Biography at its best

2008-12-31 00:00

Spurned by Umkhonto we Sizwe and rejected by the trade unions, without formal training in economics he eventually became the longest-serving and one of the most respected finance ministers in the world. But as Trevor Manuel wryly remarks, the markets panicked when he was appointed in 1996; then did so again in September 2008 when he appeared to have resigned.

Early rejection served him well: instead, in Cape Town, where his family largely worked in the textile industry, he put his practical individualism to work as a community activist. To intelligence, he added an ability to listen to grassroots problems. It was to benefit him when appointed to the ANC’s economic planning desk; chosen, it is said, because he had worked in a real job in the construction industry.

This book portrays Manuel as a model cabinet minister, although clearly not the easiest of people. His stellar career is based not just on talent, high standards and self-confidence, but an ability to get the best out of other very able people. His department respects intellect and diligence.

Pippa Green provides a highly readable account of the way Manuel turned around the economic shambles left by apartheid’s incompetent rulers; saved the country from a potential debt trap; and created conditions in which money could be spent on the future, not yesterday’s errors.

In the process he left long-time trade union critics in his wake. Economics, he believes, is about people; and he is financial custodian for all of the nation’s citizens. No secret is made of his frustration with key, underperforming ministries like education and health.

Manuel’s success has made a major contribution to the country’s international standing. Yet his ethnicity supposedly disqualifies him as a presidential candidate. His biographer has gone to considerable lengths to describe his ancestry: he is as South African as anyone.

This is biography at its brilliant best, excellent in both style and content. It carefully weaves the life of Manuel into its historical context, providing compelling accounts of Western Cape politics, the States of Emergency of the eighties and the post-liberation economic debate. This book is essential reading for anyone interested in South African politics.

Spurned by Umkhonto we Sizwe and rejected by the trade unions, without formal training in economics he eventually became the longest-serving and one of the most respected finance ministers in the world. But as Trevor Manuel wryly remarks, the markets panicked when he was appointed in 1996; then did so again in September 2008 when he appeared to have resigned.

Early rejection served him well: instead, in Cape Town, where his family largely worked in the textile industry, he put his practical individualism to work as a community activist. To intelligence, he added an ability to listen to grassroots problems. It was to benefit him when appointed to the ANC’s economic planning desk; chosen, it is said, because he had worked in a real job in the construction industry.

This book portrays Manuel as a model cabinet minister, although clearly not the easiest of people. His stellar career is based not just on talent, high standards and self-confidence, but an ability to get the best out of other very able people. His department respects intellect and diligence.

Pippa Green provides a highly readable account of the way Manuel turned around the economic shambles left by apartheid’s incompetent rulers; saved the country from a potential debt trap; and created conditions in which money could be spent on the future, not yesterday’s errors.

In the process he left long-time trade union critics in his wake. Economics, he believes, is about people; and he is financial custodian for all of the nation’s citizens. No secret is made of his frustration with key, underperforming ministries like education and health.

Manuel’s success has made a major contribution to the country’s international standing. Yet his ethnicity supposedly disqualifies him as a presidential candidate. His biographer has gone to considerable lengths to describe his ancestry: he is as South African as anyone.

This is biography at its brilliant best, excellent in both style and content. It carefully weaves the life of Manuel into its historical context, providing compelling accounts of Western Cape politics, the States of Emergency of the eighties and the post-liberation economic debate. This book is essential reading for anyone interested in South African politics.

Christopher Merrett

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