By Aliraza Manji
Gair Rhydd spoke to Lord Mayor Daniel De’Ath, the 115th and first Black Mayor of Cardiff. Mayor De’Ath was elected in 2019 and has served as a Labour councillor for Plasnewydd since 2012. Preceding his time as Lord Mayor of Cardiff, he served as the Cabinet Member for Early Years, Children and Families and later Cabinet Member for Safety, Engagement and Democracy.
The Mayor has chosen two charities which he has personally worked with during his time as a social worker to patron as the Lord Mayor’s charities. He has chosen Welsh Women’s Aid, which has worked for over 40 years to end domestic violence against women and worked on long-lasting policy change for women in Wales. The other charity he has chosen to patron is BAWSO, an organisation established in 1995 which has worked to provide temporary accommodation for those who are affected or at risk of human trafficking, forced marriage, or domestic violence.
Can you tell us a bit about yourself before you became Lord Mayor?
Well I’m not Welsh, I grew up in the West Midlands, Warwickshire. I moved to Wales about 15 years ago to work as a researcher in the Welsh Assembly. I really fell in love with the city, it is a really great place to be, to live, and a great place to be young.
When I first visited Cardiff, I came to visit a friend. It was a glorious summer, blossom on the trees people sitting outside on St. Mary’s street, really captivating lifestyle.
I was elected to Cardiff council in 2012. I was working at the National Museum, I am someone who has been interested in politics most of my adult life; my family is very political so, you know it is was a culmination of years of ambition. I have held various positions in the Council. I was Deputy Mayor a couple of years ago, I thought I would chance my hand at being Mayor. Part of my pitch was being the first non-white person to be mayor, the youngest person to be mayor, so not only do I look and appear different, I do it in a slightly different way, which so far, touchwood, seems to be going okay.
It says online that you used to be in a band when you were younger. Do you care to tell us more about that?
I’m nearly 40, I grew up during the Britpop boom, so very much indie music, and down the road from where I lived, in a town called Nuneaton, was an army barracks called Bramcote Barracks. A guy called Major Peter Doherty had just come back from being stationed in Germany and his son started attending our school and I hit it off with this guy who was also very deeply into music. We lived about a mile apart and I could cycle from my parent’s house, down a country lane to this army barracks. Pete Doherty obviously went onto be very famous. So, that was a very big part of my formative years.
You mentioned that you are from Warwickshire. What do you love most about Cardiff, and why did you make it home for your family and yourself?
I grew up in a deindustrialised mining town called Bedworth and we moved to a neighbouring town of Nuneaton when I was about 14. It was not a very diverse area of the country, there was not much going on. If you wanted to see a major artist play a gig you would have to go to Coventry or Birmingham.
What I enjoy about living in a big city is the buzz, there is stuff going on. Just by looking on Facebook there is event after event, a real atmosphere. I like that about Cardiff coupled with it being a very liveable city. You can navigate your way around it, it’s not huge and atomised and dirty and anonymous like London, for example. Those two things combine into a quite a nice place to be, and obviously now I have kids myself. So, it is a really nice place to have young children.
You’ve been a Labour Councillor since 2012, up until recently. What is it about being a councillor that you enjoy so much?
I enjoy all of it. There are no bits of it that I don’t enjoy, and I know it may sound quite trite. I do genuinely enjoy helping people as you sometimes encounter people who have gone through the ringo, been stuck in the system and have been bumping their head into the bloody wall over sometimes quite trifling issues, sometimes serious stuff involving social stuff or possible homelessness. To be able interfere in that situation positively is a tremendous thing, a tremendous feeling, and in some cases, it can alter the trajectory of someone’s life.
How would you like to see the role of Mayor change?
I am the 115th Lord Mayor and I think, a lot of my predecessors have done it differently, and I have deviated from the traditional model of how it is done. I am a big fan of the role of Mayor, I just think we should reach more people with it, huge masses of the city’s populous.
For me, it is going out in is communities where the Mayor has not previously penetrated as deeply, such as Grangetown and Butetown; going to events the Mayor has not traditionally gone to and when you go there, being accessible. We meet primary school kids and with the Mayor it is quite formal and serious, but if you are up for a selfie people find it more enjoyable. This is who the role of Mayor is here for as opposed to us councillors.
As Lord Mayor, you’ve patroned Welsh Women’s Aid and BAWSO. What is about these charities particularly that made you want to support them?
Before I became Mayor, I was retraining to be a social worker and one of my placements was in a one stop shop in the Valleys working with men and women, mainly women, who are victims of domestic violence. I was one of the only men who had done that job and it was an influence on me. I have always been a strong feminist, previously when I was in Cardiff Council’s Cabinet I had our domestic violence services in my portfolio. Being there on the ground, I really saw the tremendous work a small group of people did. As public services are stretched in the current climate, it seemed the obvious choice.
