Trevor Manuel moves on

2014-03-11 17:31

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The day before Parliament bade him farewell, Trevor Manuel was in Mitchells Plain on the Cape Flats meeting victims of the latest round of gang violence.

It is his parliamentary constituency and a place where, in the days of the apartheid state of emergency, he had hidden from the police.

“I have been doing a lot of educational stuff in the area and dealing with the problem of gangsterism. The family I was with today lost a 12-year-old girl,” he said yesterday evening.

For the first time in 20 years, Manuel is not on the parliamentary list of the African National Congress. “It was my choice,” he said. “I have been toying with the idea for some time.”

Last December he declined nomination for the national executive committee of the ANC.

He was “ambivalent” in 2009 when he accepted nomination for Parliament but said he had “immensely enjoyed” the responsibilities of chairing the National Planning Commission (NPC).

“But it’s been 20 years as an MP and 20 years as a minister – very long in anyone’s life.”

Manuel has been known to have his differences with some in the current administration, as well as with Western Cape ANC members. Most recently, he took issue with ANC provincial secretary Songezo Mjongile who defended the summary removal of Cape Times editor Alide Dasnois by the new owners.

Mjongile wrote that the newspaper had “traditionally been a mouthpiece for neo-liberal fascists” like columnist Tony Weaver who has defended Dasnois’ integrity as editor.

Manuel wrote: “The problem is that each of these labels has a heavy weight in political discourse and we should not allow the abuse of them for the purpose of mere name-calling. But the bigger problem is that they are devoid of the truth. Not in my name,” he declared – and not for the first time either.

Yet if anyone thinks his departure from formal political life or his public put-down of Mjongile is an indication that he will leave the ANC, they are wrong. It is to misunderstand the nature of Manuel’s loyalty forged over nearly four decades.

He was irritated by a letter in Business Day suggesting that DA leader Helen Zille had offered him the party leadership before the “train smash of expedience” (Manuel’s words) of the attempted DA-Agang partnership.

“It was never offered to me but if it had been, I would not have accepted. I could not be in a party that I have so little in common with philosophically.”

The best thing about the past 20-odd years in government and the ANC, he said this week, was the “opportunity to serve”.

“It was my election to the NEC in 1991, Madiba asking me to head the department of economic policy in the ANC when I didn’t know any economics (he was derisively dubbed “the guru with matric” by one newspaper) … when I was appointed minister of trade and industry and then 18 months later, minister of finance.

“I was honoured to be part of a generation that moved from tearing down to building up.”

Worst moments?

The tariff adjustments introduced soon after the Mandela administration took power: the SA Clothing and Textile Workers’ Union protested outside his office on Valentine’s Day with a shoebox of broken carnations.

“They had fallen out of love with me,” said Manuel, whose mother had worked most of her adult life in a garment factory in Cape Town.

And then the Growth Employment and Redistribution policy which was, in effect, an economic stabilisation programme.

“The challenge was that it needed to be done ... but we didn’t manage to unite with the trade union movement because some people were not invited into the process.”

Other tough moments were the precipitous decline of the rand at the end of 2001 and his resignation in September 2008 when Thabo Mbeki was recalled (when the rand plunged briefly again on news of his departure). “I said to the incoming president [Jacob Zuma] that I would be available to serve … but these kind of issues made me sit up and think.”

By the time Manuel ended his term as finance minister in 2009, he was the longest-serving finance minister in the world.

The past five years as head of the NPC must have left him with mixed feelings. While the plan itself must have been rewarding to produce, the Zuma government has driven it with lukewarm enthusiasm in the face of union opposition.

Today is Manuel’s last day in Parliament. Tomorrow he flies to Hong Kong for a meeting of the Global Oceans Commission which he co-chairs.

And after that?

He says he will campaign for the ANC, but is “unlikely” to be given a new executive responsibility (the president can appoint two non-MPS to executive positions in terms of the Constitution).

“But I want to take a bit of time to think about what I want to do. I don’t want to step out of this one day and into a whole new job the next.”

He will continue his international work on the Global Oceans Commission, continue community work on the Cape Flats … “and then I need to earn a living somewhere without being too specific”.

» Green is the author of Choice, Not Fate: The Life and Times of Trevor Manuel

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