I meet Councillor Jane Cooper, the Mayor of Wandsworth, at her home in Southfields, or “South Africa-ville” as she calls it. Despite an incredibly demanding schedule (she has already attended more than 200 events as part of her duties since May) the Mayor is very welcoming and introduces me to a dog she is looking after for a council colleague.
She spent the morning entertaining a delegation from China and will be on her way to the Citizen Ceremony, where foreign nationals become citizens of the United Kingdom, in the evening.
“In preparation for this interview,” she tells me, “I looked up the statistics, and 15% of all new British citizens in Wandsworth are South African. 1,479 South Africans have been naturalised here since 2009.”
I ask her what its like to live in an area dominated by South Africans.
“You know, I’ve always loved South Africans. They are always so polite and helpful. I am always helped by South Africans at Southfields tube station if I have a heavy bag.”
The Mayor’s admiration for expats was formally recognised recently when two South Africans living in the borough, who had raised money for cancer research, became some of the first people to receive the ‘Mayor’s Pin.’
“I was invited to attend a fundraiser for breast cancer. The girls were taking part in a race for life, and boys dressed in pink tutus in support. One young man called James even asked me to shave some of his hair off! It was a wonderful event for such an important cause. I was so impressed.”
Cooper introduced the ‘Mayor’s Pin’ which bears the Wandsworth Coat of Arms, at the beginning of her term as Mayor because she wanted to do more to recognise people who give of themselves for others in their community.
“I think it’s important that we celebrate people who help people. I want to encourage more residents to volunteer and get involved in the community.” She cites the many who helped clear up after the London disturbances in August as an example.
“We have a well-established SA community and their contribution to the economic and social vitality of the borough is greatly appreciated. They, like all our residents, have a huge role to play in supporting local businesses and in taking part in all aspects of the community.”
As the guest speaker at the Breakfast Indaba Putney on 13 October, Cooper will discuss how Wandsworth Borough promotes business.
“It is important to get the basics right – efficient refuse and street cleaning services, top quality open spaces and effective crime prevention.”
Wandsworth continues to have the lowest council tax in London and yet still manages to achieve high satisfaction ratings from its residents.
Wandsworth has recently seen an increase in GSCE A and A* results, and a decrease in crime and teenage pregnancies. I am interested to learn how this has been achieved.
“Lots of pupils were getting Cs, which is generally considered acceptable, but then our teachers started working with individual students after assessing their capabilities, and special mentoring pushed Cs into Bs and subsequently As.”
The decrease in crime is attributed to an increase in plain clothes police in the borough and the decrease in teenage pregnancies believed to be due to excellent youth services. In particular, Cooper acknowledges the hard work of the health care workers at St Georges Hospital.
I ask if she has a message for South Africans in Wandsworth.
“Many South Africans are not aware they can vote in the UK, and as members of the Commonwealth, they can. As South Africans in my experience tend to be so civic minded, I want to encourage them to participate in the local and regional elections.”
The Breakfast Indaba is at Carluccio’s Putney on 13 October at 7am Tickets on www.SATICKETS.co.uk