the expression of their anger. 

Technical language and accessibility

The final point of contention came as a discussion regarding accessibility of technical language. Throughout the dialogue, the youth panellists repeatedly asked for accessibility of information: to make information available, and understandable for everyone. In addition, the youth felt that they cannot engage fully and confidently when the language of these policy spaces is overly technical. Khulekani stated that the youth should not be responsible for developing substantial technical plans, that they do not have the power or the expertise and skills yet to do so, but they do have voices to bring attention to the problem and demand change from those who have the power and know-how. The older generation acknowledged the need to increase accessibility but stressed that youth can engage efficiently in policy using highly technical language and brought up the example of the Fees Must Fall movement where youth carried out and coordinated, well-informed actions to relevant decision-makers to produce physical changes. Crispian stated that if youth do not familiarise themselves with the technical language, then the debate will continue to happen without them. He recommended that along with protests the youth need to develop clear theories of change outlining their goals and how they will get there.


The dialogue between young and old panellists provided a vibrant conversation and surfaced many points of contention and frustration. Despite the differences, there is a shared understanding that both sides are working towards one common goal and both sides are asking for trust and substantial participation from each other. Moving away from a fossil-fuel-based economy toward a green economy is a deeply complex task that requires revolutionary changes to many social and economic systems of the country. The energy for this revolution is embedded in the spirit of the youth who will guide and motivate this change. But, as the senior panellist Bulelwa mentioned, we need to find a middle path between the energy, creativity and innovation of the youth and the experience of the older generation. Ultimately, young people are fighting for a future with a liveable climate and equitable society and they are not only fighting for themselves but also for the unborn generation who will inherit what we have left behind.

Yasirah Madhi is an Intern Researcher at the Institute of Economic Justice (IEJ). She writes this piece in her capacity as a member of Climate Ambition to Accountability Project — a joint project of the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF), the South African Climate Action Network (SACAN) and the Institute for Economic Justice (IEJ). The project’s objective is to realise the effective participation of South African organisations in climate change governance to ensure enhanced climate policy ambition, implementation and accountability. The project is co-funded by the European Union. This blog is the sole responsibility of the project team and does not necessarily reflect the views of the European Union.

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