Trevor, the man who put SA into Gear

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South African politics can move so quickly that some people may be forgiven for forgetting how important Trevor Manuel once was. Not to say he’s not important now. Just that there was once a time when he was really the second-most important and powerful person in the country, when the rand appeared to quiver at his every word. And when he was the financial face of the Mbeki government, the person who had to sell his macroeconomic policies to the western world and prove to them that South Africa was not going to follow the path of other African countries on our continent. We will miss him.

In 2008, just a few days after Gwede Mantashe’s announcement that the ANC was going to recall Thabo Mbeki, I received a phone call. The person wanted to remain anonymous, and claimed that about half of the Cabinet was about to resign. In those heady days, anything was possible, and I was well ready to believe it. As the person went through a list of people, there was only really one name that mattered. Trevor Manuel’s. His name was on the list. But I had two major problems. The first was that my anonymous source wanted to stay anonymous, and wouldn’t say who he was. I had a good idea (and still do), but I couldn’t be sure it was the person I thought it was. The other was that if we went to air with such a story, the only question everyone would ask me would be about Manuel. And if I answered truthfully, the rand would have taken a tumble.

Before we really had time to come to a decision properly, a press release came forth from the Presidency, confirming a list of people who had resigned. Manuel’s name was on it.

It was an electric moment. One of those times when you almost think you’re living in a dream. Manuel was the economic buttress between what appeared to be an ANC leader in debt to the SACP, Cosatu, and countless others after Polokwane, and our economic future.

Mantashe himself was incredibly proactive. He went on the radio, and gave a new list of ministers who had resigned, but agreed to be reappointed. Again, Manuel was on that list. The dust slowly settled on a story that would have been half that size, if Manuel had not been on either of these lists.

Trevor Manuel is not someone you stuff around with. He is not someone you take on without being fully briefed, without eating all your oaties that morning. And if you are not feeling a hundred percent confident of your question, or your argument, just forget it. He’ll have you for lunch.

But there is a sense of humour as well. A wry, cynical understanding of the world as it truly is, not as some people would like it to be. The highly developed sense of how the media works, and what journalists really want.

Still, the first overall impression anyone meeting him for the first time is likely to have is one of confidence, and competence. He’s a bit like Colin Powell in that way. He is able to take over a room effortlessly if he wants, or simply disappear if he wants. He can make a ground-breaking statement, or simply keep quiet. It’s not so much his mood, but whether it will further his goals.

The first time I realised who he was, he was delivering a budget on the radio. I was driving around, long-haired, running errands for my father, dropping off steering wheels and things at the Oriental Plaza, while listening to this person dropping quotes into a speech about money. Like all of his other budget speeches, it was impressive, compelling listening. Even if I didn’t understand a word of it.

I was still a student when he delivered the 1996 Growth, Employment and Redistribution Programme budget. The famous GEAR that stoked the unending hatred of Cosatu and the SACP for him. It’s a budget and a programme I’ve ended up reporting on in the past tense. In that we still live with the political fallout of that within the Alliance. So many times I’ve listened to diatribe after insult for those who formulated the “1996 Class Project”. Manuel of course was perhaps the leading student of that particular class. It was a mark of those times that Manuel and Mbeki seemed unchallengeable. Legend has it that cabinet meetings in those years were simply a discussion between Manuel and Mbeki, with the other ministers just listening.

By the time Jacob Zuma became President one wet Saturday in May 2009, mixed with the rain was a massive speculation about what would happen to Manuel. On the one hand, it would be the perfect signal to the markets to keep him on. On the other, he was a classic Mbeki-ite. Not just close to the former President, but the man who actually implemented Mbeki’s policies.

In just about all democracies, the most important ally of a leader is their Finance Minister. They’ve often had to appoint a rival to the post of deputy Prime Minister or President as part of some deal. So their most able ally gets to be in charge of money. It was simply too much to ask for Zuma to re-appoint Manuel to that post. And so he became Planning Minister.

For many of us political hacks, this was difficult to really understand. For a commentariat that loves to assess who has power and who doesn’t, Manuel was a quandary. There were some who felt he had no power at all. And there were others who said he was incredibly powerful. They pointed to the National Planning Commission that seemed to have every single member Manuel wanted.

In the end, we had to wait until the ANC’s Manguang Conference to work it all out. Zuma made the National Development Plan the centre-piece of his opening address. It seemed right then, that actually Manuel had been powerful all along. Although you could well argue that the only measure that will truly reveal and answer is to what extent the plan is actually implemented over the next three, or thirty, years.

While all of this was going on, Manuel had clearly also decided he was grumpy enough, and untouchable enough, that he could take on behaviour he saw as un-ANC. His finest work was a letter he wrote to then government spokesperson Jimmy Manyi (who currently hawks his wares on ANN7’s “Straight-Talk. Where no comment is not an option”.) A video had emerged in which Manyi claimed there was an “over-concentration of coloureds in the Western Cape”. Part of Manuel’s response is so cutting, it deserves another reading:

These “things”, which so irritate you, include many who made huge sacrifices in the struggle against Apartheid, at a time when people with views like Jimmy Manyi were conspicuous by their absence from the misery of exile, the battles at the barricades and from Apartheid’s jails. By the way, what did YOU do in the war, Jimmy?

It was a comment that Manyi never appeared to recover from. It was also a strong symbol that a sort of African-nationalism that excluded other race groups was simply not going to take hold within the ANC, at least for a while more. This was the kind of behaviour that led to conspiracy theories that Manuel was so annoyed with Zuma that he was going to join the DA. Like all conspiracy theories, there was more than a whiff of wishful thinking there.

As Manuel appears to prepare to retire from South African political life, he leaves only Jeff Radebe as the person who has been in Cabinet longer. He also takes with him more than just the touch of Madiba's cabinet. He is one of those links to the public face of the Struggle in the Western Cape, one of the few people still in active politics from the United Democratic Front that led part of the internal fight against Apartheid.

He also takes with him a sense of power, of getting things done, of being able to speak in different ways to different people. Sometimes, us South Africans feel that somehow we are not as clever or as sharp as Europeans or Americans, or as able to get things done as quickly as the Chinese.

Trevor Manuel was someone who could disabuse that notion. Sharpish.

We will miss him. 

By Stephen Grootes

Source: Daily Maverick

Grootes is the host of the Midday Report on Talk Radio 702 and 567 Cape Talk, and the Senior Political Correspondent for Eyewitness News. He's been part of the political hack pack since before the Polokwane Tsunami, and covers politics in a slightly obsessive manner. Those who love him have recommended help for his politics addiction. He quotes Amy Winehouse.

Stephen Grootes studied at rhodes university

Photo: Trevor Manuel (Phillip de Wet/Daily Maverick)