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Trevor Manual

in conversation with Prof. Daniel Plaatjies

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Trevor man

1956 Born in Kensington, Cape Town

1969 Joined the Labour Party Youth

1973 Matriculated from Harold Cressy High School

1981 Organiser for the Cape Areas Housing Committee

1983 Secretary in the United Democratic Front (UDF)

1985 Arrested and detained

1985 Banned

1986 Ban lifted

1986 Re-arrested

1988-1989 Series of arrests

1990 ANC’s Deputy Coordinator in the Western Cape

1992 Head of the ANC's Department of Economic Planning 1994 ANC Member of Parliament

Current roles: Chair Old Mutual Group Holdings, board member Old Mutual Plc and Old Mutual Emerging Markets, non-executive Director SwissRe, Senior Advisor to Chair of Rothschild, Trustee on Allan Gray Orbis Endowment Trust, on Advisory Board of Centre for African Cities at UCT and Special Envoy to Mobilise International Economic Support for Continental Fight Against COVID-19

The World Economic Forum describes Trevor as having single-handedly led the process of reintegrating South Africa into the global economy after decades of sanctions against it and disinvestments. He has served as the country’s minister in a number of crucial economic and financial capacities all under four presidents, and this has seen South Africa’s GDP catapult to a whopping $527.5 billion in 2010, making it the 26th largest in the world and the largest in Africa.


In 1999 the country became a member of the G-20 (group of 20) most powerful nations in the world. Such remarkable achievements under a man who, in his own words, was utterly clueless on economic matters when in 1994 the then President to be, Cyril Ramaphosa, who was the Secretary-General to the sitting president Nelson Mandela, informed him of President Mandela's offer to serve as a minister. Despite the initial doubt and reluctance, Trevor has gone on to cement South Africa’s standing on the world stage as an economy of note.


Born in 1956, in Kensington, Cape Town, to parents Abraham James Manuel and Philma van Söhnen, he started working soon after he matriculated and in 1981. Like many young people growing up in apartheid-era South Africa, Trevor was not blind to the injustices around him. Rather than feel helpless and try to survive in the prevailing social and political climate, he joined the struggle to kick back against the oppressive system.


Trevor joined and became active in groups, parties and congresses eventually drawing the ire of the government, resulting in multiple imprisonments banning and severe restriction on his movements. It was under these circumstances that in September 1989 still under a banning order, he defiantly spoke at a press conference organised by the Mass Democratic Movement, leading to even more time in prison.


This willingness to defy difficult circumstances to push for a collective good has gone on to shape his life of service and it comes as no surprise then that the narrative that is told today of Trevor Andrew Manuel is that under his leadership the nation’s Treasury became the most outstanding government department in South Africa, and a globally respected one.

Trevor leader

Being held accountable by sound institutions

Key Enabler of a Servant Leader

Trevor Manual

South African

Public Servant

1994 Cabinet as Minister of Trade and Industry


1996-2009 Finance Minister


2009-2014 Minister in the Presidency responsible for the National Planning Commission

Awards for his roles as Public Servant

2008-2013 Chancellor of the Cape Peninsula University of Technology (CPUT)

2014 Professor Extraordinaire at the University of Johannesburg

2015 Honorary Professor in the School of Development Policy and Practice at UCT

Trevor interview

Things You May Not Know About Trevor

These are drawn from the full interview, which for Daniel was from "OneComradeToAnother. Watch the full interview, here.




His relationship with the Sisulu's, and how Walter could have changed politics today

"... The relationship with Ma Sisulu took off for me in the build-up to the launch. I visited her at home and apart from Zwelakhe the other children were in exile. She took a big liking to me and then over the years I think we established a very warm relationship, so that I was in government for a long time already, and I thought I was just old and haggard, and she still referred to me as ‘my baby’. And I think when Uncle Walter was released, in fact I was in prison during that period, but we connected very soon thereafter and we also built a relationship and I think that in his case he was such a remarkable leader… He knew that his influence didn’t depend on occupying any particular position… His influence on Madiba for instance was so phenomenal and he was always seen as the elder statesman among the group of Rivonia trialists and therefore that rubbed off onto the ANC more generally and you know I think it was just a great privilege to learn at his feet. He was quite remarkable because he was calm, very comfortable in who he was, and what he needed to do and not focused on position. So that kind of calming influence of Walter Sisulu was always there and I think a major force. I think that also because he didn't seek to occupy high positions he could exercise the influence by virtue of being a leader and not because he occupied a position. I think that in many ways that he is a missing dimension. If one looks at events in the ANC that I think it has had an impact on the country, there were issues around Julius Malema that should have been dealt with, with hard political education using the same kinds of lessons, not via the discipline route, and that was the route chosen and what you don't have is a body of elders who aren’t contesting positions, but who have the experience and the interest, they were tried and tested, and whose presence can be made to be felt in giving effect to a direction which is focused on common purpose in a democracy... "


