South Africa

HANNIBAL ELECTOR: Exit Stage Right—the final days of Trevor Manuel

By Richard Poplak 21 April 2014

Trevor Manuel, best known as the world’s longest ever serving Minister of Finance, and as the luminary who shaped South African economic policy post-1994, recently announced his retirement from politics. Slowly, subtly, he has started to knock the ANC, his political home for more than two decades. But is this the country that Trevor Manuel made, or the country he helped break? RICHARD POPLAK wants to know how the ANC’s very own unicorn—a clean politician—is shaping the election conversation.

In the long and virtually continuous fight for freedom…classes that were fighting against oppression at one stage sided with the enemies of freedom when victory was won and new privileges were to be defended.

Erich Fromm, Escape From Freedom

Cape Town is not a city, but a metaphor. Nestled between two great oceans, crouched beneath a great big mountain, it is a jewel that turns to coal at the edges. Ringed by Khayelitsha, Mitchell’s Plain, Valhalla Park and other places where one wouldn’t muck out the stable of a Constantia-bred horse, Cape Town remains a colonial way-station—a place to top up on craft beer, sashimi and sea-borne air while making sure the natives stay put in their natural habitats. In this, Cape Town is quintessentially South African. But as a metaphor, it actually encompasses much more than that: Cape Town is how the world is. Divided, desperately unequal, manifestly unfair—the Mother City just does it with better light, and with more surfers.

This is what I’m thinking when I’m finally installed in the sun-dappled corner office constituting Room 1, Good Hope. For a few more weeks, this remains Trevor Manuel’s war room. The Minister in charge of the National Planning Commission, one of the more internationally famous and better-regarded South African politicians, is currently winding things down. By May 7 he will be gone. Anyone who has ever owned a pinstripe suit is mourning the loss—Trevor has always behaved, you see. In his 33-year career as an apartheid activist, economics czar, finance minister, ANC National Executive Committee stalwart and head of the National Planning Commission, he has never once exhibited a moment’s doubt about the economic policies he helped institute. His is exactly the species of socially democratic, neo-liberal-lite technocrat that the “market” and “international partners” adore, which means that he eats lots of Premium Tropical Fruit Platters at Davos. Trevor Manuel will leave the ANC, and South African politics, without taint.

Or almost without taint. Because while we find ourselves at a point where not being caught at the trough counts as a stellar political record, Trevor Manuel will have to take some of the rap for all that ails us. He has had an outsized impact on the recent history of this country, and he was never, unless you count the very end of his tenure (which I don’t), a dissenting voice. Manuel was present for almost every important moment as apartheid crumbled and fell during the 1980s, photo-bombing every major milestone on the journey from the dark side to the light—Forest Gump with a 180 IQ and a calculator.

This is his country.

He wears the wear-and-tear well. At 58, he presents like a prosperous construction company manager; indeed Manuel was working in construction when he became a full-time activist in 1981, and his hands look like they could twist a steel girder into a bowtie. Today, in full ruminative mode, he’s using those hands to conjure the swirl of loony-bin mania that surrounded the moment he was yanked into the future by Nelson Mandela. When you speak to people like Manuel, you learn that history is a dark cloud of chaos that has no meaning, no narrative and no point until people wearing tweed start looking for context, for links. One of only two books he mentions in our hours-long discussion is Frankfurt School social theorist Erich Fromm’s magisterial Escape from Freedom. It is the book’s thesis that “modern man, freed from the bonds of pre-individualistic society, which simultaneously gave him security and limited him, has not gained freedom in the positive sense of the realization of his individual self; that is the expression of his intellectual, emotional and sensuous potentialities.”

I take this to mean that Manuel, after 30 years on the frontlines, is trying to figure out why South Africans began discarding freedom at the very moment they’d won it. And whether he had a hand in helping them do so.

* * *

Some things came together. Other things fell apart. Here, according to Trevor Manuel, is how it happened: in 1990, when a newly freed Nelson Mandela asked him to join the ANC’s nascent economic department, “I couldn’t spell economics,” Manuel tells me. “I thought there were a number of other things I could do. But Madiba’s view was that, ‘You will learn. It’s an important area, and you will learn.’ And then I moved into a department that at one level was quite embryonic.”

