South Africa: Speaking truth to power with compassion

5 Nov 2021
Khulekani Magwaza is a member of the LWF Council and youth delegate at the current UN climate conference COP26. Photo: LWF/Albin Hillert

Khulekani Magwaza is a member of the LWF Council and youth delegate at the current UN climate conference COP26. Photo: LWF/Albin Hillert

Voices from the Communion: Khulekani Magwaza, LWF Council member and COP26 youth delegate

(LWI) - “We are a moral compass as faith and church representatives at COP,” says Khulekani Magwaza, one of The Lutheran World Federation (LWF) delegates to the UN climate conference (COP). “That is very different from the role of scientific and other experts or negotiators. If we need to be a bit harder in conveying our messages and demands at COP, we do so compassionately and lovingly. If we must speak the truth to power, we do so in a motivating way.”

Magwaza is a young South African who has been part of the LWF’s COP delegations since 2016.

Today, 5 November, the UK’s COP26 Presidency Program focuses on youth and public empowerment, and Magwaza speaks about his experiences, his motivation to advocate for climate justice, and his ongoing engagement in church and society.

Are young people being heard at COP26?

Young people are being listened to at COP26. Still, it’s not clear if they are being heard. Being heard means considering the requests or concerns that young people present, some of which are climate action concerning the Paris Agreement. Only the outcomes of this COP will tell if young people have been heard.

For this year’s COP26, the LWF has a large youth delegation, including you, that mainly participates online. How do you feel about this?

Firstly, as an LWF Council member, I’m very impressed that we have such a large youth delegation. Thirty-two people are participating at COP26, both in-person and online!

That is an excellent move to implement the Resolution on Climate Change by the Twelfth LWF Assembly in 2017, urging for continued youth participation and representation at the COP meetings.

Young men and women from all LWF’s regions are part of the delegation, and we had enough time to prepare and to get to know fellow delegates. The online training sessions we had before COP26 were very helpful and provided a lot of information on the COP proceedings, climate agreements such as the Paris Agreement or the Kyoto Protocol, and the general positions of Parties. We even had a session of role-playing to prepare for meeting government delegates or other representatives.

We have never been so well prepared before. Irrespective of the outcomes of COP26, I think that the LWF has done a great job in capacity building among delegates.

There have also been mentoring partnerships with newcomers to the COP delegation. What did that mentorship entail? What were the key messages you passed on?

Because we already have some experience with COP meetings, Fernanda Zuñiga from the Lutheran Church in Chile and I mentored some new delegates.

One of the points I stressed was that we are a moral compass as faith and church representatives. That is very different from the role of scientific and other experts or negotiators. If we need to be a bit harder in conveying our messages and demands at COP, we do so compassionately and lovingly. If we must speak the truth to power, we do so in a motivating way.

I recall the LWF delegation meeting with the delegation from El Salvador at COP25. We had an open and friendly conversation, learning from each other. We could explain our intentions, and they listened to us and respected our points. I think this dialogue was motivating them. And motivating and encouraging is what we do at COP.  

I also encouraged the newcomers to see that they take something fruitful back to their churches and communities once at COP.

How did you first get involved in climate justice action?  

I was an active member of my church, the Evangelical Lutheran Church in Southern Africa (ELCSA), and a member of the student representative council of the Lutheran Theological Institute, where I was studying at that time. Due to this engagement, my church leaders had recommended me to be one of the delegates of the LWF to COP22.

At that stage, I was not too aware of the climate change policy issues and the urgency of the climate crisis. However, I had some knowledge about the environmental problems we had learned about back at school. So, at COP22, my focus was on capacity building and education. I wanted to bring something back to my community and back to my church.

After the conference, I drafted a report to the church and recommended establishing an initiative to address climate change, particularly climate change policies. On that basis, we founded Green ELCSA as a pilot project in my congregation and eventually in my parish. It is now a churchwide initiative.

How are you involved in climate action in your church and your home country today?  

Today I’m working with more than ten different faith communities at SAFCEI (Southern African Faith Communities Environment Institute), coordinating activities related to climate justice in energy justice.

In this capacity, I am focusing on Nationally Determined Contributions (NDCs). NDCs are measures governments aim to implement in response to climate change and contribute to achieving the global targets set out in the Paris Agreement. South Africa has recently submitted an updated document to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC). We have been involved in developing that document from the civil society space representing faith communities.

Right now, we are engaging with the government, particularly the Presidential Climate Commission. It aims to build a social compact around a just climate transition. In building a low carbon, climate-resilient economy and society, we need to ensure decent work for all, social inclusion, and poverty eradication.

What developments have you noticed from the climate conferences you attended? What positive steps were taken towards implementing the Paris Agreement from 2015, and what hinders progress?

The first COP I attended was COP22 in 2016 in Marrakech, Morocco.

Looking at the official side of the negotiations one year from 2015 and its milestone, the Paris Agreement, COP22 came up with The Marrakech Partnership for Global Climate Action. It gives effect to the agreed outcomes in Paris by providing a structured and coherent framework that aims to accelerate the scale and pace of climate action among Parties and non-Party stakeholders in all parts of the world. The focus is on environmental, economic, and social system transformation, promoting higher ambition of all stakeholders to collectively strive for the 1.5 °C temperature goal and a climate-neutral and resilient world.

Another development in the past years concerns the NDCs. They are a centerpiece of the Paris Agreement and embody efforts by each country to reduce national emissions and adapt to the impacts of climate change. The Paris Agreement requires each Party to prepare, communicate and maintain successive NDCs that it intends to achieve. Unfortunately, the NDCs submitted by governments to date are not sufficient to keep global warming below 1.5 °C. That is one of the significant challenges at the current COP26.

On a more personal level: at my first COP – an overwhelming experience – I followed negotiations on capacity building. Being new to the processes and tactics involved, I found listening to negotiators grapple over texts somewhat discouraging. It was very strange to listen to someone I assumed was committed to climate action and climate justice be very hesitant to agree on single words such as “should” or “shall”.

Please, tell us something of what happens at the UN climate conferences outside the conference rooms.

Outside of the formal talks, I experienced the networking between faith communities. That is always very encouraging. To see the LWF, World Council of Churches, ACT Alliance, and other ecumenical organizations working as a community motivates me. People working as one body, having a shared understanding of what needs to be done, gives me a special sense of community.  

I remember a press conference where one of the religious leaders said that climate change affects the people of God. Therefore, it matters to God. And because it matters to God, we are all responsible for dealing with it, no matter how diverse our beliefs might be.

What does it mean for your church, your work, for you to be a part of the LWF’s communion of churches?

It is wonderful to be part of a global communion working and advocating for justice and climate justice. It is encouraging to be part of the global body of Christ with all its diversity. In these diversities, we can find things that we have in common and things we all need. I am participating in the mission of God together with others from the ecumenical family.

By LWF/A. Weyermüller


COP26 photo album


The LWF participates in the 26th UN Climate Change Conference (COP26) which takes place in Glasgow, Scotland, from 31 October to 12 November. This engagement is part of the communion’s ongoing focus to strengthen climate action and advocacy at all levels. Young people are vital agents of change and form the greater part of the LWF’s delegation to COP26.

Voices from the Communion

The Lutheran World Federation is a global body that shares the work and love of Christ in the world. In this series, we profile church leaders and staff as they discuss topical issues and set out ideas for building peace and justice in the world, ensuring the churches and communion grow in witness and strength.

Voices from the Communion Series