Young uMngeni leaders show promise of ‘new SA’ still exists

Newly elected uMngeni municipality mayor Chris Pappas of the DA says the 'dedicated workers of the municipality' will serve the community.
Newly elected uMngeni municipality mayor Chris Pappas of the DA says the 'dedicated workers of the municipality' will serve the community.
Image: Supplied

Few South Africans would know where to find uMngeni local municipality on a map. But throw in familiar town names like Hilton and Howick, and suddenly you have a sense of place; a mental picture of those lush, green fields of the beautiful Midlands area of KwaZulu-Natal.

A few weeks ago, a little miracle unfolded in the municipal elections in uMngeni. A young white man Christopher Pappas, 30, became mayor with a young black man Sandile Mnikathi, 26,  as his deputy.

Everything about this arrangement was wonderfully countercultural in the racial absolutisms of SA society.  The white man is gay, the black man from a blended family.

The new mayor is a development economist; his deputy is pursing a PhD in the politics of local government. Both are young, energetic leaders who are smart, knowledgeable and impressive.

I watched in awe as the white leader campaigned in isiZulu before a small crowd of enthusiastic black voters who clearly embraced their man. “Enough is enough,” the white youth said as he whipped up the crowd. “We have had enough.” The crowd responded: “Enough!”

All of this was simply too much for the suspended municipal manager, Thembeka Cibani, who illegally tried to preside over the inauguration of the officials. Cibani is alleged to have abused almost R20m meant for Covid-19 alleviation projects. The swearing in of the newly elected officials had to take place in a Howick court.

What we witnessed in uMngeni in November is the new SA we never got. Competent young leaders. Anti-corruption crusaders who actually do listen to the people; the people voted for change and they’re going to get it, Pappas said in reference to Cibani’s dirty tricks.  

One person after another spoke of the work ethic of the young leaders and their ability to get things done. Black and white citizen leaders working together at the very point that the country seems to be going the other way.

One of the most important analyses of the election was written by columnist and professor of governance at Wits, William Gumede. He wrote what many think but are afraid to say openly for fear of criticism or not sounding progressive.

A narrow, bitter brand of Africanist politics on the part of the two major black parties (ANC and  EFF) has effectively marginalised people who regard themselves as ethnic minorities in SA. 

The result? The emergence in the last elections of parties that openly mobilise around their narrow ethnic or religious identities: The Cape Coloured Congress, the Patriotic Alliance, the Al Jama-ah Party and the new-look Freedom Front Minus.

Appointments in the cabinet and state-owned enterprises, the public sector and political branches have led to “the ethnicisation of the ANC”, Gumede argues. I had that feeling when I saw the final four candidates for chief justice; it is as if nobody else matters.

Which is the reason I sensed a glimmer of hope when Pappas and Mnikathi assumed the mantle of leadership in a province that carries its ethnic chauvinism on its T-shirts: 100% Zulu boy. Good grief. I hope these two young leaders succeed in what they set out to do.

On a recent visit to schools in Pietermaritzburg, I was astounded by the extent of the collapse of this once beautiful, historical city. It looked like the streets of Makhanda with dilapidated buildings, potholes and the piling up of filth on every corner. There is work to be done.

The uMngeni election results show that citizens, rich and poor, really no longer care a damn about your party or your politics or your past — only whether you can hear them in the language of their hearts, and serve them in the social and economic distress that blights their lives. For these long-suffering citizens enough is really enough.

I love that the two leaders are well educated. No, I do not believe that a degree should be a condition for appointment in municipal service; there are competent and ethical people of all persuasions who can deliver on their municipal mandates.

But it does help in the 21st century to have in municipal offices those who are knowledgeable about politics, economics, legislation and local government in the delivery of their duties. For too long we have made a virtue out of ignorance and look at the state of the municipalities, and indeed the country, at the present time.

Capability matters in municipal authorities, but so does integrity. And that is in short supply up and down the country, including uMngeni. In the meantime, I am going to sit back and savour this moment for these two young men might just show us how to rebuild our country from the ashes, one municipality at a time.

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