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

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“I felt so frantic I couldn’t see my screen”: why aren’t we taking mental health sick days?

Some employees with mental health problems fake reasons for taking days off, or struggle in regardless. What should companies be doing differently?

“I would go to the loo and just cry my eyes out. And sometimes colleagues could hear me. Then I would just go back to my desk as if nothing had happened. And, of course, no one would say anything because I would hide it as well as I could.”

How many times have you heard sobbing through a work toilet door – or been the person in the cubicle?

Jaabir Ramlugon is a 31-year-old living in north London. He worked in IT for four years, and began having to take time off for depressive episodes after starting at his company in 2012. He was eventually diagnosed with borderline personality disorder last January.

At first, he would not tell his employers or colleagues why he was taking time off.

“I was at the point where I was in tears going to work on the train, and in tears coming back,” he recalls. “Some days, I just felt such a feeling of dread about going into work that I just physically couldn’t get up ... I wouldn’t mention my mental health; I would just say that my asthma was flaring up initially.”

It wasn’t until Ramlugon was signed off for a couple of months after a suicide attempt that he told his company what he was going through. Before that, a “culture of presenteeism” at his work – and his feeling that he was “bunking off” because there was “nothing physically wrong” – made him reluctant to tell the truth about his condition.

“I already felt pretty low in my self-esteem; the way they treated me amplified that”

Eventually, he was dismissed by his company via a letter describing him as a “huge burden” and accusing him of “affecting” its business. He was given a dismissal package, but feels an alternative role or working hours – a plan for a gradual return to work – would have been more supportive.

“I already felt pretty low in my self-esteem. The way they treated me definitely amplified that, especially with the language that they used. The letter was quite nasty because it talked about me being a huge burden to the company.”

Ramlugon is not alone. Over three in ten employees say they have experienced mental health problems while in employment, according to the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development. Under half (43 per cent) disclose their problem to their employer, and under half (46 per cent) say their organisation supports staff with mental health problems well.

I’ve spoken to a number of employees in different workplaces who have had varying experiences of suffering from mental ill health at work.


Taking mental health days off sick hit the headlines after an encouraging message from a CEO to his employee went viral. Madalyn Parker, a web developer, informed her colleagues in an out-of-office message that she would be taking “today and tomorrow to focus on my mental health – hopefully I’ll be back next week refreshed and back to 100 per cent”.

Her boss Ben Congleton’s reply, which was shared tens of thousands of times, personally thanked her – saying it’s “an example to us all” to “cut through the stigma so we can bring our whole selves to work”.

“Thank you for sending emails like this,” he wrote. “Every time you do, I use it as a reminder of the importance of using sick days for mental health – I can’t believe this is not standard practice at all organisations.”

Congleton went on to to write an article entitled “It’s 2017 and Mental Health is still an issue in the workplace”, arguing that organisations need to catch up:

“It’s 2017. We are in a knowledge economy. Our jobs require us to execute at peak mental performance. When an athlete is injured they sit on the bench and recover. Let’s get rid of the idea that somehow the brain is different.”

But not all companies are as understanding.

In an investigation published last week, Channel 5 News found that the number of police officers taking sick days for poor mental health has doubled in six years. “When I did disclose that I was unwell, I had some dreadful experiences,” one retired detective constable said in the report. “On one occasion, I was told, ‘When you’re feeling down, just think of your daughters’. My colleagues were brilliant; the force was not.”

“One day I felt so frantic I couldn’t see my screen”

One twenty-something who works at a newspaper echoes this frustration at the lack of support from the top. “There is absolutely no mental health provision here,” they tell me. “HR are worse than useless. It all depends on your personal relationships with colleagues.”

“I was friends with my boss so I felt I could tell him,” they add. “I took a day off because of anxiety and explained what it was to my boss afterwards. But that wouldn’t be my blanket approach to it – I don’t think I’d tell my new boss [at the same company], for instance. I have definitely been to work feeling awful because if I didn’t, it wouldn’t get done.”

Presenteeism is a rising problem in the UK. Last year, British workers took an average of 4.3 days off work due to illness – the lowest number since records began. I hear from many interviewees that they feel guilty taking a day off for a physical illness, which makes it much harder to take a mental health day off.