How those in less danger, were responsible for the future

"... Ahmed Kathrada makes a point that people look at those who were on the Island as having been in most danger, and he says we weren't in the most danger. It wasn't even the people in exile. It was the people trying to run a mass democratic movement, who were always at danger. The responsibilities were different and I think in many ways our work ethic had to be different. You were trying to build organisations. You were trying to run from the cops. You were trying to stabilise activists. You needed to run political education, so that the skills were replicated, so all of these things had to be done in an environment where there wasn't an opportunity for high degrees of specialisation. And I think in those circumstances you learn fast, you grow up fast, you take responsibility… When I look at a period like the state of emergency for instance, it's less about the repression and detentions and stuff, for me it was the way in which people, who’d remained outside, and people who were inside and then released actually lost it. I don't even want to go into the number of people who developed deep psychological problems, people who started drinking and embarked on a path of self destruction. It's those kinds of costs because suddenly the family that had held everything together is no longer there..."



The chaotic first days

"... I jump onto a flight going to Cape Town, arrive at lunchtime on Sunday, get shown around Parliament, people get assigned responsibilities in Parliament: “Comrade Stofile you will be the chief whip,” ‘dadadada’ like that. Comrade Trevor you will be the Leader of Government Business. I don't know, I’ve never been in government, never been in Parliament. I have no idea how laws work, how laws are made. So to take this responsibility on top of being the Minister of Trade and Industry is like crazy you know. Then, Monday in Parliament Madiba is elected, he addresses people on the Parade, Tuesday morning 4 o’clock we fly up for the inauguration. We remain behind, there’s still negotiations about positions, De Klerk hasn't agreed to Minister in the Presidency for RDP and so on. All of that is negotiated. Eventually we get sworn in, and then, now nobody tells you anything, so you have to sleep in Pretoria, you don't have any clean clothes, you have nothing, you don't have a toothbrush, you don't know where to go. I mean it's a crazy kind of situation...."



Sound institutions and leadership go hand-in-hand

"... The President sits down with the officials of the ANC and say: “I’d like the following people to serve”. In law that is called at the pleasure of the President. You've taken the President out of play, so there's no pleasure anymore. A new president must be able to exercise his or her pleasure, shouldn't be held by previous decisions…I think that what doesn't happen in this country is that when people do wrong they don't want to get out of the way, whereas what good governance is about, in my mind, is about building so und institutions. Government in broad must be a sound institution. The Treasury, where I work must be a sound institution. It must bring people through. It must be able to replicate skills. It must have a voice, that is what a sound institution does. But sound institutions also need sound leadership, and these two things always go together. It doesn't matter how good a leader you are, if you don't have an institution that you can fall back on, that can hold you to account, you can't have good governance. And so I think that by recognising the pleasure of the president it became for me a very important issue... "



