Dreams postponed

Desmond Tutu says South Africa has lost its moral direction, and the bitter contest for the ANC lead

The African National Congress, the continent's oldest liberation movement, faces its moment of truth. South Africa's millions of poor blacks have gained little from the economic boom that has produced 5 per cent annual growth rates for the past two years. Apart from voting every five years, the country's celebrated turn to democracy in 1994 has not brought them much.

On 16 December 4,000 ANC members will assemble for the party's five-yearly national conference in the small northern town of Polokwane. The election for party leader is likely to be a face-off between two old liberation warhorses: the state and ANC president, Thabo Mbeki, and Jacob Zuma, the ANC deputy president. Zuma was cleared last year of charges of rape, although he admitted having unprotected sex with an HIV-positive woman who told the court she had looked up to him as a surrogate father. He still faces allegations of fraud and corruption over an arms sales scandal. Yet, in spite of this, Zuma is the clear favourite to become head of the ANC. His victory would pile pressure on Mbeki to stand down as state president, leaving South African politics in some disarray.

The most dispiriting aspect of the election is that younger and more innovative candidates have been discouraged from standing. The gathering takes place as the majority black population demands change in the party. After years of drift, South African society is in desperate need of renewal, fresh leadership and new ideas. Trust in government and democratic institutions has collapsed. Opinion polls show many people believe parliament has become a rubber stamp; voters cannot hold representatives responsible because of the party list system, in which MPs are accountable to party leaders rather than constituencies. Under public pressure, Mbeki appointed a commission in 2002 to investigate whether South Africa needed a new electoral system, but its report has been gathering dust in the president's office since it was delivered in 2004.

The ANC's moral authority is brittle. Senior figures who behave badly - and who are close to the party leadership - are either not sanctioned, or get away with a slap on the wrist. A deputy minister, Malusi Gigaba, used a government credit card to pay for flowers to his wife and trips for associates. His boss, the home affairs minister, Nosiviwe Mapisa-Nqakula, merely said that the parliamentary rulebook did not lay out the "dos and don'ts" clearly enough.

But the law appears to move very quickly against those who have fallen foul of the ANC elite, such as Vusi Pikoli, director of the National Prosecuting Authority, who was suspended this September after seeking a warrant to arrest Police Commissioner Jackie Selebi over alleged links to criminal syndicates. Mbeki said that he and the minister of justice and constitutional affairs should have been consulted first.

Diminished debate

The Anglican archbishop emeritus Desmond Tutu describes South Africa as having lost its moral direction. He points to the high incidence of violence against women and children, breakdown of family structures, desecration of the environment, rising ethnic and racial division, increased inequality and a declining sense of social justice. "We imagined that because we had this noble cause, the vast majority of people were idealistic. We thought we were going to transfer it automatically to the time when we were free. It's not happened," Tutu said last year.

Few ideas have come from the heart of power about how to reverse the slide. Often the focus has been more on wrangling over statistics: how many are really poor or have died of HIV/Aids. Some in the ANC leadership still express doubt about whether the pandemic exists. The small coterie running the party has close ties dating from the years in exile under apartheid. Such is the fear of antagonising Mbeki, and such is the atmosphere of fawning, that policies are often poorly drafted and not properly scrutinised.

Under Mbeki's watch, the rights to dissent and debate have diminished considerably. Loyal friends of the president are protected, such as the health minister, Manto Tshabalala-Msimang, even though she has overseen the near-collapse of the public health system and has been in a state of denial over HIV/Aids. Those speaking out can expect to be quickly silenced. A few months ago, Tshabalala-Msimang's former deputy Nozizwe Madlala-Routledge was fired for saying that the number of preventable infant deaths in public hospitals was a disgrace.

If white, internal critics are often labelled as racists; if black, they are derided as "sell-outs" or "native assistants" of whites and foreign powers. Astonishingly, the ANC leadership is now proposing to debate whether to introduce a tribunal to regulate the media at the forthcoming conference. "We are concerned about legislation that will have a massive impact on media freedom," says Jovial Rantao, chairman of the South African editors' forum, citing the Film and Publications Bill, the National Key Points Act and other legislation restricting the use of terms relating to the 2010 Fifa World Cup.

