They say knowledge is the tool of activism and, with the world in desperate need of both, Akhona Lerato Xotyeni is making sure she’s well equipped. The 23-year-old master’s student wears many hats: she contributes as a researcher, never shies away from public speaking, works as a youth advisor and dives head first into activism, focusing on human rights and climate action. Her studies have primarily revolved around environmental management and social studies, while any extra-curricular activism work is done with the noble goal of making South Africa a safe space for people from all backgrounds — with emphasis on women, the LGBTQI community, people of colour and the foreign nationals feeling threatened in the country.
Xotyeni’s motivation comes from struggling to find purpose in her teens. While some students thrived academically, others athletically, she realised that it was the good character, discipline and diligence instilled in her by her mother that were her greatest strengths. Xotyeni threw herself into helping others, starting with outreach programmes, litter drives and other environmental projects, thus forming the groundwork of her future.
“One does not need to wait until you are considered an adult before you can be seen as credible,” she says. As a youthful voice, Xotyeni has been working tirelessly to put herself into policy and decision-making spaces that lack the representation of young and vulnerable people. She was a youth advisor with the British Embassy and their climate change policies, worked with a UCT professor for a panel at the annual EU Development Days forum and was invited to give her first TEDx Talk — all to provide a voice to those who aren’t heard. It starts when you’re young, she says: “By investing in early childhood development, we can ensure that we are producing better future citizens for South Africa.”