SA Master’s student in Environmental Management making waves internationally

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Akhona Xotyeni, a master’s student in Environmental Management at Stellenbosch University, is making waves in her field of studies and recently received prestigious recognition for her work.

Not only was she chosen to be one of Inside Education’s 100 South African Shining Stars, but also one of Mail & Guardian’s Top 200 Young South Africans. This is only but a few of  the awards this talented student has managed to receive. Akhona has received a number of accolades and has attended numerous discourses over the past couple of years, especially focusing on environmentalism.

Akhona is ambitious and has big plans for the future.

She tells more.

 Akhona, you were chosen to be one of Inside Education’s 100 South African Shining Stars and as one of Mail & Guardian’s Top 200 Young South Africans in less than a week. What does this recognition mean to you?

I am truly humbled by the recognition because it attests to the work I have done trying to advocate for a clean and healthy environment as well promoting social justice for all so that everyone can equally flourish in this environment. It is important to note that I do not work for accolades, I want our human and environmental rights to be upheld, but I am appreciative of the awards which one could consider as milestone indicators.

You are a master’s student in Environmental Management at Stellenbosch University recently received prestigious national recognition for her work in this field. Why are you passionate about the environment? What sparked your interest?

I think my passion for environmental justice was instilled in me at a young age when I would visit my grandmother’s house in the village called Zimbaba, in the Eastern Cape South Africa. My granny used to have flower and vegetable gardens, fruit trees and livestock. The lifestyle in her village might have been considered that of poor and disadvantaged people. However, what I admired about their way of life is the simplicity. You could see people were connected to their true values of conservation which we now seek and aspire to. Water, electricity, food and other resources are used wisely, and even though some of these actions are taken to save money, they ware still the most authentic forms of environmental justice I have ever come across.

In my undergraduate I also studied Social Sciences, and I found it so unfair that the people facing the harshest environmental, social and economic challenges are people like those from Zimbaba who had contributed the least to climate change.

For me, climate activism is personal. It is how a drought means my village does not get water for months and relies on water tanks, while the biggest carbon emitters have abundant running water. Kumi Naidoo a South African Human Rights and Climate Activist once said, “Do not die for the movement, rather dedicate the rest of your life to it.” Which is what I chose to do.

Why is education important to you?

Earlier on in my life, education was what I was told was necessary to get ahead in life. It seemed more like an ultimatum. I would get told either go to school or drop out and work as an underpaid worker. It was only in the last 2 years of high school and university when I started finding my own understanding of what education meant to me. Education is a percentage of what is taught in an institution and through textbooks. Most of my education came through life, attending critical engagements, workshops, conferences, listening to podcasts and Tedtalks, and having conversations with friends and family.

I do not want to take away from what schools offer, they play a big role in shaping children and young adults. However, it is important to understand education comes in different forms and from different spaces. This holistic education gave me empathy, wisdom and intelligence, and honestly, I needed all forms in order to understand the complexities which our planet earth embodies.

Please elaborate on some of the highlights of your career so far, what stands out for you?

I think the biggest highlight for me was attending the Bali Indonesia Model United Nations. This experience was a spiritual awakening for me. When I was in Bali, the natural environment and the organic experience I had is one I will treasure forever. I appreciated how natural resources such as water were appreciated for both their intrinsic and instrumental values.

Other highlights have been being a panelist at the U.N. 2019 PAGE Ministerial Conference in Cape Town, the 2020 EU Climate Change Roundtable, and also being invited to the 2020 National Council of Provinces (NCOP) Climate Change Debate by the Democratic Alliance NCOP Chief Whip, Cathy Labuschagne. These experiences and many others have shaped my national and international advocacy for environmental justice.

 You were a speaker at the Netherlands embassy, how was the experience? Please elaborate more on this.

This year, I have had the pleasure to work closely with the Netherlands Embassy through their climate change initiatives. They invited me to speak at the EU Climate Change Roundtable; attend a working lunch with Frans Timmerman, the Executive Vice-President of the EU Commission and leading the work on the Green Deal; a Youth Month Closed Dialogue and other climate change meetings.

I have been honoured to work so closely with Ambassador Han Peters, Emma Boekee, the First Secretary-Political Affairs, and the rest of the staff of the Netherlands Embassy in South Africa as they have exposed me to climate diplomacy and the collaborations between South Africa and the EU and Netherlands. As someone who is aspiring to follow this line of work, I think it is important to learn about it and understand from a young age, as well as understand how developed and developing nations need to work together to reduce carbon emissions and restore our planet.

What advice do you have for people wanting to further their studies, but who find themselves struggling to finish a degree or research project? Or someone who thinks they are not “smart enough”?

I think the journey of academia is a personal one. I cannot prescribe advice which will apply to everyone. I have my personal reasons and motivations to study further, but people just need remain committed to who they are by always reminding themselves of why they started and what their end goal is. Also, the journey is quite flexible, in the sense that you can create your own narrative, contrary to societal roles, and choose a career path which aligns with you. No one is “not smart enough”, everyone has superpowers in something and we all need to find that something special.

What is your advice for the youth of South Africa?

I am always careful about giving people advice particularly when I know I am still figuring this thing called life out. What I believe in might not resonate with other young South Africans because we are all born into different contexts, we are cognitively wired differently, and we experience life differently.

What I ultimately hope for is that every young person, even those who are not born in South Africa may get a fair start in life. Whereby they are not born already 10 steps behind everyone. I think we all need to understand that one’s lived experiences and perceptions play a huge role in shaping their narrative and life going forward, and one from a point of privilege should not tell others what to do, but listen to what they want help with and what their dreams are. It starts with listening and putting yourself in the shoes of others (empathy), and the rest will flow naturally.

What does the future hold for you? What are your plans?

I do not know what my future holds, but I am optimistic great things lie ahead. I want to finish my degree and continue with my work in social and environmental justice advocacy. I believe everything else will fall into place when the time is right.

  • Photos: provided
Buro: MvH
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