The selective moral outrage of Trevor Manuel
by The Editor
FEATURE: Trevor Manuel has made a point over the last two years of openly criticising the ANC and the ANC government on a range of different issues. Each time his outspoken ‘honesty’ has been met with much praise and acclaim. But it is selective moral outrage on Manuel’s part and, if he really is interested in setting himself apart from the ANC, then he has much explaining to do – starting with his years of complicit silence as Thabo Mbeki damaged the foundations of our democracy.
The selective moral outrage of Trevor Manuel
By: Gareth van Onselen
8 April 2013
Last week Trevor Manuel once again ingratiated himself before the public good: “No matter how you were appointed,” he told senior civil servants, “no matter who appointed you, you are not accountable to the ruling party.”
It is the latest “honest” truth from this “lone voice”; we would do well to “heed his words”, we are told.
Over the last two years Manuel has fashioned a name for himself as a brave truth teller. He has decried racism which, he says, “has infiltrated the highest echelons of government”; argued that the government is “failing quality services to the poorest of the poor”; lamented that, “due to poor selection procedures,” there now exists “a dearth of skills in the country and in some cases, political interference in appointments”; and complained that the “school performance for the poorest half of the population remains abysmal”. For all this he has received much acclaim.
The man is a cunning fox indeed. As the general standing of the ANC has spiraled into the quagmire, as corruption and power-abuse has come to define its post-democracy brand, so Manuel has carefully ensured his own reputation is measured by a different standard. There is the ANC, and then there is Trevor Manuel – an ostensibly sane voice amid the madness – the madder the din, the more seductive his dulcet tones.
Search as hard as you might, however, you will struggle to find so much as a hint of personal responsibility for any of those woes he is so quick to express his new found moral outrage over.
What luxury – to be part of the problem and yet to accept no responsibility for it. Indeed, to moralise about it, as if entirely detached: a free-floating force for good caught in a hurricane of bad intent.
Take a moment to appreciate the size of the ego necessary for a man, absolutely complicit in the adoption and implementation of the ANC’s cadre deployment policy, silent for 15 years while it has wrought havoc on our public administration, to stand before members of the civil service and preach the virtues of a separation between party and state. As if some noble saint, untainted by the unethical and immoral cesspit in which he has bathed for so long.
Time and political division have delivered to the South African public many such martyrs. Ronnie Kasrils and the late Kader Asmal did suddenly in later life find within themselves a new moral fortitude, enabling them to raise their voice against injustice, where once it had failed them. Asmal, in particular, went so far as to seek out absolution for his sins under Thabo Mbeki: “Why did I not speak before? I should have”, he publicly despaired about Zimbabwe.
Why indeed? The answer is more interesting than the question, yet the question is what we remember.
But the archetype for this kind of ego-driven abasement is Trevor Manuel.
Often the question is asked: where is everyone who once supported apartheid? A question, it would seem, without a satisfactory answer. Likewise this, somewhat less-considered, riddle: where is everyone who once supported, through their silence or consent, Thabo Mbeki’s position on HIV and Aids? They too appear to have vanished into the ether.
I remember no brave words from Manuel. No bright, independent light when the darkness was encroaching. No. ‘Brand Manuel’ was where his concern lay. Like so many others, he quietly watched on as Mbeki subverted our international standing and, more importantly, did serious harm to the lives of those who suffered this cruel disease. So the public record shows no endorsement on his part. But it shows no opposition either: a selective and convenient moral history and a cowardly one too.
Political division has broken the once all-powerful hegemonic grip Mbeki held the ANC in, one where dissenters were quickly outcast, ostracized from power and access to it. Manuel silently endured. That division has, however, come at a cost. Manuel is now stripped of his political authority. He is no more than accommodated, tolerated, an advisor of sorts, with an opinion, to be listened to or dismissed at the President’s pleasure. He no longer controls the fiscus and thus his influence is greatly diminished. And, like so many once loyal cadres before him, today he seeks out attention elsewhere. The silent partner has become a shareholder and now openly demands best democratic practice.
