uMngeni’s Municipalities new leaders: mayor Chris Pappas, left, and deputy mayor Sandile Mnikathi.
uMngeni’s Municipalities new leaders: mayor Chris Pappas, left, and deputy mayor Sandile Mnikathi.

Howick’s new mayoral team: Different but not indifferent

By Duncan Guy Time of article published Dec 4, 2021

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THE official opposition’s only KZN municipality, uMngeni, with Howick the capital, has a pair of young individuals at its helm, each moulded by their own life journeys.

Chris Pappas, the country’s first openly gay mayor, who is fluent in isiZulu, remembers being picked on for having more black friends than white at his boys-only traditional boarding school and being ridiculed for playing hockey and singing in the choir.

“I stood up to it by being sharp with my tongue. I made sure I could stand up for myself but it was harder to stand up for others,” the 30-year-old recalled, acknowledging that it was just a reflection of parents’ thinking combined with schoolboy culture.

uMngeni Municipality’new deputy mayor Sandile Mnikathi with his grandmother Alzina Mnikathi whose employers provided his education. Picture: Supplied.

He had learnt isiZulu while growing up on a remote farm near Giant’s Castle in the Drakensberg and then learnt it academically, along with Afrikaans and French, at Hilton College, his father’s alma mater. Before that, he attended his mother’s old school, Treverton Preparatory in Mooi River.

“I am not just a linguist but also a person who likes to listen. To listen and understand. It’s better than just to give a blank stare,” he said.

Pappas’s deputy mayor, Sandile Mnikathi, 26, found his peers at UKZN’s Pietermaritzburg campus viewed his love of cricket and rugby, nurtured at his Model C schools, as proof beyond doubt that he was “coconut”.

His days at Howick High were “the best five years of my life” and his love of cricket developed when his pals in the First XI gave him a crash course in scoring, so he could join them on a tour.

Mnikathi was supported by the couple for whom his grandmother, Alzina Mnikathi, worked as a domestic. It was a benevolence that began when he was a toddler going to crèche, followed by his schooling at a private school in Himeville and later at Howick Prep and Howick High.

Living between his schools, his university and his home roots in Mpophomeni township, outside Howick, Mnikathi said he learnt to juggle living his life in two worlds.

“It also thrust me into understanding the inequality of having to deal with those different worlds,” he said.

“I had to adapt. It was a different culture. Depending on where you were, you had to behave in a different way.”

His grandmother’s employers joined him in both worlds.

“To their credit they made the effort to understand Mpophomeni. They would sit down and engage with my relatives in their broken English. They had an appreciation of township life.

“My township peers thought: ’Who are these white people coming to the house and what is their relationship?’”

Still, in the whiter world, he often found himself on the receiving end of subtle racism.

He recalls being annoyed at remarks, such as “you speak so well for a black person”.

Then there would be questions like “why do blacks behave like that?”

“My answer would be ‒ err, well I don’t know.”

He said it was always subtle and annoying.

“But, growing up, I didn’t really realise it was racism.”

Both the mayor and the deputy mayor grew politically during their university years.

Cope recruited Pappas while he was studying urban and regional planning at the University of Pretoria. He cut his teeth in a leadership position on campus, getting library hours extended for the benefit of underprivileged students, organising better wi-fi coverage for those who could not afford it and getting buses to run later at night so students did not have to walk through the Tshwane central business district.

“It was then that I realised that if I used political power correctly, I could change people’s lives.”

It was also while at Tuks that he came out as gay.

He said sexuality had never been an issue to him.

“I never sell myself as that person. I am first, Chris.”

Later, while working full-time for the DA in Durban, Pappas would meet his future deputy mayor at UKZN’s Pietermaritzburg campus doing party work.

On that campus, Mnikathi, who was studying politics, grew to understand what was behind student rioting, an activity many of his new peers had experienced at disadvantaged schools.

“The first protest I found myself in, I was a bit worried. I was not sure what was going on,” he recalled.

“Then, after speaking to one or two guys involved I got to understand and appreciate why they were angry.”

Fortunately, Mnikathi was being supported by his grandmother’s former employees.

“I had accommodation. I was not experiencing what they were and I realised that their anger was justified. So, I became more sympathetic.”

A couple of weeks into office this week, Pappas said the new DA-run council was “obviously trying to get to grips with the scale of what we are dealing with”.

“While in opposition, a lot of information was kept from us.”

Mnikathi has, meanwhile, relocated to Nottingham Road, the area he represents on the uMngeni Council, and Pappas ‒ while building a herd of goats on his smallholding near Howick ‒ is attending to the area’s needs.

The Independent on Saturday

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