The ANC is also considering a proposal to put control of individual courts in executive hands, contrary to the constitution's clear stipulation on separation of powers. The veteran human rights lawyer George Bizos said the proposed constitutional amendments were "a threat to the independence of the courts and could be the first step towards an epic battle between the legislature and the judiciary". Although not perfect, the judiciary - especially at the highest level, the Constitutional Court - has done more than any other institution to set ethical standards for public life.

Paradoxically, it was only when the most unlikely and least credible of critics spoke out that attention started to be paid to the failings of the ANC. Zuma was fired as South Africa's deputy president in 2005 following allegations of sleaze. With his back to the wall, he attacked Mbeki and the ANC's record in government - although he has been careful not to mention the president by name. After Zuma's comments, to dismiss criticism as coming from bitter whites or the left-wing fringe no longer sounded so convincing.

Now it has gone a stage further. Mbeki's penchant for suspending internal democracy within the ANC to push through unpopular policies, marginalise critics and shout down alternative views has led to an unprecedented rebellion by grass-roots members. There has been a wave of spontaneous community protests, against corrupt local representatives, poor services and rude public servants. Zuma has skilfully exploited discontent with Mbeki to portray himself as a humble, pro-poor alternative, inclusive and caring and less sensitive to criticism.

Mbeki, meanwhile, is clinging on. He tells public rallies - and anyone else who wishes to hear - that he has brought macroeconomic stability and made South Africa a diplomatic force in the world. Yet at home he has failed to address a rising tide of poverty and unemployment.

New leaders for a new era

Even if Mbeki does cling on to the party leadership, he would, with elections due for the South African presidency in 2009, become a lame duck, as under the constitution he is not allowed to stand for a third time. A good leader knows when to go: ask Nelson Mandela, who left at the zenith of his power after one term. Sadly, this is often the moment when new democracies stall. Leaders overstay their welcome; new blood, new thinking are not introduced.

Although several figures have tried to persuade Mbeki and Zuma to step aside for younger talent, powerful vested interests on both sides want to confine the race to these two. Efforts to suggest a compromise candidate are hamstrung because nobody can agree on who it should be. Cyril Ramaphosa, possibly the leading compromise candidate (and who was Mandela's choice to succeed him), says he might step up, but only if the other two stand down first. Another potential candidate, the former premier of Gauteng Province and business tycoon Tokyo Sexwale, has also been discouraged from campaigning.

Mbeki could yet decide to stand down while pushing one of his preferred candidates to challenge Zuma. His chosen successor would be either the deputy president, Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka, the foreign minister, Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma, or the party's strategist Joel Netshitenzhe. As for Zuma: one of his motives for standing is his attempt to give himself immunity from prosecution. Any hopes that Mbeki could have persuaded the courts to lay off him disappeared as the two exchanged insults.

What South Africa now needs is leaders for a new era. The left of the ANC, including the trade union organisation Cosatu and the Communist Party (SACP), have backed Zuma. Their support helped him win 2,236 branch votes against Mbeki's 1,394 in the first round of the ANC election on 26 November. This support is puzzling, because Zuma has never been a man of the left. In fact, his appalling views on HIV/Aids (he says showering after unprotected sex can prevent infection) and on women (he said he could see by the way a woman crossed her legs that she was looking for sex) go against what both the SACP and Cosatu are supposed to stand for.

Although Zuma tells business leaders that he will continue with Mbeki's centrist economic policies, he has pro mised the left that he will steer South Africa on to a bold new redistributive path, without giving further details. For most of the post-apartheid era the left provided moral leadership within the ANC, from protesting against HIV/Aids denial and Mbeki's delusional diplomacy with Zimbabwe, to calling for a basic income for the poorest. By backing Zuma, Cosatu puts the movement that helped protect civil liberties and fight for the shrinking space for debate within the ANC at risk. Both the SACP and Cosatu have pledged to ballot their members about a formal break with the ANC if Zuma fails to be elected.

