Students drive sustainability work at South African school
Plastic waste, water scarcity, and the energy crisis are issues that worry the students at Camps Bay High School in Cape Town, South Africa. Find out what a group of learners think about the future, and some of the most pressing environmental problems in South Africa.
Environmental club at school
“At my previous school there was no environmental club, but when I came to Camps Bay I wanted to get engaged. Waste in the ocean, and energy, are massive issues,” says Jordan Prince, one of six students from the school’s environmental club who have gathered to talk about sustainable development from a South African perspective.
“When it comes to the environment, there is a lot of talk but little action. Having said that, not many are aware of how big the environmental issues are. We must start by building awareness,” says Alexa Nicholson.
Camps Bay is one of Cape Town’s more affluent suburbs. The beach and the Atlantic Ocean are not far from the school building. Approximately 750 students (14-18 years old) attend the school. There are several different clubs and societies that the learners can engage in after hours and the environmental club has around 80 members.
One of them, Benjamin Pienaar, is pleased to learn about the UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDG).
“I don’t know very much about the SDGs, but I think it is quite cool they exist. It is nice to know that there is a plan for a better future,” he says.
The problems with plastics – everybody's and nobody's fault
His club mate, Georgina Woodburn, doesn’t hesitate when asked about the biggest environmental challenges in South Africa.
“Plastics and single-use packaging. Those are major problems that don’t go away easily. You see waste everywhere you go. It’s crazy.”
The other members of the environmental club echo her concern. Once or twice a month the club members do beach clean-ups on Camps Bay beach.
“The litter is everybody’s and nobody’s fault. Plastic is cheap and convenient. Some people make money out of it, so they keep producing it,” says Alexa.
The students in the environmental club have proved that change is possible. They have driven a successful campaign to pressure the school canteen to stop using plastic and replace it with recyclable packaging. They’ve also brought in a recycling bin for paper waste.
Limited water use
Besides plastic waste, there are two environmental issues that have become very real in the last few years: water scarcity and interruption in the electricity supply.
During the drought in 2017/2018, dam levels were low and there was a severe water crisis in Cape Town. Water usage was limited to 25 litres per person per day.*
“Even if the water situation is back to normal, my family is still very conscious about our water consumption,” says Ayla Maharaj-Goodman.
Sibulele Makalima agrees with her:
“Totally. After the drought my family became very aware of the water issue, whereas before the drought no one really thought about water.”
All six of the students take shorter showers now than they used to before the drought.
* The average water consumption in Sweden is 140 litres per person per day.
Annoying power shut-offs while studying
But South Africa has moved from one crisis to another. Now it’s the lack of electricity that interrupts the students’ everyday life. Because there is not enough energy to cover the demand, power is cut for a certain number of hours every day, according to a set schedule. It’s called loadshedding.
Some families solve the problem by using power banks and chargeable lamps that work off the grid.
“It’s an inconvenience, but at school we have a generator that kicks in during loadshedding. It’s annoying though if you are at home writing an important paper and the power goes off,” Jordan says.
“I agree. When there is loadshedding, the internet stops working and we can’t access all files on our computers,” Georgina adds.
Looking at the future, most of them feel rather pessimistic about the environment and the climate.
“I fear it will get worse when we get older, and many things will change during our lifetime. The problem is that bad news is often very concrete, whilst good news and the solutions to our problems seem vague,” says Jordan.
One of the problems, Georgina adds, is that climate change and environmental degradation happen gradually, it’s not possible to see the changes on a day-to-day basis.
“I think all of us have been a bit selfish and that will affect the next generation,” she says.
Hope for a sustainable future
Ayla joins in, pointing out that it’s not always easy to live sustainably, and that not all people can afford a sustainable lifestyle.
“I can’t cope with all the bad news, and I will not change my lifestyle completely. But I can still try and make a difference to reduce my impact,” she says.
“I don’t like when politicians speak about what plans they have for the future, what about here and now? I’m afraid that the interventions are not enough, and I wonder how long we have before it’s too late.”
Despite the pessimism, the students at Camps Bay High also dream about more trees and green spaces, reduced consumption, fewer plastics, and renewable energy.
“I’d also like to see people start growing their own food and be more self-reliant,” Benjamin says.
“We, as the youth, need to start educating other young people and our parents. It starts with us. We must be the change,” adds Sibulele.
Short facts about South Africa
- South Africa is the most southern country on the African continent. It has approximately 60 million inhabitants. It relies on coal for up to 80 per cent of its power generation.
- It is one of the most unequal societies in the world and the differences between low-income households and high-income households are immense.
- Between 1948 and 1994, the white minority government in South Africa implemented the apartheid system. The policy meant separation of people based on race. The black majority didn’t have the same rights as the white minority. In 1994 all South Africans got the right to vote for the first time and the country became a democracy.
Text: Görrel Espelund
Photo: Eric Miller