Trevor Manuel is no hero

There are two kinds of politicians. One who gets criticised and exposed so often that it becomes a national sport. And another, who for various reasons, does not.

The country’s longest serving finance minister, Trevor Manuel, is such a politician.

Even as I write his name down, I tremble slightly. I’ve heard of the angry phone calls to editors that could put my job on the line. Because Manuel’s image is squeaky clean and he works hard to keep it that way.

I’ve made no secret of the fact that, like much of South Africa, I’m a fan of Manuel’s competency and work ethic. The man who announced his arrival as a newbie finance minister with a misjudged comment on the “amorphous market” quickly went on to prove himself one of the most capable ministers the country has ever seen. So much so that when he offered to resign after former president Thabo Mbeki was recalled by the ANC, he sent the markets into a mini-tailspin.

But the recent hero worship around Manuel’s open letter to Jimmy Manyi is too much to stomach.

Manyi on coloureds
Manyi’s comment on coloured South Africans being too concentrated in the Western Cape, dredged up from before his controversial appointment as government spokesperson, was a slap in the face of post-apartheid South Africa and we were right to immediately censure him for it.

Manuel’s scathing letter published in several newspapers shortly afterwards, announced itself as a beacon of light and truth—a strong and true voice in the darkness saying no to the madness that Manyi represented with his awful racialism. The letter was forceful and inspiring and South Africans—parched of any inspiring politician since Nelson Mandela retired—lapped it up.

But it’s hard to ignore that the letter was published against the background of the upcoming local government elections, where Manuel has been tasked by the ANC with winning back disenchanted coloured voters in the Western Cape. The party’s leadership in the DA-led province has long been a mess, yet they are desperate to win back the only province outside their control.

The letter came shortly after new ANC leaders were belatedly elected in the province and just before the local election date was announced. Manuel, a fiercely loyal ANC member, has never put a foot wrong, and an open letter criticising a fellow member of government without the sanction of the party is difficult to conceive, given Manuel’s previous circumspect conduct in the party.

So circumspect, in fact, that Manuel has sat through some of the worst governing disasters this country has seen to date. I don’t say that lightly, because I put the Mbeki regime’s Aids denialism on a level with apartheid, in the number of lives needlessly lost and abuse meted out to citizens by denying them antiretrovirals. We live with the repercussions of that to this day.

If Manuel was the man his letter has made him out to be and easily-impressed South Africans want him to be, he would have been as truthful and critical of the government he served then.

Too little, too late?
Other people have already pointed out that Manuel could have spoken up when the controversial legislation Manyi was referencing in his comments—that would affect so many coloured people badly—was first mooted and passed by the party.

Instead he kicks the dog when it’s down, joining in the country’s collective censure of Manyi and using it to unify us against him. But where’s the bravery in that?

If Manuel really was that fearless, he would speak out about those government problems that present the most clear and present danger. Sure, racism must be fought and stamped out wherever we find it, but it’s not racism that’s slowly eating away at our government: it’s corruption. As minister of national planning, where are Manuel’s clear and forceful words on this consuming subject?

Manuel is one of the most powerful ministers in the Cabinet and has immense clout and political cache. To expend the full force of that power on a middling nuisance like Manyi is too easy, and smacks too much of a cynical political move to garner support among coloured voters for the ANC.

Manyi’s comment was many things. It was stupid, it was racist and, like most of the things that lands him in the news, it was very badly thought through.

But it was not catastrophic. Corruption, failing service delivery, and stupid decisions by our government are. And if Manuel is the hero we’re making him out to be, it’s against these things he would speak out—and not just when it’s politically expedient for him to do so.

  • You can read Verashni’s column every Monday here, and follow her on Twitter here.

Verashni Pillay

Verashni Pillay

Verashni Pillay is the former editor-in-chief of the Mail & Guardian, and inaugural editor-in chief of Huffington Post South Africa. She has worked at various periods as senior reporter covering politics and general news, specialises in mediamanagement and relishes the task of putting together the right team to create compelling and principled journalism across multiple platforms.  Read more from Verashni Pillay

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