Trevor Manuel's timely challenge to the ANC

Former president Jacob Zuma with Trevor Manuel during a visit in the suburb of Bishop Lavis on July 23, 2011 in Cape Town, South Africa. (Photo by Gallo Images / Sunday Times / Esa Alexander)
Former president Jacob Zuma with Trevor Manuel during a visit in the suburb of Bishop Lavis on July 23, 2011 in Cape Town, South Africa. (Photo by Gallo Images / Sunday Times / Esa Alexander)

On Saturday Trevor Manuel challenged his comrades in the ANC to "restore who we are, not what we've become". That is a major admission of things gone wrong and the first step on the road to recovery, writes Adriaan Basson.

Former finance minister Trevor Manuel is an imposing, at times intimidating figure.

Manuel lacks no self-confidence, as was evident during his testimony before the Zondo commission into state capture last week and is one of the ANC's most lauded modern-day politicians.

I've never seen Manuel as vulnerable as he was on Saturday at a tribute rally for the late correctional services boss Vernie Petersen at the famous St George's Cathedral in Cape Town.

READ: Manuel on Zuma's abdication of duty - and how the Guptas took power

Manuel was a minister during Petersen's term as national commissioner of correctional services – first at National Treasury and later in the Presidency.

Their bond goes back much further – both were anti-apartheid activists in the United Democratic Front on the Cape Flats. After 1994, Manuel went on to serve the ANC government in Treasury and Petersen in the fields of public service and administration, social development, correctional services and sport.

Petersen died in 2011 after a short illness. He died with a broken heart after being forced out of the department of correctional services (DCS) for trying to break institutionalised corruption.

His name had all but disappeared from the national discourse before it was put back firmly by the shocking evidence of Angelo Agrizzi, former chief operating officer of Bosasa, before Judge Raymond Zondo.

Agrizzi told the commission that bribes of R1m per month were paid to DCS officials, Popcru members and a former prisons boss to undermine and frustrate Petersen. He didn't have a price and couldn't be bought.

Addressing a rally attended mostly by Petersen's family and his own comrades from the Cape Flats days, Manuel asked hard questions of himself and the ANC.

"We may not have paid sufficient attention," he said and spoke of a deep discomfort listening to Agrizzi's evidence and the testimony of former ANC MP Dennis Bloem, who told Zondo about Petersen's efforts to clean up the department.

Bloem asked the judge to reopen the investigation into Petersen's death, although his own family isn't pushing this line.

His widow June Petersen said she and their two sons have made peace with the fact that their father was no longer there.

June Petersen spoke before Manuel and without naming him or others, told those gathered how her husband spoke to his "colleagues in Cabinet and in the Presidency (about the corruption in the DCS)… people who he assumed would support him".

To his grave disappointment, these people "did nothing or advised him to turn a blind eye".

What is that quote again about evil that prospers when good people do nothing?

Manuel was touched by June Petersen's message and turned the tables on himself and his comrades in the ANC.

"All of us may have been lulled into a false sense of security," Manuel said, praising the work of the Zondo commission to uncover "where there has been slippage".

One of the most significant aspects of the latter part of the commission's work was to emphasise that corruption didn't start and end with Jacob Zuma. We will make a big error to judge the ANC only on Zuma's term as president, although he perfected the art of turning the public purse into a piggybank for looting.

Petersen was appointed by Thabo Mbeki, served under Kgalema Motlanthe and was eventually moved out of correctional services by Baleka Mbete, who was acting president while Motlanthe was out of the country.

Manuel asked the tough question: "what do we do about stuff we encounter?" He didn't disclose what he did (or didn't do) after Petersen supposedly informed him of his running battles with former minister Ngconde Balfour, who extended Bosasa's multimillion-rand tenders without question.

"We stopped to question. Because we did that, certain things happened," Manuel said, citing the Marikana massacre; Life Esidimeni deaths; large-scale looting "that still happens" and a failing education system that still sees kids being taught under trees and using pit latrines.

Manuel challenged his comrades inside and outside the church to "restore who we are, not what we've become". That is a major admission of things gone wrong and the first step on the road to recovery.

But will Manuel's comrades heed the call to introspect and humble themselves before the Zondo commission, even if that means implicating your colleagues or yourself two months before an election?

Is it too late for the Ramaphosa-led ANC to have hard conversations on how they failed people like Vernie Petersen and how they will prevent this from happening again, knowing the leadership structures of the party may themselves be implicated in systemic state capture?

- Basson is editor-in-chief of News24.

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