This is turning out to be the most bitter leadership campaign since the ANC's founding in 1912. The use of smear campaigns, dirty tricks and state agencies to undermine rivals has become routine. When the party was in exile, leadership elections were often fixed in secret because the ANC feared competitive contests would cause divisions during the fight against the apartheid government. That might have suited a close-knit liberation movement, but it has no place in a constitutional democracy.

Whatever the outcome - business-as-usual Mbeki or the more controversial Zuma - South Africa is hardly going to collapse. An opportunity to rejuvenate the country's democracy and breathe new life into its faltering nation-building project will have been missed, however. To paraphrase one of Mbeki's favourite poems by W B Yeats, the new leader will have to "tread softly" on the dreams of the poor. They have invested so much in the ANC, but their dreams seem about to be postponed once again.

The updated edition of William Gumede's "Thabo Mbeki and the Battle for the Soul of the ANC" (Zed Books, £16.99) is out now


47m Total population

322,000 Number of blacks deemed to be “core” middle class

47 years Life expectancy for men

11 Number of official languages

$13,300 GDP per head

24% Population which is unemployed

11% Population living below

$1 a day

12% Population which is HIV-positive

This article first appeared in the 10 December 2007 issue of the New Statesman, How New Labour turned toxic

Martin O’Neil for New Statesman
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Why the British addiction to period drama is driving away our best black and Asian actors

There is a diversity crisis in British TV and film as, increasingly, stars are decamping to America to make their career there.

Back in April, a six-part drama called Undercover premiered on BBC1. Perhaps you were one of the five million people who watched it: the story was audacious and continent-hopping, enfolding a narrative about a man on death row in the United States with an all-too-believable tale of a Metropolitan Police officer who marries a woman he is meant to be keeping under surveillance.

The reason the programme attracted so much attention, however, was not what it was about, but whom. Starring Sophie Okonedo and Adrian Lester, Undercover was widely reported as the first mainstream British television drama with black actors in the lead roles. This wasn’t true: as James Cooray Smith wrote on the New Statesman website, that milestone was passed in June 1956 by Mrs Patterson, a BBC adaptation of a Broadway play starring Eartha Kitt.

Yet Undercover was still a breakthrough. Smith, casting his mind back over more than six decades of British television, could not think of more than a handful of other examples. Writing in the Observer, Chitra Ramaswamy expressed her feelings with quiet devastation: “In 2016, it is an outrage that it’s a big deal to see a successful, affluent, complicated black family sit at a ­dinner table eating pasta.” Think about that. In 2016 in Britain, a country where more than nine million people describe themselves as non-white, it is news that a black, middle-class family should not only feature in a prime-time BBC drama but be at its heart. Undercover exposed how white most British television is.

Actors of colour have appeared on British film and TV screens for decades, and they have been visible on British stages for centuries – yet they have been shunted into the margins with depressing regularity. In January the actor Idris Elba urged British MPs to take the matter seriously. “Although there’s a lot of reality TV,” he argued, “TV hasn’t caught up with reality.”

In February, there was renewed uproar over the lack of racial diversity in Hollywood at the 88th Academy Awards, and the infuriated hashtag #OscarsSoWhite blossomed again on social media. A month later, Lenny Henry argued that black and minority ethnic (BAME) talent was being “ghettoised”. The term could hardly be more charged. Speaking at the London premiere of Mira Nair’s film Queen of Katwe, the actor David Oyelowo said: “What we need now is for a change to come. I think the talk is done.”

There has been some change. In March, the Royal Shakespeare Company opened a production of Hamlet starring Paapa Essiedu, an actor of Ghanaian heritage raised in London. It was the first time that a black performer had taken the role for the company. A new set of BBC diversity targets both on- and off-screen was unveiled in April. Noma Dumezweni is playing Hermione in Harry Potter and the Cursed Child in the West End, and in October the BFI launched Black Star, a nationwide season celebrating black talent in film and TV. But what does the picture really look like, in late 2016? And what, if anything, needs to change?

