The selective moral outrage of Trevor Manuel

by The Editor

TrevorManuelFEATURE: 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.

To follow Inside Politics by e-mail simply go to the bottom of the page and fill in your address. When you confirm it, you will receive an e-mail the moment any new post is loaded to the site.