Space does not allow for a full interrogation of Manuel’s record as Finance Minister, on which much of his reputation has been built, but South Africa will surely have matured as a democracy when the first critical review of it is written. How does his performance measure up to those of other economies developing at the same time? Did he deliver an objectively excellent service, or merely the mediocre average that a growing global economy inevitably enabled? Perhaps more curiously, why, if he is had done such sterling work for so long, do we need the National Planning Commission he now heads? To what degree is the NPC a response to Manuel’s own failings?
But regardless, and more to the point, over the last two decades, what great and controversial issues of public import have come before the ANC NEC? Zimbabwe, Aids, cadre deployment, the Arms Deal, the criminal charges against President Zuma, Travelgate, Oilgate, Eskom? Each one systematically mangled into an unaccountable mess. Where was Trevor Manuel then? Where was the brave truth? It was bottled up, saved perhaps for an autobiography, the favourable narrative to which he would seem to be writing and rewriting everyday.
Better now than never I hear you say. Better he speaks up now than forever hold his tongue – his candid criticism should be well received. There is some truth to that. But Manuel wants more than mere recognition for such ‘honest’ appraisal. He wants it all. He wants history to record him as being both brave and truthful, part of the ANC but separate from it. And on that count, he cannot have his way. He is outspoken now because he enjoys the political space in which it is possible to be outspoken. It is convenient to do so. The true test of bravery is to speak up for what is right and good when circumstance prevents it.
We suffer a desperate need to seek out and celebrate whatever reasonable voice we can find, so deprived are we are reasonableness itself – a kind of ahistorical moral immediacy; our media certainly engenders it. And Manuel knows exactly what cards to play, and when to play them. But we shame only ourselves if, in praising his selective outrage, we forget his complicit silence when the pillars of our democracy were being eroded.
Trevor Manuel is in the twilight of his career. His power is waning and as he gradually extricates himself from government and party politics, he seeks to fill the moral vacuum he so long indulged with truth and honesty. It is a quintessentially nationalistic impulse: the assumption that history is some instantaneous event and, therefore, that your last sentence defines your legacy. History itself has a longer memory though. And he has much more truth to speak, with much more bravery, if he wishes a favourable entry in its annals.
- Gareth van Onselen (@GvanOnselen) is the Editor of Inside Politics (@insidepols), Winner: Best Political Blog 2012.
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Excellent. Here is a copy and paste from a Nose Week Article on the same
The disingenuous Mr Manuel
Issue #106, 1st August 2008
There’s a poignant story about Trevor Manuel doing the rounds in left-wing circles that, apocryphal or not, is worth another telling: Some time in 1992, Nelson Mandela assembled all the party leaders and intellectuals in order to assess what skills and intellectual resources were available that he might employ when forming a government – a most daunting task for a “People’s Party” that had never been in parliament, let alone in government (or business, for that matter).
Somewhere along the line, Mandela posed the question: Are there any economists among us? Only one hand was raised – that of Trevor Manuel. Trevor was immediately appointed head of the ANC’s department of economic planning.
Later, as they left the meeting, Dullah Omar approached to congratulate Trevor and then confessed that he had been surprised to learn for the first time, after all their years of friendship, that Trevor was an economist. (In fact he recalled that, although smart and a good speaker, Trevor had failed maths in matric.)
“But I’m not an economist!” says Trevor. So why had he indicated that he was? “Oh”, declared Trevor, “I thought he was asking: ‘Who here’s a communist?’!”
It’s at least good for a laugh. But when Trevor Manuel asks a high court judge to gag his most tenacious critic, arms activist Terry Crawford-Browne – for whose courage, knowledge and commitment we retain the highest regard – and threatens journalists who might publish what Crawford-Browne has to say, that’s no laughing matter. That’s provocation.
