Trevor Manuel's tribute to his mom

Philma Manuel. (Philma Manuel Condolence Book, Facebook)
Philma Manuel. (Philma Manuel Condolence Book, Facebook)

Philma Manuel died of Covid-19 last week at the age of 94. Her son, former finance minister Trevor Manuel, delivered this tribute at her funeral.

This is essentially a family gathering as required by the lockdown regulations. Yet, I would like to signal a few special people for mention  – my sisters Beryl, Pam and Renecia. Mom's daughters were her closest friends to the end, and I knew when Beryl and Pam phoned me in quick succession on Monday, 8 June, that there was something serious afoot.

Besides my sisters, there are my brothers-in-law, who have been around forever. Also we know that Gran took absolute delight in the achievements of her 10 grandchildren and all 10 of her great-grandchildren. She often teasingly berated them for trying to get away with what none of us had been able to. I'd like to single out Elton, who had a very special bond and who lived with his Gran.

We must also recognise her close bond to her cousin, Ursula in Stellenbosch, who, on medical advice, has been prevented from being physically present. Also, Aunty Belly – Isabel Geduld to the world - who started work with Mom at Rex Trueform in 1942. They were friends for some 78 years. Aunty Bel was hospitalised recently with Covid-19 at the age of 95. She was our ray of hope as Mom battled the virus. Aunty Bel is here with us today.

There was a discussion last week about whether to disclose the cause of death, and I have no reason to hide the fact that Mom passed away after exposure to Covid-19. She had been housebound since long before the lockdown – we spoke every day until she was hospitalised.

Notwithstanding this, she had been exposed to the virus and I raise this because we all need to take every precaution possible to prevent the spread. It is a virus spread by people and we need to be mature about how we deal with it, how we each play a role in preventing the spread unwittingly, and how society manages the consequences.

Covid-19 is brutal, and South Africa, or even the Western Cape, are not at the infection peak yet. Because of the historic poverty of the community, we tend to have the diseases - diabetes, high blood pressure and obesity - that make us much more vulnerable to the virus. We have a huge responsibility to prevent the spread. The government can and should assist, but it is we who must act to prevent the spread. I hope that my mother's passing would be a reference point for our conduct to prevent the spread. 

Mom was very aware of what was happening; she followed the global news on the spread of Covid-19 and spoke about it. She had all her faculties to the very end. Pam speaks of how resigned Mom appeared when she left her at the door to the hospital because she could not enter. It was as though the curtain was dropping on her long, 94 years of life.

The wonderful hospital staff afforded us virtual contact when this was possible. On Friday evening, Dr Hoosain Khalfey arranged for Father Michael to pray with Mom, and in his expression, "Mom accompanied him through the prayers". On Saturday, she spoke to Maria and I – she asked about whether all the children were well. I assured her that her entire brood was safe and well, and added that Ursula sent her love. The doctor didn’t know what I was saying, and Mom said, "Oh, he's talking about my cousin, Ursula von Söhnen in Stellenbosch". She then said, "You must all pray for me".

On the Sunday, she spoke to some of the grandchildren by videolink. Thereafter, she'd informed Dr Khalfey that he could convey the messages, but she was too tired to have a videolink. It was also the signalling that she wanted to spare us the pain of the visuals of her departure.  

I know that this will be repeated during the thanks, but it would be remiss of me if I failed to thank Dr Khalfey most profusely for his professional care, deep compassion and for the professional interaction he had with us, Mom's children.

Mom had prepared for her passing. She had an impromptu discussion with us, her three older children, about these events. She'd indicated that she'd want either Ron Phillips and/or Gilmore Fry to do the homily because "she wanted a priest who knew her for a very long time", and she was "Aunty" to both of them. Her wish has been granted. She understood that the parting would be sorrowful, but she demonstrated no fear of death. It was, above all, a practical matter-of fact event, and a portal that had to be passed through.

Mom had old-world values and one of these was that she did not want to sit with her feet under the table of another; this was her way of expressing her need to be independent. She lived that principle through. The other was that funerals should not ever incur a financial burden – she provided for this event and for a tea in the church hall afterwards, that we cannot now enjoy.

Mom was quite focused on enduring and deep relationships – I mentioned her friendship with Aunty Belly dating back to 1942; the house where she had moved into in 1954 and where the family lived and from where she was taken to hospital on 8 June,  or her relationship with the Good Shepherd parish where she had moved her membership in 1956 – there was a certain predictability of the actions in life.

Convening the funeral in the strange circumstances dictated by the lockdown meant that various options were explored. A guest list to a funeral and the severe strictures of time are new to contend with, and we even discussed not being able to use this church – but that was almost inconceivable. This parish and its congregation, albeit that they are mostly physically absent, were part of Mom's DNA.  Mom shared with me that one of the congregants, Mrs Idas, said at the start of the lockdown that my mother should please not die during the lockdown, because they can't miss her funeral. Apologies Mrs Idas, we had no control over the timing.