The first challenge is that many in the film and TV industry find it difficult to talk about the subject. Researching this article, I lost count of the number of people who demurred to go on the record, or of actors who seemed eager to speak but were then dissuaded. Fatigue might be partly to blame – it’s exhausting to be asked repeatedly about diversity because you didn’t go to Harrow and your skin isn’t white – but I got the sense that there’s more going on.

One man who passionately believes this is the screenwriter Trix Worrell, the creator of the pioneering Channel 4 sitcom Desmond’s, which brought an African-Caribbean barbershop in south-east ­London to Middle England’s living rooms in the late 1980s and early 1990s.

“TV is very difficult to break into. There’s a protectionism there,” he says with a shrug, when we meet for coffee on the seafront in Hastings, where he now lives. “People are nervous about rocking the boat.”

Though cheerful about most of the things we discuss, Worrell admits to feeling a roiling anger when it comes to this particular matter. Does he think that diversity has improved since he was pitching Desmond’s, three decades ago? “No. I say that with absolute certainty and surety.”

It is hard to underestimate the influence that Desmond’s had. The series ran for 71 episodes and at its peak it had five million viewers, remarkable for a sitcom. Starring the veteran actor Norman Beaton alongside a largely British-Guyanese cast, it made that community visible in a way that has not been rivalled in Britain in the 22 years since it came off air. It did so with the deftest of touches, addressing problems of interracial relationships and tensions within the black community through warm comedy.

“Up to that point, black people were ­never seen on TV,” Worrell recalls. “The only time we appeared in any media was in the red tops – muggings, vice. The idea was to show a black family who were just like any other.” Yet it seems that, apart from the spin-off comedy series Porkpie, occasioned by Beaton’s sudden death in 1994, Channel 4 has regarded the idea of portraying a normal black family in a sitcom as too great a gamble in the years since, despite an increase in the number of non-white roles in its other drama output.

Worrell smiles, but it is clear that the ­matter isn’t a joke. “The thing that’s said among black people is that there’ll only be one black sitcom every ten years.”


When I phone Paapa Essiedu while he’s on a lunch break from Hamlet, I am prepared to get a more positive perspective. Just 26, Essiedu has had a spectacular and seemingly unimpeded rise. A graduate of the prestigious Guildhall School of Music and Drama in London, he joined the RSC in 2012 and then hopped to the National Theatre in Sam Mendes’s King Lear, before returning to Stratford. The Telegraph greeted his debut as Hamlet with the notice that every actor dreams of: “A new star is born”.

But Essiedu seems ready to implode with frustration. “It’s ridiculous,” he says. “This stuff has been here for decades and decades: we’re lying to ourselves if we think there’s been a lack of awareness until now. Lots of people are talking and talking, but we need action.” Has he experienced racism directly? “Put it this way: quite often, I’ve been in a room where everyone else is white.”

A major issue, he says, is the apparently unshakeable addiction of British TV and film to corsets-and-cleavage period drama, which has left many BAME actors locked out of the audition room. The BBC is in the middle of a run of literary spin-offs, from War and Peace to The Moonstone. Over on ITV, we have had Victoria and the invincible Downton Abbey.

It still feels as though much of British drama is stuck in an airbrushed version of the country’s past. Though partly set in contemporary Egypt, BBC1’s adaptation of The Night Manager by John le Carré had only a handful of non-white actors in significant roles. Allowing for exceptions such as the BBC’s version of Andrea Levy’s Windrush-era novel Small Island, broadcast in 2009, you could be forgiven for thinking, had you never visited Britain, that people of only one skin colour live in this country. That the largely white drama series are successful on the export market only helps to extend the cycle.

“Producers say, ‘Oh, we commission stuff that people want to watch,’” Essiedu tells me. “But it’s such a narrow version of history – middle-to-upper-class Caucasian men, generally. Period drama can be from anywhere in the world: Africa, Asia. Where are those stories?”

Drama is just a sliver of broadcasting output, but other genres aren’t much better. Journalists from ethnic-minority backgrounds have made steady progress in television newsrooms – but not fast enough, Channel 4’s Krishnan Guru-Murthy has ­argued; there is a glaring absence, however, when it comes to lifestyle and entertainment TV. The recent success of the intrepid youth TV star Reggie Yates notwithstanding, it is difficult to ignore or account for the dearth of BAME presenters in documentaries and “serious” factual programming; and no major current British chat show has a permanent anchor who isn’t white.

