JOHANNESBURG (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - The fear that climate change will worsen inequality in South Africa - with only the rich able to afford enough water, food and safely-located housing - is a rising concern for Cape Town-based teenage activist Zoe Prinsloo.
She saw this phenomenon, described by some as “climate apartheid”, start to play out amid a severe drought in 2018, when wealthier Capetonians could purchase the water they needed while poorer people simply had to get by with less.
Prinsloo, 17, told the Thomson Reuters Foundation that this experience had been a big driver for her environmental activism involving climate change awareness campaigns, beach cleanups and selling green products.
“During the drought, the rich were able to afford their own boreholes and big jojo (storage) tanks and... buy spring water from the shops. The poor couldn’t do that,” said the high-school student, one of 500 young people selected to attend the U.N. Youth Climate Summit in New York last month.
“It’s an awful reality of life that we need to find solutions for,” she added in an interview by phone and email.
South Africa is the world’s most unequal country, according to the World Bank, where the richest 10% control about 71% of the country’s wealth, and the bottom 60% own only 7%.
Climate apartheid - where the “wealthy pay to escape overheating, hunger, and conflict, while the rest of the world is left to suffer” - was flagged in a report by the U.N. special rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights in June.
Prinsloo first became aware of environmental pollution and climate change as a girl guide, and she now volunteers as the media liaison for the African Climate Alliance in Cape Town, a youth-led group that promotes action to tackle global warming.
Since the age of 10, she has also organized beach clean-ups.
“I noticed the same (plastic) culprits washing up all the time: ear buds, straws and plastic bags. I decided to do something about it,” Prinsloo said.
She officially launched her own business in 2018 called “Save a Fishie”, which sells straws, notebooks, pens and cleaning buds made of natural and recycled materials.
She has sold thousands of products already, and puts the money back into expanding her business as well as boosting the size and reach of her beach clean-ups.
“Everyone deserves a clean environment,” Prinsloo said.
According to the International Union for Conservation of Nature, South Africa is among the world’s 20 biggest contributors of marine plastic pollution.
Across the globe, 300 million tonnes of plastic waste are produced annually, with more than half ending up in the environment or landfill, according to the United Nations.
Prinsloo said young climate activists from both richer and poorer communities are using social media platforms, schools, clubs and societies to mobilize for the growing climate strikes that take place in Cape Town at the end of each school term.
A global “Fridays for Future” movement was sparked by 16-year-old Swede Greta Thunberg who began skipping classes on Fridays in August 2018 to protest outside Sweden’s parliament against government inaction on climate change.
Prinsloo said adults sometimes assume “we just want to cause chaos” - but September’s mass climate rallies, which saw millions of people take to the streets, made her feel “more positive and motivated” than ever.
“I am ready to take on the world and make it a better place for my children and my children’s children,” Prinsloo said.
“Greta proved that one person can make a difference. That is what I am also trying to do.”
Reporting by Kim Harrisberg @kimharrisberg; editing by Megan Rowling. Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, women's and LGBT+ rights, human trafficking, property rights, and climate change. Visit http://news.trust.org