50:50 NI Meets Sipho Sibanda

Have you always been interested in politics?

Yes, but not in the sense of becoming an elected official but just that I was interested in how our daily lives are shaped by politics. I was born in Zimbabwe and I came to Northern Ireland as a political refugee where I then studied history and politics at Belfast Met, and after learning more about the politics of Northern Ireland, I became enticed to get involved. The Access course at Belfast Met also helped me learn more about Northern Ireland because when you just arrive, it can be a confusing place that leaves you with a lot of uncertainty e.g. some people will say, “don’t go there, there are flags” or “don’t go in there, there are flags”, when in fact there are flags everywhere. So I wanted to dig deeper to see what was behind all of it and I gradually just became involved.

What was your first impression of our politics when after learning more about it?

I was genuinely surprised because to me I was arriving in what I would consider a first-world country, and I did not expect a lot of things, especially the divisions. I initially thought the differences were just how people “thought” but then I realized it was much deeper. For instance, small things like the peace gates, I didn’t understand why they existed but then I realized there was more to it. If we take things at face value, we then don’t understand the history behind them, so if we learn more about them, we begin to understand why things are the way they are. I would love to see the peace gates go and for communities to become one but I do understand why they are there.

What has inspired you to run in the upcoming election?

I actually had no plans to stand for election but my comrades at People Before Profit really encouraged me to run. I was involved in the party as a member just as someone interested in politics and I had no intention to run for election, at least not yet, but about 1-2 years ago I was talking to a few friends about representation for people of colour in Northern Ireland and the need to see people like us in decision-making and positions of power. So when it came to this election, someone said to me that “you’ve been talking about this, so now it’s time to walk the talk”. I was like, “yeah somebody should do this” and they persisted with “yeah, that somebody is you”. I realized that they were right in that I needed to step up and take the lead on this, especially when it was put to me that I would still be doing many of the same things I do as an activist. So I like to see myself as an activist, not a politician, so long story short, I ended up being an activist in a political position running for election.

How did you become a candidate?

I was asked to become a candidate but it took me a while to agree but I did. At the moment, I’m throwing all I can into the campaign. It is quite a challenging position to be in and I didn’t realize that running as a candidate would be this challenging but it really is. As much as I’ve still been doing everything that I was doing before the election, it is now somewhat different because when you are a political candidate there are higher expectations of you compared to when you are an activist. For example, you start having to fill out all those petitions, and people expect a lot more out of you, and you need to keep your word. So there is a lot more at stake when you’re a political candidate.

How will your previous positions in your career benefit your role if elected and what issues would you like to work on?

At the moment I am a full-time student in the second year of my social policy degree and if elected, there are many issues I would like to work on and I would use the role of MLA to do what I can for those issues. Prior to being in full-time education though, I worked at Participation and the Practice of Rights (PPR) as an organiser where I worked on matters concerning representation but I also worked with people seeking asylum as well as with people who had issues with their housing. Therefore, I have a very strong interest in housing policy because so many people are battling for accommodation and are put in positions of homelessness so we need to do better. 

Feminist issues are also very important to me, so I was pleased when the Period Poverty Bill went through but the fact that we’re still waiting for abortion services to be implemented is disappointing because women are still having to travel to access abortion healthcare which is wrong. It’s an area that we will continue to fight on and I have been involved in that fight and will continue to do so if elected to help make it a reality. We need to remove religion and personal consciousness from policy-making and implementation because it isn’t right to use these things to impede the rights of other people.

At the moment, everyone is feeling the pinch with the cost of living crisis, and it’s the number one issue I’ve come across when knocking on doors, and it also doesn’t matter what your background is too, I’ve had the same complaints from white-collar and blue-collar households, and these are issues we cannot ignore. There is a lot of money sitting in Stormont but the politicians are acting like it isn’t there, so we need to figure out how to get that money to people so that they don’t have to choose between eating and heating because that’s the reality for many. It’s not nice to hear that an elderly person is sitting in a cold house but it’s one of the many recurring examples I keep hearing when I’m speaking with people when canvassing.

If we had more diversity in representation, how do you think this could contribute to our political spaces?

There is no proper diversity in public and political life in Northern Ireland and ethnic minorities have been sidelined which has been intentional rather than coincidental. There are some who wouldn’t like to see people of colour in positions of power but there are many people in Northern Ireland who would. This is one of the reasons why we started talking about diverse representation because we knew we would have to push for it just as a wise person once said, “you don’t ask for power because it won’t be given, so you fight for it” and this is what it has now come down. We would like to make decisions that affect us as people of colour because when decisions are made on our behalf for us by people who do not look like us and do not share the same experiences as us, it isn’t right. We would like to sit at the table to make decisions and policies that are reflective of our all society. 

Someone asked me recently whether I would just be representing people from ethnic minorities and of course I wouldn’t. I would be representing everyone in my constituency from all racial and ethnic backgrounds, including white people, but at the same time, I will not ignore the fact that I am a black woman so I will speak on issues that affect me as a black woman and for those who are underrepresented. I would like to see more people who look like me run for election and I was excited to see Elly Odhiambo run as a candidate in South Belfast but I was sad to see that he is running as an independent candidate which indicates to me that some of the political parties were not open enough to accommodate him as a candidate. I feel that People Before Profit were actually very brave in putting me forward as a candidate because it does take courage to break biases and I would love to see this happen in other political parties too. The population in Northern Ireland has changed over the last two decades so it would be great to see this reflected in our political spaces. 

What do you think political parties can do to become inclusive spaces for Black, Asian, and other ethnic minorities?

