A life in the service of others

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iol news pic Manuel farewell GCIS Trevor Manuel bid active politics farewell. Photo: Siyabulela Duda/ GCIS

 

Johannesburg - South Africa's former Finance Minister Trevor Manuel may have bid active politics farewell this week, but those who know him know that his life of service to the public and the country he loves is not over.

In his swansong to Parliament on Tuesday, Manuel enjoined MPs to ask “is it good, is it fair, is it just, and is it right” as they carry out their work in the legislature.

I believe these questions have guided him throughout his career, in the liberation struggle and in the public service.

In the 1980s with the like of Jonathan de Vries, Joe Adam, Daphne Williams, Headley King and Lynne Matthews,

Manuel established the Cape Areas Housing Action Committee and along with them.

And in 1983, with many, many more - including Cheryl Carolus, Valli Moosa, Murphy Morobe and Johnny Issel - the United Democratic Front (UDF) in Mitchells Plain.

On Monday I had an interview scheduled with Manuel about his departure from active politics.

But it was cancelled at the last minute because he wanted to visit an old comrade who was ill in hospital - this after a meeting which ended at 8 pm, another sign of Manuel's legendary stamina and work ethic.

But it's this commitment to the service of people, and to lifelong relationships borne in struggle, that I believe are part of Manuel's legacy, along with his reputation as a world class politician and a finance minister who was not afraid to make tough and controversial choices.

“He is a politician who still stays in touch, visits a sick activist at home and in hospital, and goes to the funeral of a community leader,” said one former comrade this week.

“He is rooted in organisation, whether in Kensington or in the ANC on a national level - in the community, in struggle and in practice.”

This Monday, the night before his farewell to Parliament, Manuel was in Mitchells Plain meeting with victims of the latest spate of gang violence which plagues the Cape Flats.

Given the ANC's difficulties in harnessing the coloured vote in the Western Cape I asked him whether he regretted not spending more time in the province.

“I am loath to take an 'I wish I had' approach to history. I did what I was asked to do. I had so much to learn, and I had to work incredibly hard at it. If I were also trying to take political responsibility for the Western Cape, I might have ended up botching all sides,” he told me in a long-ranging interview this week.

“The issue of the coloured vote is complex - in 2004, the ANC won a majority of the coloured vote and then it slipped away. There is no homogeneous or monolithic view.”

Manuel's guiding philosophy to politics and his work in the state can be summed up in a simple question: how can people's lives be bettered?

Referring to the resolutions of the ANC's 50th national conference held in 1997, Manuel quoted its preamble, that “economics is about people”, saying this informed his roles as a minister in government's economic cluster, and presumably his role as Minister in the Presidency for Planning.

“The most durable philosophy is service to the people. It is a set if beliefs and a way of life. This approach is, I submit, far superior to borrowing the ideas of another time and place merely because it feels lonely not to be able to attach an epithet to what informs decisions.”

Given the contestations and controversies in the portfolios Manuel held from 1994 onwards, Manuel has needed a strong guiding philosophy, a simple set of beliefs to ground him when he was tempted to waver.

His wife and former director-general of National Treasury, Maria Ramos, said: “If I think back over the many years of policy formulation, that's what it was about - how do we make people's lives better? It's not much grander than that.”

Of course Manuel and Treasury faced a barrage of criticism for the decisions they made, not least for the implementation of the Growth Employment and Redistribution strategy (GEAR), a stabilisation programme aimed at ridding South Africa of the debt burden inherited from the apartheid regime.

“Governing could not be for the fainthearted… The question is what makes sense? What is rational? What best advances our ability to meet the needs of our people? What best equips the state to sustainably tackle poverty and inequality and facilitates the expansion if economic opportunities,” Manuel reflected this week.

He is of course acutely aware of the fact that during his time at the treasury he was accused of being a “Thatcherite”, often by ex-comrades.

Often this had as much to do with the way he carried himself as it did with the policy choices he and the government were making.

But these critiques have not always been as nuanced as they ought to have been.

Both Manuel and the challenges the ANC government faced in the 1990s are complex, and require more than a reductionist slogan or name-calling.

A staff member who worked in the cabinet secretariat during the Mandela administration, shared an anecdote about a conversation between himself and the late director-general in the Presidency, Jakes Gerwel.

During one lengthy cabinet discussion he and Gerwel contemplated who among the young ministers present would be most at home in “a township, a shebeen, and in a silk tie with capital”.

It was 1996 and the young cabinet ministers present were Tito Mboweni, Jay Naidoo and Manuel.

They decided, Gerwel and the staff member, that “Trevor would be the best to connect with both ordinary people and with captains of industry”.

For his part Manuel does seem apologetic about the “calculated risks” made as finance minister.

“The evaluation of questions such as these is far superior to shouting slogans. Unless there is a sellout, there is no contradiction. I made an early commitment to do all I can to protect our hard-won sovereignty by maximising the areas over which we have decision-making, in other words, to prevent South Africa from becoming a client state of the interests of others,” he says.

“That is not a bad measure against which to measure performance. If that is what we achieved, then being called names is a minute price to pay.”

Does he count any of his actions in government as mistakes?

“Mistakes are always present whenever decisions are made. Frequently not taking decisions is actually a bigger mistake. The important issue is not the mistakes, but whether the risks were calculated and whether the earnings were clear, digested and then the move to the next phase.”

His old comrade, friend and my dad, Goolam Aboobaker, said of him this week: “He is not an armchair politician, and part of that was a strong aversion to the Unity Movement and that attracted him to the ANC. The (Non-European) Unity Movement were armchair politicians, strong on critique and weak on practice.

“It would have been easier to walk away from the ANC and from South Africa and get immersed in the global environment, in business, but he always chose a political home in the ANC.”

Perhaps Manuel's proudest achievement, is raising the three sons with his first wife Lynne: Govan, Pallo and Jaime, who are all adults now.

Each in their own way are the embodiment of their father - of his many sacrifices, of his value system, his political commitments and, most specially, his wicked sense of humour.

But I also believe they will continue to be heartened by their dad’s life-commitment to uphold the third bullet of the preamble to our Constitution, namely, ‘to raise the living standards of each citizen and free the potential of each person’”.

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