17/10/2013. Minister in the Presidency, Trevor Manuel talks at Unisa during the eighth annual peace, safety and human rights memorial lecture. Picture: Thobile Mathonsi

Cape Town -

What masquerades as left-wing views is sometimes actually fascism dressed in different clothes.

That’s Planning Minister Trevor Manuel’s response to how life as a left-wing activist prepared him for the challenges of being finance minister in a country with a huge deficit. Manuel, who retired from Parliament last week, was commenting on the risks and dangers of populism.

In his 20 years in the cabinet, he often bore the brunt of criticism for government’s decision to ditch the Reconstruction and Development Plan (RDP) and implement the Growth, Employment and Redistribution strategy (Gear).

And after the ANC endorsed the implementation of the National Development Plan in 2012, Manuel was again the target of discontent from alliance partner Cosatu and the National Union of Metalworkers. But Manuel countered that the relationship was more complex than black and white.

“It may sound strange to say that I actually have very good interpersonal relationships with many trade unionists. I know that this does not easily translate into a relationship with the trade union movement,” he said.

“We do not all have the privilege, that too many trade unionists insist on, of being fair-weather leaders, never having to take tough decisions. Do trade union leaders ever have the courage to persuade workers against the populist approaches to strikes? Do they ever insist on balloting to test the actual views of their members?

“Are they sufficiently committed to the values that allow workers a free choice, as opposed to the levels of violence against non-striking workers? Do they possess the courage to explain a situation as it is, for example, that strikes that are extended impoverish the workers because they frequently can never make up the losses between the demand and settlement figures in a lifetime of hard work?

“What I’m suggesting is that the idea that trade unionists are always correct and employers and/or ministers are always wrong is a warped world view.”

Governing, he said, could not be for the faint-hearted.

“Many people, for example, who purport to be Marxists have never read Marx. One place where this is evident is in this ‘article of faith’ that being left means running high deficits. Marx actually argues the contrary,” he said.

Uncomfortable with the nomenclature of “politician”, Manuel said the central theme of his generation’s activism was always “service to the people”.

“In my (farewell) in Parliament I extemporised from the preamble to our constitution, choosing the third bullet that reads, ‘to raise the living standards of each citizen and free the potential of each person’,” he said.

“There’s a heck of a lot of philosophy in those few words. What follows, and I applied this in each of the three portfolios I had the pleasure of serving, is ‘how’.”

“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.”

While there was speculation before that Manuel could take up an appointment overseas, he said last week that it was “just a fact” that he would prefer to live and work in South Africa if possible.

“My learning has not been a linear progression - I have learnt bits and bobs of stuff about so many disciplines. My approach to institutions is that if people do not pass through, institutions ossify and individuals defend their past. I want to avoid being placed in that position, which is why I call time and retain my commitment,” he said.

Cape Times