The Presidential Candidate Interview: Njabby Mendlula by Charlotte West

Yesterday I interviewed Njabby Mendlula, the final presidential candidate in our interview series for Surrey Decides 2019.

Njabby greeted me with a hug when we met, and kindly asked the students still using our group study room that I booked in the library to leave. It was inspiring to chat with someone so enlightened by his new knowledge of the Union's inner workings, as we discussed his manifesto, the issues surrounding Question Time and his experience with campaigning so far.

Why have you decided to run for president?

It primarily stems from the trust people have in me. I was contemplating running for president at some point while at university - I just didn't think that it would happen as soon as it did. I have a friend, who is currently a zone member, and I've been helping her out with her different activities throughout the year and she's slowly got me engaged with the Union.

I think what really tipped over the glass was that I got several emails from different people within the Union requesting that I do either VP Activity or president. I think that probably stemmed from an event I helped one of my friends with, which was one of the Let's Talk events. I gave an improv[ised] speech because the last guest speaker who was meant to talk about sexual health didn't end up showing up. So my friend asked for a favour, and that favour was: "Hey, can you give a speech about sex?" I was like, "Wait- wait- you're making me talk about sex in front of 50-odd people?" But me, being as dumb as I am, told myself - you know what? This could be an interesting challenge, so I told her I'd do it. There were several other Union members there, and a lot of people who asked to run for president actually referenced that event, as they saw me speaking openly in front of people about - I don't want to say a 'taboo topic', but something that's not easy to talk about.

That is essentially why I decided to run, because people have a lot of faith in me, and I guess I want to put that to the test. I want to see if maybe they are right, and to see if I do actually have what it takes to be president.

A key part of your manifesto is the Liberation Committee - can you talk to me a little bit more about that?

Based upon some of the discussions I've had with either current reps or the previous reps of the liberation committee, as well as a few conversations with Alex [our current president], a key thing that keeps popping up is that they are under-publicised. They have representatives for the different minority groups, from the disability to the LGBT to the ethnic minorities, and quite frankly, until I started talking to them and investigating about the liberation committee, I didn't know who they were. The first thing for me is to try and make the liberation committee more democratic. I want people to know that there are elections happening for people to represent minority groups, because you might belong to one of them. Another thing that came up [in these discussions] is that the liberation committee often have a voice, so they can speak in meetings, but they don't have any voting power. Considering that they do represent a substantial amount of the student population, they should have some kind of voting power or bargaining power.

I think those are some fairly simple objectives to achieve, in regards to really trying to make it as authentic as Surrey Decides - a whole election process where people have to campaign to work for these positions, so minorities know that: "This is the liberation committee, and this is our rep, because we voted them in". Whereas now, I feel like if you don't even know who has been voted in - was it really democratic? Is it really representative of the people you're trying to represent? That's why I want to bring the liberation committee into the forefront of student discussion.

What kind of improvements do you think you could make upon the things that are already in place within the Union?

It sounds very silly, but my main focus would be communication. Having been a student who only started getting involved in the Union during my second year, and even then, my involvement was through a third party: someone who was already in the Union and made me come with them to different events... I am like the average student in that we don't really know what happens within the Union or what goes on. Having learned so much in the last couple of weeks, it's made me realise all the students who really don't have - I don't want to say access to information, but an awareness of that information. I want to improve the awareness of that information: improving communication channels, letting people know the Union is doing stuff within campus, and also letting them know what is available for them. I really want to hammer that point home: increase communication, and increase awareness of the union and what it does.

Bringing it back to the campaign itself, how do you feel about running against the other presidential candidates?

I'm not going to lie; it is a huge source of anxiety for me. It is so dreadful! Every day I wake up and I am shaking so much...!

The competition is very good. Unlike me, who only started getting involved with the Union this year, I can say that those two have a technical knowledge that I don't. So having to answer questions about something you only just started learning about is very daunting, as opposed to people who know it in and out. I'm very nervous about Question Time and the kind of questions that I'll have to answer. I know I won't be able to give an answer to the same standard as them - that is probably my biggest insecurity and source of anxiety.

But the Union is run for students, by students, and I feel like a lot of the time students feel like the Union is a different entity. They're full-time staff members, so you often don't get to relate to them that much. I find that if it's something that your average student should be able to run for, it should be accessible for everyone. Even if someone doesn't know that much about the Union, it should be implied when you run for it that it's okay not to know, because you will learn about it once you're in office. That's why I feel kind of iffy about the campaigning process; any person should feel able to campaign and think that they can make a difference. We all have ideas that we want to bring in, and I don't feel like you should be excluded because you haven't been in the Union before.

How do you think that could be changed?

I think that with many problems, there can be multiple solutions. I believe that in order to mitigate that, we should have different processes in place. I think a debate where people know the topics to discuss and can have an open discussion about them, or even research some of those things beforehand - that could be an idea. It's not really about how well you answer questions and how do you attract the most people - it's more about what ideas can you bring, and how do you articulate those ideas, how do you handle being in a debate environment, which reflects more of a meeting setting.

I do think Question Time is important, as it does allow you to pin down some fundamental things, but having that being the only method of assessing candidates can be quite daunting. I definitely enjoyed the radio interview because you have that one-on-one feeling. It's a discussion and you can expand upon your ideas as much as you want without having the pressure of being analysed or scrutinised for every single word you're saying. I haven't said anything yet, and I'm already thinking of the repercussions for the words I haven't said, so it's just like... oh my gosh! That's kind of my issue with it, but as a whole it's good - it's necessary.

Do you think, if elected president, you would look into Surrey Decides?

It would be something I'd look into; the issue would be when in my presidency would I look at it, and how important is it. If the system still currently works, do I need to change it now? It also depends on what other people think - this is just my idea, I haven't talked about it with other people, so I don't want to just sit here and go: "I think we should change Surrey Decides to make it more accommodating for people!" without actually knowing what other people think. I feel like for now this works, so I wouldn't be too inclined to change it.

This is your first time campaigning, how have you found the experience so far?

Honestly I feel like I'm burning out, but at the same time I'm enjoying the thrill of it. It's definitely made me engage and talk to more students. I think being able to open students' eyes to what is available, while trying to campaign, has been a very humbling experience. I only just learned about this, and I'm already helping someone realise that there is something else available for them.

You have no guarantee that what you're doing is actually working though. I have had some people saying they would vote for me, but that was at the beginning of last week - it's now been a full week... do they still remember me? It happens where you get a flyer and say: "Yeah, yeah, I'll vote for you", and then just throw it into the next bin. I'm not going to chase them and say, "Hey - I printed that! I cut down a tree for you!" It's one of those things that's really hard to know how you're doing, and that's also a source of anxiety.

Overall, I've definitely enjoyed it - despite the sleep deprivation, but I'm working with that. One of the other motivations I had for running... I called my mum. Before I make any major decision I always run it through my manager - my mum is my manager. I called my mum and she was like, "That could be a really good thing for you, you should try." "Yes, but I'm nervous." "Don't worry about being nervous, you'll enjoy the experience. Even if you fail you would have learned something." I think that's pretty much how I'm going about it. I'm enjoying the process, and the results will be determined by the people. There's not much I can do about that, apart from try my hardest.

Read our interviews with the other presidential candidates; for Gemma Paine, click here, and for Nick Werren, click here.

This interview has been edited and abridged.


Created with an image by a_roesler - "yellow warning bulb"

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