Viv Govender: Trevor Manuel should not have joined Rothschild

Trevor Manuel (Pic: Bongiwe Gumede)
Trevor Manuel (Pic: Bongiwe Gumede)

There are sure to be differing views about the reason behind Trevor Manuel’s appointment as a global advisor at the international Rothschild Group. Viv Govender of Vunani and I had a vigorous debate about the news – even delving into our differing perspectives of the financial impact of the battle of Waterloo. An entertaining discourse which, in summary, has Viv camped against the US-influenced practice of top public servants moving into the private sector and yours truly taking the other side. – AH

ALEC HOGG: Viv, we asked you to come and help us here with the announcement about Trevor Manuel. He’s an icon in South Africa, probably the most admired of the Cabinet Ministers and he’s made a switch from Government, where he spent 20 years, into the private sector.

VIV GOVENDER: Yes, he’s joining Rothschild as a Senior Advisor according to the release that came out. Obviously, this is something that’s been occurring in the past. We saw Maria Ramos who left the public sector for Barclays Africa. If you follow the same thing, you’re talking about Cyril Ramaphosa with the Lonmin issue.

What we have in this country is a case where many politicians – people in power – often go to the private sector. We see this not just in South Africa, but internationally as well. Recently, there was a case with Eric Cantor in the US – a senior politician, who lost his position and then immediately found a $3.5m a year job in Wall Street.

You have a similar type of thing when they talked about the number of people who were involved in the top. Think for instance, of Hank Paulsen from Goldman Sachs. All those people…that linkage between business and government: you mustn’t get too close in a country otherwise, you’re trading political influence for money and vice versa. That is something we need to be aware of in this country. In the US, there’s been talk about actually having some kind of limitation, so if you do get into Government, you can’t get out of it and go directly into something similar to what you had in the past.

I get you Viv, but in this country, it is rare to see people going from politics to top positions in business. Sure, there have been tenderpreneurs and entrepreneurs (however they want to describe it) but this is a big job for Trevor.

When you’re talking about politics, you’re talking about some of our biggest bureaucrats.


We’re talking about Tito Mboweni. We’re talking about Maria Ramos. We’re talking about Trevor Manuel and a number of these people have gone from positions that were dealing with the financial sector, into really senior positions in the financial sector. They’ve gone from places where they had control over the financial sector to positions where the financial sector is now rewarding them.

ALEC HOGG: Gill Marcus, Chairman of Absa to the Reserve Bank…

VIV GOVENDER: Yes. In places like Icasa as well, look at the number of people who go from Icasa to MTN and Vodacom. The issue there is that you don’t have to be…

ALEC HOGG: You’re waving a flag?

VIV GOVENDER: I’m waving a flag. If you have a huge paycheck waiting for you to go to work for MTN afterward, how are you going to act when you’re the regulator?

ALEC HOGG: A good point but on the other hand, if you don’t have that crossover from public to private sector, it’s not really a normal democracy. There’s much to be gained from the experience on both sides.

VIV GOVENDER: I’ve seen studies done, especially in Europe where you find for example, in places like Germany, you’d hardly ever find it as much of a problem as you would in the US. In the US, it’s much more common to have that crossover, whereas in places in Europe it’s almost considered to be slightly sleazy for a top Government official to go and work for a private bank.

ALEC HOGG: Look at the way Europe’s performed. Look at the way America’s performed. I know which system is better. But tell us about Rothschild.

VIV GOVENDER: Rothschild is one of the great financial houses which goes back centuries. They were doing deals back in the time of Waterloo, when the French and English were at war. Some of the things they did in the past would be called insider trading or market manipulation today.

Rothschild was considered the premier banker of the time. Everyone knew that he would have inside information, so what he decided to do was play on that fact by going and having his guys in London sell stocks, quite dramatically. Everyone assumed that it was because the UK had lost a major battle. What happened was they all crashed the market. His guys – afterwards – just moved all the things at bargain basement prices.

It’s one of those names which internationally, is not just a person or institution’s name. It becomes almost an adjective. If you’re a Rockefeller or a Rothschild, you’re wealthy.

ALEC HOGG: Well, 10cc has a song about the Wall Street shuffle… Whom do they talk about? Rothschild.  It’s an interesting point that the Battle of Waterloo. I remember reading about it not too long ago… British bonds were being smashed because the people who owned them were concerned that Brits would lose at Waterloo.

VIV GOVENDER: Napoleon was a genius.

ALEC HOGG: They thought they couldn’t beat Napoleon. But Rothschild had carrier pigeons, with the news. And that’s how the Rothschild Empire (in many people’s view) was actually created. They saw the British win at Waterloo, sent the carrier pigeons and when his agents in London got them, they realised that the bonds, which had been smashed were very, very cheap and of course, bought them. In a way, is it insider trading or is it just smart business intelligence?

VIV GOVENDER: There’s more to it than this. He also spread rumours that the British had lost and he actually used his agents to stoke the market by selling things in a panic mode and get the market believing that you know it’s happening, you know it’s a loss, and then scoop it up once it falls.

ALEC HOGG: Everyone thought they were going to lose. They did think they were going to beat Napoleon.

VIV GOVENDER: But he did try to push it as well.

ALEC HOGG: Well, okay. Well, we’ll see. History is written by the victors so in this case Rothschild gets a bum rap. Anyway, Trevor’s now joining them with Wiseman Nkuhlu (the Chairman here in South Africa), and Martin Kingston who used to head Deutsche Bank in South Africa – a strong team.

VIV GOVENDER: That’s the main thing (not so much Trevor Manuel), despite the fact that 20 years ago, when he was basically being promoted into positions, people were talking about the fact that he had a carpentry qualification etcetera. He’s proven himself an incredibly competent individual. There’s no doubt that you would want to have a person like Trevor Manuel in your company’s Board or as an advisor. It’s by no means a position being given to a person who’s not going to be able to do the job.

ALEC HOGG: He’s a reflection of a late maturer, who listens and is committed to lifelong learning.

VIV GOVENDER: But the question is, is part of it also likely to be the fact that he was Finance Minister? We’re not questioning his competence. But how much of the appointment is just going to be the fact that he’s…?

ALEC HOGG: No, he’s smart.

VIV GOVENDER: He is smart.

ALEC HOGG: I’ve known Trevor for more than 20 years, and he’s smart. He’s an asset to anybody and an asset to this country. My view is ‘thank goodness he didn’t take one of those jobs he was offered overseas’.

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