I personally believe that political parties could do more to invite people from ethnic minority backgrounds to join to encourage diversity. At the moment, political parties are just talking about it but there is little action on actually inviting ethnic minorities to join and without action, diversity will remain to be an aspiration. Other than People Before Profit, I’ve only seen SDLP try to do this where they recruited Lilian Seenoi-Barr as a Cllr for Derry City and Strabane and the Alliance Party once had Anna Lo as an MLA and Vasundhara Kamble as a Cllr before she moved to the DUP. Just because we currently don’t see people from ethnic minority backgrounds in politics, it doesn’t mean that we’re not interested in politics. I know a lot of people from my community who would be politically minded but they’re just not getting involved because they’re not being invited to join these spaces. 

Right now, political parties’ engagement with ethnic minority communities sides on the “how can my party help you with this problem” rather than “how can we sort out this problem together”. Political parties can come to support fixing the problem in a meaningful way rather than doing it from a distance and what is required is a shift in that mindset. Politicians talk about Northern Ireland being welcoming to everybody but that needs to be reflected in public and political spaces too. Political parties need to step forward to invite and allow people to come in.

At the same time, people from ethnic minorities need to learn by now that they will not be invited and with that realization take a stand and say, “I’m going to join that party, I’m going to take a and this is how I do things” while taking up space. That being said, how many political parties would be open and allow for that to happen? Political parties need to have a good think about this because there are a lot of people from the BAME communities who have the right to vote that never had it before, so if you think about it, the “newcomer” communities and those aren’t “newcomers” but come from an ethnic minority but were born in Northern Ireland are all voters which politicians seem to forget about. This idea that if you’re not white, you’re not Irish, Northern Irish, or British needs to change. It will be interesting to see census figures and perhaps they will also give political parties a second thought on how they engage and include those from ethnic minorities. 

What has your experience been like since you announced your candidacy?

It’s been good but it was a bit surreal seeing my face on the election posters on the street and it still is. I’ve also been flooded with emails from various groups wanting me to join their campaigns which were also surprising because I haven’t even been elected yet but I guess it’s just in case I am elected and they would want me onside with their work and there’s that element of accountability too. It’s also been interesting as an activist, I’ve known other people from other political parties so it was nice seeing other people from those parties reaching out and wishing me congratulations on my candidacy. I have no animosity towards anybody as I’ve worked with politicians across the political spectrum (except for the DUP). So it was really nice to get that affirmation but it was strange getting comments like “we wish you were with us” because they never invited me. 

It’s also been great to get a warm welcome at people’s doors and hear them say “this is something that is needed and something we have been waiting for” so it’s been lovely getting that affirmation at the doors too. It’s also something different for people, a new face and someone from the black community standing. Like I’m a woman and I’ve got the fact that I am black as an extra factor, so it is something new for them and I think everyone is just waiting in anticipation of what the polls will bring. In my work so far in activism, I have done a lot of work and I have proved in the public domain that there is a lot that I am capable of doing. I just hope that people will be brave enough to put a number by my name on election day.

How do you think your experiences as a black woman will help you in your political career if elected?

As a black woman, I have a thick skin which you need in politics. I also know that many people will expect me to have very little knowledge to go into politics but I know I am knowledgeable in life itself. The experiences that I’ve had, I would like to take them forward along with bringing forward the issues that others have experienced. I know people will try to undermine me, it is something that I am not looking forward to but at the same time, it is something that is not going to scare me. What happened with #BlackLivesMatter two years ago personally shook me because it showed me that people can be with you one minute and turn on you the next. But it also showed me that there are people who will stick with you no matter what and it is those people who I can count on to work with me, direct me, keep my head straight, and keep me right. I will need a lot of people to support me on this long journey as while on this journey, I will make the wrong moves and wrong decisions as I am only human, I can only hope to learn from those mistakes to be a better person and to make decisions that actually work for the benefit of the people. 

What advice would you give to women, and more specifically, women from an ethnic background, who are interested in getting involved in electoral politics?

Firstly, speaking about just women in general, I love to see women getting involved in politics because we’ve been conditioned to shy away from these spaces but it is also important to recognise how the system acts as a barrier for women, especially those with caring responsibilities. If you look at when meetings are scheduled both at Stormont and in councils, you hear about meetings starting at 7 PM. This obviously clashes with the needs of most families. What it shows is that these spaces were not designed for women’s participation and what I would love to see is for women to go in to shake these things up. I honestly believe that if more women governed Northern Ireland, we would live in a dramatically different place for the better. Women have so much power, especially in our ability to work together. I also speak to a lot of young women in my capacity as an Equality Officer at university and I tell them to get into politics. I would often hear, “Nah, I can’t get into that, it isn’t a nice space to be in” but the thing is, we can get into it and change it to how we want it to be. 

For women of colour, if we want to see the change and if we want our children protected, we need to get involved. As a black woman, I have a teenage son and when he walks out the door, I have fear because as much as I want him to live his life in Northern Ireland because it is his home, I am scared. There are so many examples in the past but if you look at the recent case of Noah Donohoe, people just want it to blow away without any proper answers. When I see Fiona and what happened to her, I just think to myself, “that could have been my child”. If you also look at the stop and search figures for children from ethnic minority backgrounds, it is skyrocketing and nobody is talking about that. When you look at the cases of abuse towards children from ethnic minorities, it is not spoken about in the media even when it comes to the PSNI dealing with those cases. As women from these communities, we need to speak out and get involved where our voices will be heard. 

If you are interested in getting into politics or are even just curious about how it all work get in touch with 50:50 NI at info@5050ni.com 

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