“I felt a definite pressure to be always keen as a young high-flyer and there were a lot of big personalities and a lot of bitchiness about colleagues,” one woman in her twenties who works in media tells me. “We were only a small team and my colleague was always being reprimanded for being workshy and late, so I didn’t want to drag the side down.”

Diagnosed with borderline personality disorder, which was then changed to anxiety and depression, she didn’t tell her work about her illness. “Sometimes I struggled to go to work when I was really sick. And my performance was fine. I remember constantly sitting there sort of eyeballing everyone in mild amusement that I was hiding in plain sight. This was, at the time, vaguely funny for me. Not much else was.

“One day I just felt so frantic I couldn’t see my screen so I locked myself in the bathroom for a bit then went home, telling everyone I had a stomach bug so had to miss half the day,” she tells me. “I didn’t go in the next day either and concocted some elaborate story when I came back.”

Although she has had treatment and moved jobs successfully since, she has never told her work the real reason for her time off.

“In a small company you don’t have a confidential person to turn to; everyone knows everyone.”

“We want employers to treat physical and mental health problems as equally valid reasons for time off sick,” says Emma Mamo, head of workplace wellbeing at the mental health charity Mind. “Staff who need to take time off work because of stress and depression should be treated the same as those who take days off for physical health problems, such as back or neck pain.”

She says that categorising a day off as a “mental health sick day” is unhelpful, because it could “undermine the severity and impact a mental health problem can have on someone’s day-to-day activities, and creates an artificial separation between mental and physical health.”

Instead, employers should take advice from charities like Mind on how to make the mental health of their employees an organisational priority. They can offer workplace initiatives like Employee Assistance Programmes (which help staff with personal and work-related problems affecting their wellbeing), flexible working hours, and clear and supportive line management.

“I returned to work gradually, under the guidance of my head of department, doctors and HR,” one journalist from Hertfordshire, who had to take three months off for her second anorexia inpatient admission, tells me. “I was immensely lucky in that my line manager, head of department and HR department were extremely understanding and told me to take as much time as I needed.”

“They didnt make me feel embarrassed or ashamed – such feelings came from myself”

“They knew that mental health – along with my anorexia I had severe depression – was the real reason I was off work ... I felt that my workplace handled my case in an exemplary manner. It was organised and professional and I wasn’t made to feel embarrassed or ashamed from them – such feelings came from myself.”

But she still at times felt “flaky”, “pathetic” and “inefficient”, despite her organisation’s good attitude. Indeed, many I speak to say general attitudes have to change in order for people to feel comfortable about disclosing conditions to even the closest friends and family, let alone a boss.

“There are levels of pride,” says one man in his thirties who hid his addiction while at work. “You know you’re a mess, but society dictates you should be functioning.” He says this makes it hard to have “the mental courage” to broach this with your employer. “Especially in a small company – you don’t have a confidential person to turn to. Everyone knows everyone.”

“But you can’t expect companies to deal with it properly when it’s dealt with so poorly in society as it is,” he adds. “It’s massively stigmatised, so of course it’s going to be within companies as well. I think there has to be a lot more done generally to make it not seem like it’s such a big personal failing to become mentally ill. Companies need direction; it’s not an easy thing to deal with.”

Until we live in a society where it feels as natural taking a day off for feeling mentally unwell as it does for the flu, companies will have to step up. It is, after all, in their interest to have their staff performing well. When around one in four people in Britain experience mental ill health each year, it’s not a problem they can afford to ignore.

If your manager doesn’t create the space for you to be able to talk about wellbeing, it can be more difficult to start this dialogue. It depends on the relationship you have with your manager, but if you have a good relationship and trust them, then you could meet them one-to-one to discuss what’s going on.

Having someone from HR present will make the meeting more formal, and normally wouldn’t be necessary in the first instance. But if you didn’t get anywhere with the first meeting then it might be a sensible next step.

If you still feel as though you’re not getting the support you need, contact Acas or Mind's legal line on 0300 466 6463.

Anoosh Chakelian is senior writer at the New Statesman.

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