Welcome to uMngeni, where the New SA is at last dawning
Its new leaders are young, competent and anti-corruption – in short, exactly what a nation that’s in the ashes needs
Few South Africans would know where to find uMngeni municipality on a map. But throw in familiar town names such as Hilton and Howick and suddenly you have a sense of place; a mental picture of those lush green fields of the beautiful KwaZulu-Natal Midlands. A few weeks ago, a little miracle unfolded in the municipal elections in uMngeni. A young white man, 30-year-old Christopher Pappas, 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 South African society. The white man is gay, the black man from a blended family. The new mayor is a development economist; his deputy is pursuing 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,” he 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 Cibane, who illegally tried to preside over the inauguration of the officials. Cibane 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 this month in uMngeni is the new SA we never got. Competent young leaders. Anti-corruption crusaders who actually listen to the people; the people voted for change and they’re going to get it, said Pappas, in reference to Cibane’s alleged 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 Johannesburg’s Wits university, 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 (sic). Appointments in cabinet and SOEs, the public sector and political branches have led to “the ethnicisation of the ANC”, argues Gumede. I had that feeling when I saw the final four candidates for chief justice; it is as if nobody else matters.
Capability matters in municipal authorities, but so does integrity. And that is in short supply up and down the country, including in uMngeni.
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 collapse in this once beautiful, historical city. It looked like the streets of Makhanda (formerly Grahamstown), with dilapidated buildings, potholes and filth piling up on every corner. There is work to be done.
The uMngeni election results show citizens, rich and poor, 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 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, indeed, the country, now.
Capability matters in municipal authorities, but so does integrity. And that is in short supply up and down the country, including in 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.