BAWSO is one of Cardiff’s oldest BAME-led charities. I actually volunteered with BAWSO to get on the Social Work course at the Open University as you had to have a certain amount of hours. So, I volunteered with BAWSO, at one of their centres for victims of human trafficking which was a very impactful expertise as you were meeting people who have suffered years and years of abuse and forced servitude. These are super vulnerable people, they had gone from crisis to crisis; you were shocked another human being could treat another human being that way. They leapt out at me as the obvious and very worthy choices.
How do you feel Cardiff has changed since you became a councillor?
Cardiff is the fastest growing city outside of London. There is always growth and building work going on. How we manage that growth is one of the main challenges for the Local Authority. There are positives about that and negatives as well; the details are hot political issues.
What has been your greatest political achievement to date?
Getting to be Mayor. I feel very fortunate, very humble. I know it’s overused but it is how I genuinely feel; it is a big privilege to be the first black person to do it. I feel a responsibility o use the role to be an advocate for other non-white people. I have been to schools, the OECD had a report published this week and a lot of children’s views on what jobs, on what they can achieve in life, is formed by the age of seven. A lightbulb moment for those kids would be someone going in, as people are influenced by their friends and their family, someone going into a school from a profession that is not in their kind of orbit as a lot of people are unfamiliar with what jobs are out there. I certainly was when I was growing up.
Being a non-white person in this kind of job, you are mixing with the upper echelons of society. I did an interview and I happened to mention that I have turned up to events and people have shaken hands with the white driver as they presumed he was the Mayor. He is a middle-aged man with a nice grey suit. It is important we show a light on unconscious bias as that sort of experience is something all non-white people have experienced.
In light of Black History Month, you recently opened up about the treatment you have received due to the colour of your skin. Would you care to expand upon this?
Something I need to stress though, in a lot of cases it is not because people are nasty or racist, people do it because it is unconscious bias, to internalise these things in society and in culture. Part of the reason people expect the Mayor to be a middle-aged white man is because most Mayor’s are middle-aged white men.
How would I react if it happens? If I say you f****** racist, it’s not an appropriate response from the Mayor, first of all, but secondly, if you want people to reflect on their behaviour you need them to be on board with you. When I was doing my degree, one of my lecturers would say “social work is all about reflection and self-analysis about how things have affected you”. His grandfather was a member of the British League of Fascists and his father was a racist, in a 1940s way. Through his training he realised he had racist views, he was able to deconstruct it, and that honesty and self-reflection was amazing. Each of us on a level can do it, not just a white person, we need a different language around race and diversity.
The way it is spoken about in Britain is quite insipid. I do not think we have the tools to articulate our thoughts and feelings and what we mean. It is a disservice to non-white people and I think it a big frustration to people who have discomfort around demographic change as they cannot articulate how they feel. It erupts in Brexit. We need a new discourse around race.
How do you find you are personally treated in Cardiff?
I want to stress that most people treat me fine. I do not want to give an impression that we live in a racist hell, but it is just on occasion, there are only a tiny minority of people who are racist. On the whole, people do not do it because they are bad people. I think Cardiff is a great, tolerant, and successful multicultural city; I do not want to give the impression otherwise.
Dawn Butler,black Labour MP, on the back of reading about me online, said on her first day in Parliament that a security guard said, “the lift is not for cleaners’ love”, as he presumed, and the reason he assumed is that, like Cardiff Council, most of the cleaners are black women and most of the politicians are white.
Ultimately, events show that there is still open racism in European society today, as showcased during the Bulgaria-England football match. Do you feel that racism is still prevalent in Britain today?
Absolutely, yes. Growing up in the 1980s in the West Midlands, it would not be uncommon for non-white people to experience racism. It’s still as prevalent today, it’s just not as explicit and overt as it was. I think hate crime has doubled in the last few years and the clock is sadly turning back to a degree.
It really depends on how we define racism. For some people, its someone with a face tattoo smashing up a shop and calling someone a c**n or whatnot. Racism takes lots and lots of different forms. It can be subtle and slight, without intellectually realising what they are doing. People on the liberal left can have racialised views. So, I do think it is a very real problem. I do not think Britain is as tolerant as people like to think. I think people do not want to think of Britain as very racist country as it makes them uncomfortable; it’s not properly acknowledged.
Following your time as Lord Mayor, would you like to enter the Welsh Assembly or Westminster, continue working as a councillor or do you have other future ambitions?
I would like to carry on as a Councillor. I get asked this very often actually as a Councillor, do you have further ambitions? My grandfather was a County Councillor. I have wanted to enter
local government for a number of years. I think local government does a lot of important work, especially in Cardiff, a capital city. I have no aspirations to go up, down or sideways, but would love to carry on as a Councillor as long as the people of Plasnewydd will have me.
And finally, what do you get up to in your spare them when you’re not performing your duty as Lord Mayor? Well at the moment, being Mayor has taken up much of my time and we have four kids, so it takes up a lot of my time. I try to bring them along to family-friendly events so they can share the experience. Being Mayor is once in a lifetime event so you want to pack as much into it as you can before you get back to civilian life.