SA still has Manuel transmission

'Can I have a strong, skinny cappuccino?" says Trevor Manuel, minister in the presidency: National Planning Commission.

He looks like he needs it. He has just returned from a trip to the United States, but "I think I'm feeling the effects of the jet lag from the week before that", he laughs.

Manuel once enjoyed unprecedented admiration in many sectors of society as the country's minister of finance.

He resigned from the post in 2008 only to return "by popular demand" and more recently spearheaded a diagnostic report that formed the basis of the National Development Plan (NDP), a 400-page road map to "eliminate poverty" and "reduce inequality" by 2030.

But, although his name has become synonymous with the NDP, today he clutches another document, titled Now for the Long Term.

It was launched this week by the Oxford Martin Commission for Future Generations, a group that was convened to "address the growing short-term preoccupations of modern politics and identify ways to overcome today's impasse in key economic, climate, trade, security and other negotiations".

Like "the plan", it is intended to "ignite change", says Manuel.

This report, too, makes a diagnostic appraisal of both the defining tenets of modern society and the ills plaguing it.

Short termism
The Oxford Martin Commission comprises Manuel and 17 other global leaders from government, business and society, and boasts Pascal Lamy, former director general of the World Trade Organisation as its chairperson.

The leaders include communications billionaire Mo Ibrahim, economist Nicholas Stern, former Chilean president Michelle Bachelet and the Huffington Post's editor in chief, Ariana Huffington.

The paper focuses on the increasing "short termism" of modern politics and the "collective inability to break the gridlock" that is preventing the world from ­addressing problems shaping the future.

In Manuel's opinion, today's youth is bearing the brunt of politicians' tendencies "not to look beyond the next election".

"The youth unemployment issue is a phenomenal crisis," he says.

"What was significant about the baby boomers [those born between 1946 and 1964] is that progressively they were better off than their parents.

Change in discourse
"But the generation has gone from boom to bust.

"The younger generation [of today] in the main is going to be less well off than their parents. You have seen this already in countries like the US.

"Even graduates who are the children of graduates are not earning what their parents did. Partly because of oversupply, partly because the skills choice is different and partly because some jobs – like clerical roles – have actually been completely displaced."

The situation will see no remedy until there is a change in discourse, says Manuel.

The Oxford paper aims to ignite the discussions for such movement.

Passion and intensity

But in order for deliberations of this nature to take place, a forum must exist in which to hold them. And this is where a crucial vacuum exists in South African society.

"The phenomenon of community-based youth organisations is virtually nonexistent," he says.

Such forums, distinct from political parties and unions, are the only platform in which to recreate the scale of passion and intensity that brought down apartheid, he says.

One thing is sure: cluttering the voters' ballot with more political party choices will not achieve it.

"Society is sick. Adding new political parties won't make it well again," he says.

Speaking of politics, what of his own future in the ANC? Will he stay in government after next year's election?

"Goodbye!" laughs Manuel without responding, and pays the bill on his way out.


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Thalia Holmes
Thalia Holmes

Thalia is a freelance business reporter for the Mail & Guardian. She grew up in Swaziland and lived in the US before returning to South Africa.

She got a cum laude degree in marketing and followed it with another in English literature and psychology before further confusing things by becoming a black economic empowerment (B-BBEE) consultant.

After spending five years hearing the surprised exclamation, "But you're white!", she decided to pursue her latent passion for journalism, and joined the M&G in 2012. 

The next year, she won the Brandhouse Journalist of the Year Award, the Brandhouse Best Online Award and was chosen as one of five finalists from Africa for the German Media Development Award. In 2014, she and a colleague won the Standard Bank Sivukile Multimedia Award. 

She now writes and edits for various publications, but her heart still belongs to the M&G.     

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