Youth activist paradoxes in the urban periphery of Lephalale: The struggle for employment and climate justice in a coal-rich region of South Africa

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Thembi Luckett


Southern Africa is understood to be a climate change hotspot, with youth and children most likely to be affected. The region has already suffered climate variability, with increased occurrence of floods and droughts, which are expected to escalate in the future. Despite the fact that young people in the region are central to ecological and social justice debates, they are often depicted as uninterested and excluded from policy and decision- making spaces – especially those living in global and urban peripheries. In this article, I speak to the nexus of youth, social and environmental justice, and climate politics. I do so by unpacking the everyday concerns and negotiations of youth activists in the urban periphery of Lephalale in Limpopo, South Africa – not typically seen as an urban centre or a site of youth politics. Lephalale is viewed as a future hub of power generation in South Africa, the rapid growth of the town being based on the expansion of coal extractivism. The complexities and paradoxes around how youth are navigating their futures in this site of mega coal projects are explored through two case studies: the Lephalale Unemployment Forum and the Waterberg Environmental Justice Forum. With climate and environmental catastrophe producing both shrinking futures and horizons of possibility, I argue that youth contestation and negotiation of their futures hold out possibilities, even with their contradictions, for collective reimagining of urban space and development.

Through the methodology I employed to explore these negotiations and contestations, I aimed to be cognisant of how research is embedded in context-specific power-laden social relations. While it was not explicitly collaborative research, what emerged from the process was the importance of slow, informal relationship-building before, during and after the research, which would be the basis for a collaborative research project years later. This way of conducting slow research is particularly necessary for engagement across racial, cultural and class divisions, as well as for research that traverses the boundary between academia and social movements in this time of crisis.

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Research articles (Refereed)