Our mother instilled in us a deep and abiding sense of values. They were part of her, and shared with us in discussions, frequently around the table. These were not imparted as lectures, but rather as observations about what was happening. Mom was exceedingly observant and deeply perceptive. When later I battled with some issues, values made sense because of what had been etched into memory.  So, when I first encountered the ideas on social sins, that were first raised by Rev Frederick Lewis Donaldson, they made immediate sense.

These "social sins", too infrequently spoken about these days, are:

Wealth without Work

Pleasure without Conscience

Commerce without Morality

Knowledge without Character

Science without Humanity

Worship without Sacrifice

Politics without Principle

These are now deeply embedded in our minds, perhaps not with quite the same economy of language. I am sure that if you took my sisters and I to separate rooms and asked that we each recall who the character was in each of these social sins, we'd hit precisely the same notes.

Part of what we learnt by observing was that meals are an important part of the social fabric. Amongst the many calls I've received the same story plays out. Those who watched the memorial service on Saturday would recall what Penny and Daphne said. So may others, many who have proceeded to occupy high office and others who have remained beneath the radar have called about that same aspect of life in Seventh Street. These were not fancy meals served on fine china and rounded off with expensive wines. They were the ordinary - Penny spoke of tripe and trotters, other may speak of bredies or fish -  but as so many have reflected, discussions around the kitchen table were an essential part of life in the household. The table was a red formica table, that was probably fashionable in the 1960s. We've all reflected on the modesty of the means – there was not too much you could do with R22 per week, even then. But we had the basics and sharing was a way of life.

About 20 years after dad's passing, Mom and Uncle Sylmore moved in together. We were allowed to tease them mercilessly about the nature of the relationship – as we could raise all sorts of uncomfortable issues or even test our risqué jokes on my mom. It was a parenting style that had friendship among its key attributes. They were very good to and for each other, and Mom was very distraught when he passed away eight years ago, at the age of 88.

Now, nobody should, for a moment, suggest that it was all plain-sailing. Yes, there were issues to deal with. After my dad passed when I was 13, I became quite unmanageable – apart from berating me in the presence of my friends for being a big-deal and smoking on the street corner – there was a difficult matter of my having decided that I wasn't going to attend church any longer. Mom set a trap, and invited uncles and my older cousins home one Sunday evening, so that I could confirm to them that she had done her bit – taken or sent me to church and had had me confirmed and that the rebellion now - this was my doing. This was a clever style of parenting, especially since we had no tradition of the extended family's involvement in child-rearing.

Mom found her public voice late in life. Not as a militant from her youth, despite her mother having been a shop steward in the Food and Canning Workers Union, mom was reticent. She was genuinely concerned about the risks – and it wasn't until 1982 that she was able to confront the Security Police, the feared W/O Spyker van Wyk, no less, who came home for me as a consequence of my support for a Bread Boycott led by the United Women's Organisation.

My mother stood up to him with her Bible. "With God on our side, who can be against us?" she intoned. It was after this that she felt included and identified more strongly with the issues of a struggle for democracy. Beyond that point in 1982, she was more active in the local civic organisation, in the UDF, through my many detentions when she could also be a motivator to others. This was a role that came quite naturally to mom, and the involvement of mothers became the wellspring for the courage of activists everywhere.

Our mothers unleashed the energy that rendered the attempts of the apartheid regime impossible – it was they who ensured that apartheid was unworkable and the system ungovernable, and through those many hard nights and prison, we were comforted by their tears and strengthened by their resolve. I know that my mother was not unique in wanting no special privileges, just a system of democratic justice that would address the needs of families and prevented the hardship she also knew as a mother and a widow. This remains work to be done, even today!

When later, I was called to serve in the Cabinet, my mother was an integral part of this. People who worked in the National Treasury during the period I was there confirmed last week that mom did not miss a single budget speech or a parliamentary event that involved me. And she had the right to it – mom was my listener for big speeches, whether this was a physical or a virtual engagement.

I understood that in as much as the budget, for example, needed to make sense to high finance, whose representatives were in the parliamentary gallery or at their screens in dealing rooms, it also needed to make sense to MPs who had to vote the budget into law, but most of all it needed to be understood by the ordinary people whose lives the decisions would directly affect. This was where my mother entered – she had the familiarity and the confidence to say to the minister, "I'm sorry, I don't understand what you're trying to say." Though it didn't ever reach that point, I knew that it was best to avoid it by using her as a sounding board, mostly remotely, but an indispensable reference. I think that it worked reasonably for me. 

I want to end with a few lines from the poem "A Song of Living", by Amelia Josephine Burr:

Because I have loved life, I shall have no sorrow to die.

I have set up my gladness on wings, to be lost in the blue of the sky.

I have run and leaped with the rain, I have taken the wind to my breast.

My cheek is like a drowsy child to the face of the earth I pressed.

Because I have loved life, I shall have no sorrow to die.

So mom, we release you, eternally grateful for your courage, guidance and love. Rest in eternal peace.

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