Opening the newspapers at the time, Manuel understood that whatever economic policy the ANC leadership had cooked up—recipe: a small pinch of Marx; boil in Lenin; lightly garnish with view of Soviet Russia culled from a Dziga Vertov film—belonged to a different world, one that had ceased to exist by 1989.

When it came to economics, the ANC’s broad church was more like an asylum. The ANC’s genius under Mandela was its ability to forge consensus—its fatal flaw the need to present that consensus as divinely ordained. In this, there’s a clue as to why Mandela picked Manuel as the man to wrangle all of these competing, half-formed ideologies into a single kraal:

My view on policy, and policy that effects numbers, is agnostic,” he tells me.

That agnosticism can occasionally read as wonkish apathy, and Manuel has a habit of using language to distance himself from events he not only participated in, but actively shaped. In describing the key ANC Ready to Govern Conference, conducted in May 1992, he says, “it wouldn’t be a surprise to you that the dominant forces in that conference were from that very department that you refer to.” Which is a strange way to talk about the department he was instrumental in creating.

At Ready to Govern,” he continues, “there is kind of a smattering of talk about economic policy, and perhaps the most important one is a conversation about the role of the state. And there’s a curious crafting that the role of the state in the economy shall be decided on the balance of evidence based on a case-by-case basis—the state shall either increase or decrease its interests, but it doesn’t say how. It’s a crafting which is in many ways a pivot for a series of issues.”

Um, such as?

Madiba convenes us and says, Chaps, you got this word ‘privatization’—and Madiba says, You know, Joe Slovo here says that the party would have a lot of difficulty with that. What if we took out the word? So we took out the word and tested the grammar, and it seemed okay. And we were able to proceed with that.”

Economic destiny forged by way of grammar. Which I was not aware was an ANC strong suit.

You see, Richard, this was not the Brookings Institute,” Manuel reminds me. “This was a large political movement whose key objective was to establish democracy. The work we were doing was largely political. But we were trying to get through some of the economics as well. Because I think we understood better than most that we had a paucity of skills.”

With this in mind, Manuel and company convened a macroeconomic research group, bringing in students and seasoned academics to a) try to forge policy and b) build a network of thinkers who would be absorbed either into the ANC or the civil service later on in the process. Manuel chaired the programme, and, “When I think back to how much work we put into it, I think, shit, was it worth it?”


Manuel points out that these lengthy discussions and research commissions produced not so much policy as what can best be described as “economic flavouring”. It was lustily added to the Reconstruction and Development Programme (RDP), which in 1994 served as the ANC’s first ever election manifesto, and the country’s guidebook to the future. “The one issue we didn’t have was all of the detailed econometrix,” Manuel tells me. “The broad intent was there. The numbers weren’t.”

Read in retrospect, the RDP is staggeringly nutrient-free as a financial roadmap. “If you look at the last chapter of that RDP, which looks at financing, we say that we will finance without increasing the deficit, the debt, or taxes,” notes Manuel. “In our minds somewhere, there is such a huge post-apartheid war dividend with which you can fund all of these things.”

But the apartheid regime had raided state pensions in order to finance their earthbound Death Star “All of our debt—all of their debt was domestic,” says Manuel. “The regime couldn’t borrow from international players, there were some underhand deals primarily on gold with the Swiss that we knew about, but all of it was completely muddled.”

Manuel was tapped for Minister of Finance in 1996. “By that time, servicing debt was the biggest item on the budget,” he tells me. “Madiba knew very well that debt is yesterday, but expenditure is tomorrow. And he didn’t want to spend everything on yesterday.” The President expected education to be the single largest item on the budget. And so came the moment of truth. Borrowing heavily from the IMF or the World Bank was not an option. “Our sovereignty in South Africa was incredibly hard won, steeped in blood and pain,” says Manuel. “And we weren’t going to become a client state of anybody. We wanted to develop a comprehensive macro-package. We needed ANC and alliance backing. We knew that we couldn’t enter this discussion as you would a negotiation. It was not wage bargaining.”