Adil Ray’s BBC1 comedy Citizen Khan, which focuses on the escapades of the overbearing Muslim patriarch Mr Khan and his family in the Sparkhill area of Birmingham, is a rare exception. It has just returned for a fifth season. A worthy successor to Desmond’s in its tongue-in-cheek approach to potentially inflammatory issues (the 2014 Christmas special featured the birth of Mr Khan’s grandson, Mohammad, on Christmas Day) the programme also resembles its forebear in a more depressing way: it appears to be one of a kind.

When I ask Ray why he thinks this is, he selects his words carefully. “It’s not prejudice exactly,” he says, “but in the TV business, there are a lot of formulas. If you’re doing curry, get an Asian person. If it’s hip-hop, someone who’s black. If you’re doing a walk in the countryside, or drinking tea in the Cotswolds . . .” He leaves the sentence hanging.

What appears on screen is only the visible part of the problem. Actors get cast in roles only if writers write them; projects get made only if commissioners commission them. TV and film are notoriously incestuous and competitive industries. Careers are unstable. Knowing someone who knows someone is often – too often – the only way of getting work.

According to figures produced this year by Creative Skillset, many media companies fail dismally when it comes to representation. Just 24 per cent of those in senior roles in cable or satellite firms are female; 4 per cent of employees in positions in senior terrestrial broadcast are BAME; and, if the numbers are to be believed, there are no BAME people at all working on the senior production side of independent film companies. The figures aren’t entirely robust – they rely on organisations filling in forms and returning them – but if they’re anywhere near the truth they make for grim reading.

The BBC’s statistics are more encouraging (according to the latest figures, BAME people make up 13.4 per cent of staff overall and hold 9.2 per cent of leadership roles) but don’t include freelancers, an area in which it is reasonable to suppose that, without quotas to fill, representation will be worse. In September, the media regulator Ofcom put broadcasters on notice that they could face “harder-edged” regulation if they did not improve diversity.

Chi Onwurah, the MP for Newcastle upon Tyne Central, who has been vocal about these matters in parliament, says that the BBC has a special duty to up its game. “It’s not doing enough,” she tells me. “If it was, there wouldn’t be a problem. It was very interesting watching the [European Union] referendum; all the efforts broadcasters have gone to to make sure there was balance. If they went to half that effort for BAME, gender and disability, it would be a different world.”

The BBC is keen to show that it is paying attention. Last year, it appointed Tunde Ogungbesan as its new head of “diversity, inclusion and succession”, and in April his team announced eye-catching targets: gender parity across every part of the corporation; 8 per cent of staff disabled; 8 per cent of staff lesbian, gay or trans; 15 per cent of staff from BAME backgrounds. Those numbers will be replicated on screen, lead roles included, and are roughly equivalent to averages for the overall population of Britain.

Yet the idea that established BBC presenters will go quietly seems optimistic. Take the ruckus that the comedian Jon Holmes recently raised when his contract with The Now Show (Radio 4) wasn’t renewed. Holmes asked in the Mail on Sunday: “Should I, as a white man . . . be fired from my job because I am a white man?”

Ogungbesan – a former head of diversity for Shell – has a businesslike attitude to the challenges he faces, which are, he concedes, considerable. “We’ve got four years to do this, and we know there’s a hell of a lot of work to do.” That is why his team has given itself a deadline. “Hopefully, when we hit those targets in 2020, we’ll be the most diverse broadcaster in the UK.”

How does he respond to Onwurah’s suggestion that the BBC is skilled at announcing targets but less good at making change happen? “We’re publishing our results,” he says. “You’ll be able to hold us to it.”

And what if the targets aren’t met? Ogun­gbesan laughs, for perhaps a touch too long. He will not consider the possibility. “I’m like a boxer. I refuse to look at it.”


