/ 27 January 2009

From Guevara to Gear

From the Ché Guevara of the Cape Flats to one of the most respected finance ministers in the world may seem quite a leap for any revolutionary. Yet Pippa Green’s biography of Trevor Manuel, Choice Not Fate: The Life and Times of Trevor Manuel (Penguin), ably demonstrates how one revolutionary did it. This comprehensively researched and in-depth ”life and times” not only tells a story but presents a picture of the changing political environment of contemporary South Africa.

Born in 1956 into a family affected by the wave of new apartheid laws after 1948, Trevor Manuel, as a child, gained a reputation for being a ”fighter”. He and his siblings were encouraged by their father to excel at what they did; in addition, the future activist-economist learned much from accompanying his father while canvassing for the then Labour Party on the Cape Flats.

The capacity to listen and communicate with ordinary people would be a mark of his work in the 1980s. His tough, no-nonsense attitude also grew out of these times. His political ”education” took a variety of turns. Attending the prestigious Harold Cressy High School in Cape Town, he was exposed to the left-wing politics of the (predominantly coloured and broadly Trotskyist) Unity Movement and Teachers’ League. He made personal contact with elderly Congress Alliance personalities in the Cape and also drew upon the strands of Black Consciousness and renascent trade unionism of the early 1970s. He also read the Marxist literature that was being passed around radical student circles. By the end of the 1970s, having trained as a civil engineer at Peninsula Technikon, he moved into the post-1976 new union and civic organisations that had continued despite state crackdowns. As with many of these activists his political journey had led him to the ANC.

Manuel secretly joined the ANC at the end of 1979. By then he was already a rising community organiser in Cape Town. The ANC leadership immediately sent him back to the Mother City to carry on what he was doing so effectively.

He helped set up the Cape Housing Action Committee in 1980, continuing to work with unions and other grass-roots organisations. As protest in the early 1980s increased, finding a broad focus in resistance to the state’s decision to create a ”Tricameral Parliament”, Manuel was one of the key figures in setting up a new alliance, the United Democratic Front.

The UDF was not simply the internal ANC under a new name. Though many leaders, including Manuel, were indeed ANC — and acting under ANC instruction — other leaders were not. Most were broadly ANC-aligned in politics, as were most of the organisations within the UDF. The UDF itself also organised around ANC principles, but was at local and regional levels — as well as within sectors — fairly autonomous in what it did. And what it did could be summed up as making apartheid ungovernable. As Green shows, they were good at it — and among the best was Trevor Manuel.

Manuel was constantly evading the security police and, when finally captured, gave his captors successive headaches.
After 1990 things changed. Now openly within the ANC negotiating a transition of power in a country that was deeply unstable politically and suffering serious economic downturn, Manuel was deployed to the ANC’s department of economic planning. Here too there were many tensions and few economists. Manuel, not an economist, taught himself international finance and macroeconomics as he was trying to lead a group that moved the broadly socialist ANC towards economic policies closer to neoliberalism. This was, the author suggests, not based on being ”seduced” by the World Bank or bullied by the IMF — it was a conscious choice, a decision based on what the policy designers, led by Manuel, considered realistic.

Despite questions (from within and outside the ANC) about his lack of economics background, Manuel’s rise within the post-1994 government has been dramatic — from trade and industry to the first black minister of finance of South Africa. In this section perhaps more could have been said about the tensions that Manuel’s (among others’) economic decisions have caused within the country — and within the ANC Alliance.

If there is an overarching theme in the biography it must be that ”choice” is backed up by determination, honesty and hard work. Green does not gloss over how such determination can lead to personal difficulties: the UDF chapters highlight the terrible cost to relationships and family life that were incurred by many in the struggle.

Green weaves together Manuel’s life story with the stories of Western Cape UDF-ANC politics, the transition and contemporary history with skill. This is an impressive and well-written biography of one of the most impressive contemporary South African politicians. If it is a little too respectful (perhaps apologetic) at times, the depth of research and the deft interweaving of other voices from Manuel’s past and present generally restore a more critical edge. Ultimately, unlike many political biographies, it’s also an exciting read.