What does Ocean Literacy look like amongst South African Youth?

Matsobane Malebatja, Youth4MPAs

As we face a global crisis of biodiversity loss and ecosystem degradation due to rising global temperatures, it is imperative that we make sustainable decisions for a healthier future. However, climate anxiety and a lack of exposure to these issues limits our ability to engage in discussions and provide meaningful contributions as young people. South Africa is no stranger to these strong feelings around climate change and ocean conservation.

For the purposes of this blog, I refer to ocean literacy as the basic knowledge and understanding of our impact on the ocean and in turn the ocean’s influence on our daily lives. And I will be speaking about the youth we have interacted with thus far, who can be subdivided into 3 groups: learners in high school, youth without a formal education in the conservation sphere, and those youth with a formal education in conservation.

When looking at the South African youth, there are multiple challenges one has to confront, including: Getting an education under trying circumstances; the high rate of unemployment even after graduation; living for the weekend because it’s the only way to be still; and having to determine which political party to vote for. 

All of this provides a large amount of uncertainty and dread about the future. Needless to say it is exhausting and for youth caught up in this suffocating web of compounded issues, climate change becomes difficult to prioritise. 

 So what does youth participation in ocean literacy in South Africa look like?

Knowledge is the first step. I highly commend the efforts of the South African government working in collaboration with NGOs in implementation of a National Marine and Coastal Education and Awareness Programme to provide youth and other community members with knowledge regarding stewardship and overall ocean health, and for making marine sciences a part of the secondary school curriculum. 

Without taking away from these programs and activities, it is worth noting that theoretical knowledge about the ocean is not enough to foster empathy for the environment or inspire self-appointed stewardship. This observation is more especially true when considering the level of care.

Speaking as a youth from an inland province, the level of care and action for the ocean and its biodiversity diminishes the farther away from the coast one lives. As a result, mainstreaming ocean literacy through the education system falls short as a means of raising awareness and effectively disseminating educational content meant to eventually encourage youth to not only be in the know, but also engage in conversations as pioneers of change.

The main goal of youth organisations is to work with young people who do not necessarily have a formal education in ocean literacy but who are concerned about the state of our ocean and the future. We also help raise awareness and educate.

So, the starting point is meeting youth where they are, emphasising valuable knowledge exchange and avoiding the depiction of ourselves as the sole knowledge holders of marine conservation. By doing so, we not only acknowledge the youths’ way of life and marine environment but also create an opportunity to potentially harness invaluable indigenous knowledge and secure it for future generations.

Young people at university level are the most active and receptive cohort of youth. At this level, there is a higher order of engagement. With a formal education in conservation or related field, youth become confident to participate in local and international seminars, workshops, biodiversity, and climate change negotiations, international advisory council boards, and leading and running NGOs.

At this point, our engagement with youth is strongly based on the common understanding of the ocean and its importance. Personal convictions are expressed in peaceful marches and many sleepless nights in preparation for workshops or seminars.

Taking action in the form of protests and petitions is most dynamic when working with this youth group. Last year presented many challenges that came with opportunities. The World Ocean Day resources proved to be useful in preparation for both the Conference Of Parties (COP) 27 and COP 15, in support of the 30×30 agreement. Issues particularly relevant to Africa and its diaspora were discussed and this included Loss and Damages, Intergenerational Equity and much more.

In summary, ocean literacy amongst youth in South Africa is not homogenous. The degree of literacy is influenced by geographical proximity to the ocean in tandem with people’s social standing and the level of education on ocean health.

Last but not least, connecting with other youth groups both locally and internationally is of great help in terms of establishing a network. The numbers strengthen pledges, petitions, and more as we continue to prioritise ocean education and awareness so that future generations can understand and protect our valuable marine resources.


About the author

Matsobane Malebatja (he/him, TW: @matsobane_bern) originally from the Limpopo Province in South Africa and is a part of Youth4MPAs, sits on the Steering Committee as a social media coordinator, a research assistant intern at SAIAB, and is a member of the World Ocean Day Youth Advisory Council.  Youth4MPAs is a youth-led organisation with a focus on getting young people together for ocean conservation and educating on the importance of marine protected areas (MPAs) as a conservation tool.  

This is a guest blog and may not necessarily represent the views of other RISE UP network members or RISE UP as a whole. It is only through open dialogue and a diversity of ideas that we will arrive at the solutions necessary to restore Ocean health.

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Date Published: 6th June 2023