An interview with Trevor Manuel

It’s difficult not to address Trevor Manuel as “Minister Manuel”. After all, he was the world’s longest-serving Finance Minister – 13 years in all (1996 to 2009) out of a total of 20 years in government. He started out as Minister of Trade and Industry in 1994 and ended up as Minister in the Presidency responsible for Planning from 2009 before retiring in 2014.

We interviewed him in January 2015, seven months after he stepped down and found him as contemplative as ever. Perhaps even more so because he no longer had to worry about saying and doing things in accordance with being a government minister. Not that Manuel ever let that stop him from expressing his views as freely as possible.

Asked whether he was getting used to a new pace of life, he said he was still struggling with finding the balance between how he spends his time.

“After the intensity of the 20 years as a minister I had arrived at the conclusion that I must step aside. Also, I don’t see leadership responsibilities as being permanent. I’ve always considered myself privileged to have been afforded opportunities to lead at a fairly young age. I was 27 when we launched the UDF. I was 34 when I was elected to the NEC of the ANC, and 38 when I became a minister. And the only way to repay society is to create opportunities and plough back.

“If the move had been sudden and external to me it may have been a little bit different. But this allowed me to kind of think through these issues. I didn’t want to go rushing into anything and so I spent some time clearing my desk, clearing my head.”

Manuel had spent his last few years in government leading the process of developing the National Development Plan. Was it difficult to let go?

“You know, I was faced with a strange set of circumstances in 2008. When I resigned, after Thabo Mbeki was recalled, I explained to anybody who wanted to listen, that ministers are appointed by the President, and when you recall the President, the new President must have a free hand to appoint all ministers.

“You may recall that when my letter of resignation leaked, the rand went into a free-fall – so whereas there had been a lot of resistance to my appointment as Finance Minister, 13 years into the job there had been a conflation of my personality with the portfolio. This was bad – bad for democracy because then people begin to think that they’re indispensable.

“I didn’t want to return in 2009 and I didn’t want to negotiate, but I said I couldn’t go back to the finance portfolio, come what may. The incoming President Zuma understood that and said he wanted me to do something else.

“Heading up the National Planning Commission was very different because it took me half a step outside government. We tried to draw skills and experience from outside of the public sphere. The President said in his speech at the inaugural meeting of the Planning Commission in 2010: ‘I want you to take the independent, critical look and make suggestions about the long term’.

“It took me out of government but it also placed me in a different situation because I was sitting in a commission of 25 people who were peers with different experiences. It was a very good experience.

“Whilst the Planning Commission was independent and not responsible for implementation, if I had to rethink, it’d probably come closer to where we are now, which is to tie it up with performance, monitoring and evaluation.

“I would use the space in-between to design, with departments and government agencies, the implementation schedule and the measurement for implementation and to measure performance, so that you’re closing the loop in a very particular way. The Planning Commission’s work is front end, but there’s still a lot of work that is incomplete.

If you looked at the Green Paper on the Planning Commission that was agreed to in Parliament in 2009, there are still a number of issues that must have attention from a cross-cutting body – and the Planning Commission remains well-positioned to do this. I’m thinking of something like food security.

“Where will we get our food from by 2030? What will we grow? What will we import? What will the balances be? How do we ensure the nutrition of all South Africans? It is a big, big challenge. I’m thinking about water security and the issue of power outages.

“There’s also a question that we didn’t properly have time to get around to and that was what actually do we do as a country in Africa? What is our footprint? If we are going to play a peace-making role, how does that impact on the shape and composition of the defence force?

“Even from the initial conceptualisation of the Planning Commission’s work, there are a number of areas that we haven’t got around to that remain open-ended, What is important is we don’t become too proprietary about anything.

Manuel feels that, despite what appears to be a lack of urgency around the NDP, government remains committed to implementing the Plan.

“The communications challenge is it’s not just saying that you are committed but it’s actually showing your mettle on these issues. There are some things that are going to be fundamental to fixing the problems. For instance, you must deal with the behaviour of public servants, whether we are talking of the observations that countless people made about police conduct in the face of xenophobic acts or whether we’re talking of education which is still separated into education for the few and education for the many.

“We need to look at the role that trade unions play in looking not at the developmental imperative (including in areas like education) but only at their members and defending their members regardless. Or we need to look at the fact that the public health sector is available to 83% of our population but it’s funded very poorly and even where there is funding there are issues you can’t explain. You can’t explain why there are no essential medicines or what happened to the bedding in hospitals. You can’t explain why hospitals are dirty.

“These are issues of public services, which present the face of government to the majority of South Africans. If you make a call that democracy is care driven, it has to care for the most vulnerable – so the issue of public service is very important.

The quality of public service is important and somebody must take responsibility. By addressing those kinds of issues you can actually take huge strides in creating a better sense of implementation and I think it’s in those kinds of areas that you create a different sense of national pride. It goes beyond just rolling out more and more infrastructure.”