If British TV and film don’t get their act together soon, there may be no one left to cast. Increasingly, black and Asian stars are decamping to America to make their career there. Among those who have joined the brain drain are Archie Panjabi and Cush Jumbo (The Good Wife), David Oyelowo (Selma) and Chiwetel Ejiofor (12 Years a Slave). Idris Elba, who brooded brilliantly in BBC1’s crime procedural Luther, would likely never have been cast in a big British series if he hadn’t already made a name in the United States with The Wire. Before she appeared in Undercover, Sophie Okonedo said in an interview that the scripts she was offered from the US far outnumbered those from the UK.

Visiting Los Angeles recently, I tracked down Parminder Nagra, who made her name in Bend It Like Beckham before being spotted by a producer for the long-running medical drama ER. In 2003 she was offered the role of the Anglo-American doctor Neela Rasgotra, which she played until the series ended in 2009. A big part in the NBC crime drama The Blacklist followed, along with other film and TV work.

She never intended to move, she says, laughing ruefully, when we meet at a café in a well-to-do suburb of LA populated by movie folk. She has worked occasionally elsewhere but, 13 years on, she is still on the west coast. “The jobs I’ve got, like most actors, haven’t come about in a conventional way. It’s generally because someone is open-minded enough to look at you.”

Although she is careful to make it clear that the US is far from a utopia in terms of how it portrays race, sexuality or gender on screen – she tells a gruesome tale of a white writer who sent her his attempt at an “Asian” character – Nagra senses that things are more open in the US. “It’s a bigger pond here, because of the sheer size of the country,” she says. “There are writers of colour in the UK, but what happens is that you’ve only got one or two people at the top who are making decisions about the taste of the country . . . Those people are white.”

The landscape is certainly more open in the US. Leaving aside the allegations about Bill Cosby, NBC’s Cosby Show (1984-92) was a force for good, with its focus on a middle-class African-American family and with the numerous ethnically diverse shows it made possible: A Different World, The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air, In Living Color, Scandal (the last was commissioned by the influential black writer-producer Shonda Rhimes). Back in the early 1980s, the gentle NBC sitcom Gimme a Break! – starring Nell Carter – explored issues of racism, too.

US cable and online subscription ­services are even more courageous. Netflix’s Orange Is the New Black has an ethnically kaleidoscopic cast and plotlines that vault across almost every conceivable question of gender, sexuality, body image and politics. Where it has apparently taken the BBC until 2016 to realise that families can be both black and upper middle class, ABC in the US was years ahead: in 2014 it commissioned Black-ish, which offers a subtle portrait of an advertising executive who frets that he is losing touch with both his Obama-era kids and his inner-city origins.

Nagra nods. “There still are a lot of issues here, but if you’re an actor of colour, there is more work. All those British period dramas are really well done, but there’s a yearning there: ‘Can I please just see somebody like me on TV?’”

The reason all this matters is that TV, theatre and film have a duty to show us not merely who we are, but who we can become. In Undercover, Okonedo becomes Britain’s first black, female director of public prosecutions: this may seem unlikely, given the state of the UK’s judiciary, yet seeing it on TV helps to shift perceptions. No one would argue that Okonedo’s co-star Dennis Haysbert got Barack Obama into the White House by playing a black president of the United States in 24, but perhaps it made such a world marginally more imaginable.

The time is overdue for British TV to abandon its fetish for bodices and show us what our nation actually looks like, in all its variety – and to be more imaginative about the kind of history it presents. Colour-blind casting is mainstream in theatre. Actors of various heritages appear in Pinter or Chekhov and no one raises an eyebrow.

Anthropologists argue that race and gender are forms of performance, sets of shared codes, rather than something intrinsic to who we are. Is it so difficult to imagine a Jane Austen production with performers of black or Asian heritage? Is that any harder to believe than the thousand impossibilities we witness every day in TV drama?

I ask Essiedu if he is optimistic. Yes, he says forcefully. “I have to be. Optimism is the only way we initiate change.”

When I put the same question to Nagra, she pauses to think. “I remember being asked about this when I started ER, and I was a bit tired of the issue even then. Yet here we still are.” Her expression is wry. “So ask me in ten years’ time.”

This article first appeared in the 24 November 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Blair: out of exile