In recent years, South Africa has experienced several catastrophic climate-related events, such as floods, droughts, and fires. Climate change is having an impact on South African ecosystems, economies, and livelihoods, despite the country’s status as the most developed economy in the Southern African Development Community. In response, the national government has approved critical actions that prioritise climate mitigation and adaptation strategies, emissions reductions, and waste management.

The most recent Afrobarometer survey in South Africa, conducted in 2021, found that popular awareness of climate change, though increasing, remained relatively low. Among those who were aware of it, a growing number said climate change is making life in the country worse. About half (49%) of South Africans said they had heard of climate change, while the other half said they were unfamiliar with the concept or did not know how to answer the question.

Compared to 2018, the proportion of South Africans who said they had heard about climate change increased by 7 percentage points. Out of 34 surveyed countries, South Africa ranked among the bottom 10 countries in awareness of climate change, well below the average of 58%. Women were less likely than men to be familiar with climate change, as were rural residents compared to their urban counterparts. The youngest respondents were more aware of climate change than their elders.

Awareness of climate change increased with respondents’ education level, ranging from those with primary or no formal schooling to those with post-secondary qualifications. Similarly, economically better-off citizens were far more likely to know about climate change than those experiencing various levels of lived poverty, even though climate change often affects disadvantaged communities the most.

Awareness of climate change was at above-average levels among daily consumers of news via the Internet, newspapers, and social media, though differences were marginal for those receiving daily news from the radio and television. Among South Africans who were aware of climate change, 62% said it is making life in the country worse, compared to 16% who said it is making things better.

The share of respondents who saw climate change as making life worse increased by 9 percentage points compared to 2018, suggesting that people are feeling the effects of climate change. Similar to awareness of climate change, perceptions of its negative impact are more common in cities than in rural areas, and among the poor than the better-off.

In conclusion, while awareness of climate change in South Africa is increasing, it remains relatively low, particularly among women, rural residents, and the poor. Those who are aware of climate change are increasingly seeing its negative impacts on their lives, with a majority saying that it is making life in the country worse. Despite this, the South African government has taken significant steps towards mitigating and adapting to climate change, with the creation of various strategies and policies aimed at reducing emissions, managing waste, and promoting low-carbon development.

Extracted from a recent Afrobarometer paper written by IJR core partners staff, Asafika Mpako and Preston Govindasamy. To read the full publication, click here.