Manuel has always insisted that all South Africans should take ownership of the NDP and he believes this is happening. “I have seen NGOs convening meetings to discuss important issues and meetings where school principals have invited the private sector to talk about the challenges facing education. As a result, the private sector is getting involved in education and raising money for schools. There seems to be healthy cross-pollination.

“But we must also address the issue of taking competent teachers and turning them into HODs and principals because that is the only way in which they can earn a little bit more. It’s a complex situation because you are taking competent teachers away from teaching and you’re putting people in a position to manage others without them being properly trained.

“This seems like a small interaction, but it has massive implications. The fact is that there are business people who want to do things. It is a source of hope. Nationally there are people who are prepared to give up their time and energy to make a difference to our society.

“What worries me though, is the breakdown of service delivery and the breakdown of what used to hold communities together, a lot of which was found in the faith communities, your churches, priests, mosques. We need to hold on to the ability to do good in our communities, as opposed to the shift to all things material. It is important to build inclusive communities.”

Manuel agrees that issues such as power outages can impact on the implementation of the NDP.

“You don’t want to get to a point where people are unhappy because their power went and they feel that they can’t trust Eskom. So you can’t operate in an environment where there is a trust deficit.

“As a nation we should be more concerned about what we communicate, how we treat each other and how we talk to people about it. This is important for decision-makers.

“I learnt this with the Budget speech. You don’t have a single audience because there are grandmothers sitting at home or in old age homes in the village that try to understand what is happening and you have to talk to them about the issues. There are workers who try and understand what this means to them. There are stock traders and businessmen listening and you have to talk to all of them at the same time. You have to talk to them in a language that has regard for them and makes sense. That is the big challenge.

“We don’t always seem to understand that the way we communication has implications. When a minister says to a member of parliament for the opposition, that he is a white male babysitter, and that minister is not publicly rebuked, then we have a problem. Because then we are doing things which government should not do. We don’t know how to talk to each other.

“We actually don’t understand that when we (as leaders) are abusive that it’s seen as a licence. What kind of licence might this give to the young unemployed person who feels that society doesn’t care? They might see this as a licence that you give them, when something is different, you can abuse it. This is part of the communication challenge and we don’t pay enough attention to it.”

Manuel warned against seeing business as a monolithic entity which should have a uniform response to the NDP.

“When we talk of government, it is a single entity, a complex single entity when you add in the provinces. We get a single set of marching orders. It is a single purpose. When you talk of business, you don’t have this.

“If you are an importer you want a strong rand and if you’re an exporter you want a weak rand. If you are manufacturing, you have one view, if you are a retailer, you have another. If you’re a large business you want one thing. If you’re small business you want another.

“Organised business is very fragmented. There was a decision to form Business Unity South Africa, which still exists. But then you have Business Leadership South Africa, which is comprised of the 50 largest businesses in South Africa. Then there is the Black Business Caucus, and ultimately if you have a business jockeying for position between these organisations, then you’re not going to have a composite voice.

“Ultimately business tries to make money. We mustn’t fool ourselves. But the idea is to try and help strengthen it.

“If there’s better communication, I think it’s also easier to make long-term decisions. Business makes long-term decisions. If business is insecure, they don’t invest. You don’t get investments and they don’t create jobs. If you don’t create the jobs, you have instability in society.

“If you go back to the NDP, you will see that the objective is to deal with poverty. You must get there and you must be able to raise those issues. You have to understand what it means to deal with poverty and inequality. And we mustn’t just talk.

“I don’t think you can just go into communities of the poor and disadvantaged and talk about poverty and inequality. You’ve actually got to go to the wealthier parts of society and talk openly about these issues. My sense is that we should have these discussions so that we place ourselves in a problem solving mode.

“The issue is that we understand the deficit of the young people out of work is a huge risk. It’s a risk to them. It’s a risk to all of society. We must solve it. Broadly that is what underlines the National Development Plan. We’ve got to solve it.

“A society that ignores the needs of young people faces a huge challenge, because those numbers grow.

“Leadership is important and we need to to find solutions that are contemporary, and that are sometimes premised on values rather than ideologies. We are still struggling to get to this point.

“If you want to raise the living standards you can’t keep people in poverty. If you want to free the potential of each person then your education system must allow them to understand what their potential is. If you don’t do those things, then you don’t even understand the Constitution. If you first think that the problems need to be solved by Karl Marx and Adam Smith, then you are going to make huge mistakes.”

As one of the longest-serving government ministers, one would have thought that Manuel’s expertise would be put to use by government, even in an unofficial or advisory capacity. However, Manuel said this was not the case.

“No, I am not being called up,” was all he said in response to the question about whether government was using his expertise, especially on the NDP.

When asked what the future holds for him, apart from his work as a senior adviser to the Rothschild Group, Manuel said he was looking to find an appropriate balance and hoped to work with young people.

“Young people face many issues and need support. It is a big battle.”

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