And so, with history throwing haymakers, the future came hazily, drearily into view. Just think about it for a second: an evil regime of morons plunders pensions in order to maintain an economic system based on the exploitation of non-whites; a liberation movement-come-political party with no grasp of economics outside of the blurb of Das Kapital takes over; with significant fiduciary shortfalls it has to figure out how to pull tens of millions out of rigged poverty without taking a loan from the Bretton Wood creeps.

What’s a Finance Ministry to do? Crack the economy wide open; send out gilded invitations to foreign multinationals; maintain domestic white business oligopolies; build a social safety net for the poor that doesn’t actually offer safety. Build a hyper-liberalised social democratic welfare state. And when it comes to redistribution—when it comes to redressing the economic disparities that underpinned the apartheid regime—institute affirmative action policies spearheaded by Black Economic Empowerment initiatives, designed to create a black middle class that will drive the country forward by starting more and more businesses, creating more and more jobs, generating more and more wealth; all of this revolving around Nelson Mandela’s desire to see the legacy of Bantu education wiped away, and to leave as his own legacy a country wherein every kid has a shot.

How did it all work out? South African schools are a place where children go to drown in pit latrines. So I’d say, Not so well.

As the ANC drifted further and further from the Freedom Charter, crafted in 1955 and thus just a little outdated, they blundered into this particular version of their Destiny, which turned out to be a dangerous place from which to rule. By the December 1997 ANC conference in Mafikeng, it was clear that the RDP required a “stable macro-economic environment framework”, and so enter “Growth Employment and Redistribution: A Macroeconomic Strategy”. And that was that was that.

It remains a bit of a sticking point”, says Manuel.

* * *

As fucking ridiculous as a debate on the outright nationalisation of a middle-income economy may be in 2014, this is where we find ourselves. Manuel, however, believes that the debate is a fake one, based on flawed intelligence and wrongful thinking. Which is hard to disagree with, but doesn’t dismiss the fact of the debate, however Lewis Carroll-like it may be.

When Madiba went to the Swiss reach-around festival Davos in 1994, South African lore has it that he left a communist and returned a capitalist. “I don’t readily accept those epithets,” says Manuel. “He had a discussion not with wide-eyed capitalists, but with members of the Communist Party of China about policy. And he spoke about this nationalisation thing, and they asked, Why do you want to do that? Because in China ‘socialism with Chinese characteristics’”—AKA party-run hyper-capitalism—“was already developing its own momentum. He was persuaded that nationalisation can’t be the policy of the ANC. However, maybe it was awkwardly handled”.

It was. And so we’re basically stuck in Tanzania in 1968 when it comes to this conversation, which is less invigorating than it sounds.

Well, I really don’t think that the EFF has a peg to hang anything on,” says Manuel, referring to Julius Malema’s rising opposition party. “You see, part of the discussions leading up to the Congress of the People in 1955 [where the Freedom Charter was drafted] was also shaped by global circumstances that were very different. If the EFF were as red as their berets, then Malema would not have had all the financial problems that he’s had in his life, at his tender age. It’s a populist message that they’re trying to latch onto.”

As far as Manuel is concerned, the Mineral and Petroleum Resources Development Act of 2000 changed the status quo by placing mineral rights in the hands of the state, acting on behalf of the people. “Looked at in a different light and in the context of the Freedom Charter, mineral resources were actually nationalized in this country in 2000. The debate is moot.”

And yet it is not. And that’s because almost no single element of economic policy in post-apartheid South Africa has managed to redress the single abiding issue of apartheid: inequality. Here’s a clause 4.1.1 from the 1994 RDP; add to “white minority” a “narrow political elite” and you tell me if anything has changed:

The South African economy is in a deep-seated structural crisis and as such requires fundamental reconstruction. For decades forces within the white minority have used their exclusive access to political and economic power to promote their own sectional interests at the expense of black people. Black people have been systematically exploited and oppressed economically and South Africa now has one of the world’s most unequal patterns of distribution of income and wealth. A disproportionate share of the burden of poverty and inequality has fallen on black women who have been subject to systematic gender oppression. Economic deprivation has created a fertile base for the violence and instability now engulfing our country. The ever-changing and destabilising global economy has also adversely affected the local economy.

