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AD295: Are South Africans prepared to confront climate change?

Gugu Nonjinge 3 May 2019 South Africa
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Key findings
  • South Africans held mixed views on whether climate conditions for agricultural production, floods, and droughts have worsened over the past decade.
  • As of September 2018, more than half (54%) of South Africans said they had never heard of climate change. Rural residents (63%), women (58%), and citizens without formal education (65%) were particularly likely to be unaware of the phenomenon. But even among those with post-secondary education, almost four in 10 (37%) said they had not heard of it.
  • A majority (53%) of South Africans who had heard of climate change said it is making life worse.
  • But only about half (52%) of those who were familiar with climate change believed it needs to be stopped, and far fewer thought they could do “a lot” (20%) or even “a little bit” (15%) to help fight it.

As South Africa’s KwaZulu Natal and Eastern Cape provinces began digging out mud and floodwaters, President Cyril Ramaphosa was surely not alone in blaming climate change for last week’s deadly disaster (Times Live, 2019; France24, 2019).

The South African government has long acknowledged the realities of climate change, identifying the phenomenon in its 2011 National Climate Change Response White Paper as “one of the greatest threats to sustainable development” with “the potential to undo or undermine many of the positive advances made in meeting South Africa’s own development goals” (Department of Environmental Affairs, 2011).

A water-stressed country, South Africa is considered highly vulnerable to the extreme weather patterns of intensified drought, flooding, and storms that characterize climate change (Institute for Security Studies, 2018). Since 2013, nearly every province in the country has experienced some form of drought and water shortages resulting in water restrictions in urban areas and in the agriculture sector (Climate Analysis Group, 2018).

Yet despite the pronouncements of government and academic analysts, a majority of South Africans had not heard of climate change as of September 2018, according to Afrobarometer survey findings. Among those who were familiar with climate change, a majority said it is making life in South Africa worse. But very few thought there was anything they can do about it.

Gugu Nonjinge

Gugu Nonjinge is a researcher.