Newsmaker – Trevor Manuel off to make a new plan

2014-03-16 14:00

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Eight years into Trevor Manuel’s term as finance minister, a schoolgirl from the Cape Flats wrote a letter to him.

“I would like to be the minister of finance. But I would like to know how you became the minister of finance,” she wrote.

Manuel replied: “There is no special school for ministers. You are appointed by the president?...?and once you are appointed, there is lots more hard work.”

Manuel served another four years in the finance portfolio, making him the longest-serving finance minister in the world by 2009, when his term ended.

Tuesday was his last day in Parliament. He will step down from Cabinet after the May 7 elections having served 20 years under four presidents.

He served in two other portfolios: as trade and industry minister in Nelson Mandela’s Cabinet and minister in the presidency in charge of the National Planning Commission under President Jacob Zuma.

But it was as finance minister that he made his mark in government and on the country?–?and if he attended a “special school”, it was on the job.

Manuel was so unschooled in economics that in 1991, when he was appointed to head the ANC’s department of policy, a newspaper headline read: “How a guru with matric plans to fix the economy.”

Some of his ANC colleagues concurred.

“I thought: ‘What a joke. To head economics? Trevor! What the hell does this man know about economics?’” recalled Ismail Momoniat, a mathematician who studied economics while working in the anti-apartheid movement in the 1980s.

Momoniat became one of the stalwarts in the Treasury and admitted he had to “eat his words”.

When the ANC came into power in 1994, it inherited a country that was, in the words of Manuel’s predecessor in finance, Chris Liebenberg, “bankrupt”.

Not even the old administration knew precisely what government expenditure was nor what the country’s debt was.

At the same time, the pressure to deliver to those who had suffered under apartheid was intense.

It was this situation that Manuel inherited in 1996.

Gear, the policy adopted by the ruling ANC for growth, employment and redistribution was already on the table when he took over, but he had to drive it through politically.

“The challenge was that it needed to be done, we needed to take the situation in hand, but?…?we didn’t unite with the trade union movement because some people were not invited into the process,” Manuel said this week.

Mandela had asked Manuel seven months earlier to take on the post and only a handful of people knew?–?himself, Liebenberg and then deputy president Thabo Mbeki among them.

Manuel “schooled” in Liebenberg’s shadow and when Mandela announced in April 1996 that Liebenberg was retiring and Manuel was taking over, the rand plummeted.

Then Gear was introduced and Manuel became “not even the ham in the sandwich”.

It took another three years before the turnaround came.

In the early days, he was bolstered by Mandela, who could afford not to court cheap popularity.

He was also supported by the formidable ANC intellectuals around him like Gill Marcus,?now governor of the SA Reserve Bank; her predecessor, Tito Mboweni; and Maria Ramos, then director-general of the Treasury, who he married in 2008.

Perhaps the most important lesson Manuel learnt in office was the necessity, at times, to be unpopular.

He has taken on ANC newcomers like Jimmy Manyi on the issue of racism (Manyi suggested there was a “surplus” of coloured people in the Western Cape) and Songezo Mjongile, who defended the removal of Cape Times editor Alide Dasnois by the paper’s new owners and described journalists there as “neoliberal fascists”.

He won’t say where he will work after the elections, but promises he will continue his community and educational work in Mitchells Plain and Khayelitsha, “grow[ing] it into a single entity”, as well as co-chairing the Global Ocean Commission.

Manuel grew up in a working class home in the Cape Town suburb of Kensington.

His mother was a garment worker and his father, who died when Manuel was 13, worked for the city council.

He became involved in local civic organisations as a teenager and was one of the founders of the United Democratic Front.

Manuel spent nearly three years in jail without trial during the state of emergency under apartheid.

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

Manuel took his leave from Parliament on the same day the ANC announced its list of new public representatives.

The list included the names of those either charged or investigated for corruption.

“We must get the best among us to serve our people,” he had told me the day before.

Green is Manuel’s biographer

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