Manuel and those of his cabinet colleagues who endorsed the arms deals have a lot to answer for. The government’s own Joint Investigating Team reported having found that all the deals were riddled with irregularities. The affordability study (produced by Manuel’s own expert advisors at the time) that he persists in trying to hide from Crawford-Browne and the courts, condemns him and his cabinet colleagues.
Fact is, it is his signature that appears on the notorious arms-finance agreements. If, as he now claims, he only signed as representative of the cabinet, well, then, he can answer questions regarding the reasonableness and legality of his actions as representative of the cabinet. He should just see to it that he has supporting affidavits from his colleagues on that score.
Our less than honourable minister of finance has already lied to court more than once (and at least once under oath) in his desperate attempts to fend off Crawford-Browne’s legitimate demands for information.
Bizarrely, Manuel initiated court action against Crawford-Browne for defamation, but now, when the latter responds with an entirely proper defence, Manuel wants the court to label Crawford-Browne a vexatious litigant!
We were reminded of Oscar Wilde, who sued despite advice to the contrary – and ended up defaming himself when there was actually no defamation at all.
Manuel was being disingenuous when he told the court that all he wanted was a temporary interdict to silence Crawford-Browne, pending a defamation trial in which evidence would be led. He and his lawyers know that such an interdict would be final in effect and they would need to do nothing more after that. Given what we already know about Manuel and his role in the arms deal (see noses36,42&43 for a start), why would he want to start a trial in which he will have to endure the rigours of hostile cross-examination, and risk having to answer some most inconvenient questions – all under oath?
There’s already an affidavit by Andrew Feinstein, filed at court by Crawford-Browne, in which Feinstein recounts a conversation with Manuel in which the latter told him “we all knew about [then minister of defence] Joe Modise’s [corruption]”. Would you like to tell the court a bit more about that, Mr Manuel?
(Fortunately for us, when FirstRand tried the interim interdict stunt on noseweek, Deputy Judge President Traverso saw through the tacky ploy – “We’ve all been around the block a few times!”, she told them – and ordered the bank to argue their case on the basis that what they actually wanted was a final gagging order.)
Take our word for it: if a Trevor versus Terry trial ever approaches, a flurry of applications will be brought by Trevor’s lawyers, with the sole purpose of stringing out the case so that Terry never gets to cross-examine Trevor.
Trevor’s counsel has told the court that he wants to play this battle by the “Queensbury Rules”. One of which, as we recall, says “no hitting below the belt”.
We say today to Trevor: if you’re honest about having this defamation litigation heard, then go with Mr Crawford-Browne to the high court right away and obtain a trial date – and keep the appointment.
Get over yourself, dude. He has had a job to do in a pit of vipers. Do you expect him to start beheading them whilst so many remain full of venom and ill intent?
Politics is about timing and getting things right – not opening your big mouth on matters of principle – no matter how strongly you feel.
Hopefully his time will come. But hey, look. He sure is in a different cognitive space to the rest of them isn’t he?
Hey Martin, thank you for your comment. Manuel was not forced to work for the ANC, nor was he forced to stay, he chose to do so and thus, at the highest party levels, to associate himself with it and its decisions. One cannot do that and escape responsibility for that choice. Likewise, Manuel himself has set the standard for his recent frank honesty, it is not my standard. Applied to his time under Mbeki, his silence constitutes a dismal failure – again, not by my standard, by his. You are welcome to excuse his silence, each to their own, but if you only celebrate just criticism when it is convenient for people to make it, I for one would hesitate to put you in charge of choosing leaders, because that kind of moral fortitude is what I look for when times are tough, not merely when political correctness allows. Gareth
Yesterday( 10th April 2013), Zuma said: “To suggest we cannot blame apartheid for what we are doing now and for what is happening in our country, I think is a mistake to say the least.
“We don’t have to stand and indicate what it is that apartheid did. The fact that the country is two in one – go to any city and you will see there is a beautiful part and then see squatter camps on the other side. That is not the doing of democracy and we can’t stop blaming those who caused it.”
Well lets see, what Clevah Trevor have to say now