Surely, as long-serving economics guru, Manuel is partly, if not largely, responsible for this.

No, I don’t think finance ministers can take responsibility for all of those things, Richard,” he says. “You see, one of the misplaced issues regarding economic discourse in this country is that there’s this belief that macroeconomics is everything. Economists would use their own arcane language and say macro-economic stability is a necessary but not a sufficient condition. You need a series of structural policies that are not macro. And those are out of the purview of any minister of finance.”

Manuel wants me to think of macroeconomic policy-making as conducting an orchestra. “You have percussion and it keeps the beat. But if you stripped away everything else but the drums, it would be impossible to listen to it. But without the percussion, the conductor can’t hear how to bring in everything else. And the issues we look for are the ‘everything else’”.

The “everything else”—the micro stuff, if you will—has been a disaster. And so, Manuel and the ANC have drifted apart. There is, of course, the issue of his gruesome spat with then-Director General at the Department of Labour, Jimmy Manyi, over the latter’s insistence that there was “an over-concentration of coloureds” in the Western Cape, and affirmative action policies should take that fact into consideration. Manuel was displeased with those statements.

I want to be clear about this: I’m not angry with the ANC,” he tells me. “I’m not leaving because of a fall-out. If I serve another term I’ll be too old to start something new. I’d like to do bits of things that allow me to contribute to society. I don’t know yet. I’d be lying to you if I said that broad approaches to greater egalitarianism aren’t part of my DNA. I don’t think that my service to society needs to be confined to what ministers do. But I leave without anger or rancor.”

Does he leave with regret?

Some. Some. I’m mindful of significant achievements. But there are some issues that we’ve never given significant time to persuade each other.”

Those being?

Some of the stuff we’ve talked about. But the bigger issue is our ability to concentrate on a sense of nationhood, and here I don’t mean corny jingoism, flag waving stuff. I’m talking about the way in which we build responsibility. There are no consequences. If somebody does wrong, own up. Look at Japan. If they make a mistake, they come before the people, bow, scrape, apologise, and step down.”

They used to commit suicide.

Hahaha! Well, I don’t think you can build a society without consequences. That’s the issue.”

He once again brings up Erich Fromm’s Escape from Freedom. “In many ways, people don’t want to take the responsibilities of freedom. In this country, it’s almost the inverse of that: we so embrace the freedom that there can’t be any consequences to what we do. And I think that’s a deeply troubling philosophical problem as a nation. It’s very difficult to build a society where the ethical underpinnings of what defines us in relation to ourselves, in relation to each other, doesn’t find a strong enough resonance in the minds of the people. It’s a curious story. I’ve really been battling to understand how you can improve on governance issues.”

A reasonably terrifying statement from a man who has been in South Africa’s democratically elected government since its inception. In truth, like any major historical figure, Trevor Manuel was subject to—and made—a million small choices and a few dozen big ones. One thing is certain: he is no less baffled by the Great Unraveling than the rest of us are. He understands the stakes as Erich Fromm once did: “that man, the more he gains freedom…and the more he becomes an “individual,” has no choice but to unite himself with the world in the spontaneity of love and productive work or else to seek a kind of security by such ties with the world as destroy his freedom and the integrity of his individual self.”

Manuel leaves just as the collective South African self is on the brink. For now, as he exits stage right, he leaves cloaked in glory. We’ll see if history deigns to leave him that way attired. The city outside his generous office is a metaphor that he helped craft. DM

Photo: South Africa’s Finance Minister Trevor Manuel participates in a plenary session the opening day of the Annual Meeting of the World Economic Forum, WEF, in Davos, Switzerland, 28 January 2009. EPA/LAURENT GILLIERON