The UCT Student from Lesotho, representing the interests of justice and participation for the African continent on the international stage of tackling the climate crisis.

by Seth Meyers
(Staff writer)

Koaile Monaheng is a very busy man, but when he talks about his work in the field of climate change, he immediately becomes animated. “We (Africa) are very much on the receiving end of climate change risks,” the Mandela-Rhodes Scholar and Masters student says. “And the irony behind that is that we are not the sole cause of all of these climate change risks.” 

With a passion for issues of climate, Monaheng has served as an advocate for African interests at the panel discussions of the U7+ Alliance, together with several other students. “It’s a culmination of students and universities from all over the world,” he explains, “sharing knowledge, creating awareness around the world’s deepest, most grappling issues.” And according to Monaheng, the recent release of the UN’s “Code Red” Report on climate change has only emphasised the severity of these issues.

Originally from Lesotho, Monaheng left his home in 2013 to study in South Africa. He discovered a passion for the politics and theory of climate change impact, later coming to UCT as a Mandela Rhodes Scholar. He describes himself as having been someone in the “perfect position” to do what he does, having both an appreciation for the science and politics of climate change, and the realities of the impact on the ground in areas like his native country. 

Reflecting on his current roles as a Masters student with the African Climate Development Initiative, and representing UCT and African interests on an international stage, Monaheng laughingly says, “You know, I read about these diplomats in books and in my lecture slides and in journals. And to be part of that history… that’s something for me that’s very powerful.” He goes on to explain how critically important it is for his generation to engage with climate crisis issues. “There’s a need for youth because essentially what’s happening now is we’re literally being passed the baton of our futures,” he says. “At the same time, we realise that youth are not taken seriously at that level. Maybe because we’re radical; maybe because we think differently”, he said. 

Monaheng believes that his role in confronting issues of climate change lies in his ability to speak from an experienced perspective about problems that, on the world stage, are being predicted for the future, but in Africa, have already registered serious impacts. “And that story needs to be told,” he says firmly. 

In addition to his global advocacy, Monaheng also volunteers with local NPO Just Share SA, an activist initiative to combat the similar issues of climate change that Monaheng discusses amongst colleagues at the U7+ Alliance. “They use advocacy and shareholder activism to lead on issues of environmental social governance,” he explains, “understanding that climate change is very important and implicit in the development of this country, in exacerbating inequality and injustices.”

“For many, these issues are very real but they are also difficult to quantify”, Monaheng says. It is hard to explain the significance in layman’s terms or to someone privileged enough to be insulated from these issues. Personally, Monaheng relates them to his own culture as Basotho. “The connection to the land, the environment is implicit in our very DNA,” he says. “This is something that’s in my history … the connection to climate as something that Basotho have always thought about, and I’m sure we’re not unique in that aspect, you know?”

Looking at the way forward, in the wake of the Covid-19 pandemic and the UN’s climate report, Monaheng feels more resolute than ever in his ideals. “There’s no time for neutrality. I think a lot of people tip-toe around the fact that ‘you need to tell both sides of the story’. There’s no ‘both sides’ to climate change, particularly from an African perspective. It’s about our survival. It’s about our future.” 

Monaheng was recently in Milan as part of the Youth Conference of Parties (COP). The COP is an annual international summit on climate change between several countries, organised within the United Nations, with Monaheng representing Lesotho as an advocate for the youth. Although the UN Climate Report was on the agenda, he says most climate activists are already aware of its findings. What’s more important is that the conference is a sign that countries and governments are working more holistically against the threat of climate change.

For those looking to make a difference on the African continent, Monaheng emphasises the importance of unity: “Those of us who have the privilege to be in these spaces have to proliferate the knowledge into spaces where other people don’t,” he says. “We need to be humble in doing that. Climate change is going to affect every aspect of society and each individual person will be affected by climate change.” “But understand that wherever we are, we can contribute as a youth,” he adds. “Even if it’s as small as signing a petition.”

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