What does it mean to be a Ward Councillor at Newcastle Municipality? Is it a career which allows an individual the opportunity to rub shoulders with the upper echelons of the South African political world?
Or does it give individuals the opportunity to selflessly contribute to their respective communities?
As the longest-serving Ward Councillor in Newcastle, Matthew Shunmugam sees his career as an opening to make a positive, lasting impact on those around him.
A well-known figure within Newcastle, not many realise that Shunmugam hails from humble beginnings.
Born in the sugar cane plantations of EJ Smith, Umzinto in 1960. His great grandparents forming part of the indentured labour who arrived in KwaZulu-Natal to work the plantations. With his grandfather and father following the same path.
Growing up in an environment where sugar barons treated their labourers with disdain and harsh conditions, Shunmugam’s formative years where far from the plush lifestyle that others enjoyed.
From Grade 1 to Grade 5, he attended St Anne’s Primary School and walked 10km to school every day. From Grade 6 to Grade 8, Shunmugam then attended Umzinto Primary School, before moving onto Umzinto High School. Always walking, irrespective of the distance, seasons or weather conditions.
Following completing his school years, Shunmugam knew he wanted to leave a positive mark on the world around him and entered Springfield College of Education to pursue a career in teaching.
Graduating in 1981, his first teaching post saw him take up a position at Suryaville Primary School in 1982, which was a newly established school in Newcastle at that time.
From there, he was promoted to the principal of Washbank Primary School. However, in 2000, he resigned to pursue a full-time career in politics in Newcastle. By which time, he had already gained a vast amount of experience and knowledge.
“In 1996, I participated in the local government elections as a Ward Councillor and won by a landslide victory, he smiles.
From there, his passion for politics grew astronomically. So much so, that he clinched the win as Ward 3 Councillor in 1996, 2000, 2006, 2011, 2016 and is still impressively, the Ward Councillor to this very day.
It was in 2000 when he resigned from teaching, that his political career truly geared up and saw him taking on more responsibility.
“I took up the fulltime position at the Newcastle Local Council, as the Speaker of the Council. Prior to 2000, the job did not exist, and I am proud of the fact that I was the first Speaker.”
He served as Speaker of the Council for two terms, both in 2000 and 2006. However, being Ward Councillor and a previous Speaker of the Council are not the only titles he has held throughout the years.
In 2011 and 2016, he was elected to serve on the Executive Committee of the Newcastle Local Council as the Portfolio Councillor for Development Planning and Human Settlement. A position which he still holds.
How has Shunmugam found his journey within the local government?
“It has been a tremendous learning curve and a lot of councillors of today, do not understand what it was like after the first democratic elections. I remember having to work with an individual who was a staunch AWB member and wasn’t keen on the changes. It really made things interesting,” Shunmugam smiles.
He reminisces further of council meetings ending with police officers needing to fire rubber bullets outside the council chambers to calm matters down, and another incident where a municipal manager stalled a council meeting from 2 pm until midnight.
As a former teacher, Shunmugam says he is fortunate in that he can apply the values and principles which educators hold dear, to his work environment.
“Coming from a teaching background has helped a lot in governance, in that I am aware of how to deal with funds, dealing and talking to people, as well as dealing with administration work. Being a teacher also involves understanding people and being a people’s person.”
Furthermore, as history was one of the subjects he taught, Shunmugam explains that the more one learns about history, the more one realises how you need to adapt to your environment and dealing with people from all walks of life.
“History helps shape your future beliefs and allows you to become a critical thinker, seeing life differently and not accepting everything you read as the gospel truth.”
Powered by his passion for teaching and history, Shunmugam saw the importance of being the change he wanted to see within the community.
Throughout his illustrious career, Shunmugam has also contributed to the local sporting community. Being the co-founder of Breakwaters Angling Club, establishing Santos Football Club and the local Volleyball Association.
In both volleyball and soccer, he coached youngsters and adults alike and took them to a provincial level. His passion for the community never wavering.
But why does he possess so much passion for his career?
“I understand my role as a politician and as a taskmaster, I expect nothing but the best for ratepayers in town. I am also a free spirit, who is also willing to help those from different Wards.”
As a business owner, Shunmugam is also able to see what is required for the community at ground level.
Because of this, he is able to assist community members at times in his private capacity as well as aiding them through his business, when he is unable to assist through local government.
“I also always never make promises and I am always truthful, even though what I say does not always sound nice, I don’t believe in stringing people along.”
With a deep-seated passion for Newcastle, Ward Councillor Matthew Shunmugam is a true Newcastillian and a pillar of strength in our society.