Isolating the crazy, to stay on the right side of history

"... Uncle Walter and Uncle Kathy and all of them had been out of prison already, and the next thing that happened was the second of February, when again we were ready. We claimed that as our victory, while De Klerk was speaking in parliament we were already toyi toying outside of parliament claiming the victory. But if you just took that strand of negotiations, at the end of April in 1990, a lot of the ANC leadership were flown into Cape Town for negotiations and there was the Groote Schuur minute that was drafted early May of that year and, thereafter I think it became possible for both the return of the exiles and the release of political prisoners and the ANC took the opportunity to try and normalise their presence. The next important meeting was in August of 1990, when there were talks about what was called the cessation of hostilities and that produced what the record will reflect as something called the ‘Pretoria Minute'. One of the big issues about the Pretoria Minute was that as an organisation the ANC wasn't ready. There were people in detention from Operation Vula, and the people who were still in prison, there were many many people who were still in exile, and there was a view amongst a large section of MK that we couldn't agree to the cessation of hostilities, very intense debates... There were some people who were a bit crazy dealing with political education, because I think we also understood that the positions of the ANC were actually a lot harder. If you say to people that your policies include non-racialism, South Africa belongs to All who live in it, black and white, and no government can justly claim authority, unless it's based on the will of the people. If you say that to people it's a lot more difficult than saying let's run the whites into the sea. And I think by being part of a movement that took positions that are considered historically correct, there was a maturing for us as well, because you had to guard against people who had easy options. When you look at that period of the mid 80s, the application of strategy and tactics, the ability to work with, but isolate people who were a bit more crazy ... "


Interview took place in 2017


The panic over his first role, that was not negotiable

"... Just before coming to Joburg we didn't know what we were going to do. I don't have many skills. Bear in mind I’d worked in engineering but I’d left that too in ‘81. I was only an organiser now for only a decade and still Ramaphosa calls me as the Secretary General and he says: “You know I met the President, the officials met the President, and asked me to call you and the call is about assigning responsibility and the responsibility that we’ve assigned to you is Department of Economic Planning”. And I say: “You’ve gotta be kidding, I know no economics, isn't there something else I can do?” And he says: “No, Madiba was very clear this is not a negotiation, this is an instruction about what you will do in the ANC. Now if you feel that you are not equal to the task, feel free to call the President. My job as Secretary General is to tell you what the officials think that you should do.” And I went into complete panic because I don't know any of this stuff. And I then come to Joburg and it's tough you know, you on an ANC salary, you can't bring your family with you, and you look around the department and there are all these economists, and these are the people you must lead and you need to work with them. And one of the things I had to do very quickly was to say to those very same people: “What do I read? How do I go about things?” And so on.... "



How he became a celebrated Minister of Finance. He reflects on macro wins, but how tough micro was

"... Building a department where everybody was white male and wore grey shoes, transforming all of that, and then building a presence through nine new provinces with MECs all of that stuff compacted and you could only do it if you tried to lead by example. And the only example that I knew was one that said that we were not only working hard we were working smart and we would think ahead. And it's in those circumstances that the challenge of that way you learn never to go into a meeting and chair a meeting where you don't know what the outcome is going to be. Think about those issues, create participation as you have to, but you've gotta think through conclusions, you can't just meet for the sake of it… the first set of objectives in Trade and Industry was you've got to build businesses that can create employment. Part of it was also to understand that taking our country into the global economy meant dealing with some tough issues domestically… And an industrial policy is interesting because it's not just what government says, it's what employers say what prospective investors say, what trade unions say. You've got to work across the border at getting these things done and we’d started a process along those lines. We’d also started a focus on small business… we knew that we wanted; to build small businesses and bring black people into business. We knew that we needed industrial policy and we needed trade policy and we needed institutions to support it… Macro only creates a big environment but it's micro issues and I think, that as a government since ‘94 we’ve actually been very weak at the microeconomics. When I was introduced to the team… in Finance, already then it was clear that we were in a lot of trouble. The micro economy was wounded because it was isolated for so long… We had no reserves in the Reserve Bank, in fact we had negative reserves. The deficit was pretty high because the deficits that we inherited were 9.2 percent, and to service a deficit like that would have meant that department service costs take up the biggest part of what you have. We didn't have a credit rating yet. So when, before, I became minister in 1990 towards the end of ‘94, a team went with Goldman Sachs to raise money in the Global Bond. The rates that they borrowed were actually at junk market state so you know all of those things had to be taken on and dealt with differently. Amongst the issues was how we stabilised our macroeconomy..."


Please note this is a word-for-word transcript from Daniel and Trevor's conversation. 



How being politically informed saved lives

"... There was a man in Bonteheuwel Kalksteenfontein, Boeta Mylie you know always believed in the most militant kinds of things. So people are gathered at St Athans Road Mosque and Boeta Mylie takes out a gun and fires at the police, and then they go completely ballistic. Boeta Mylie’s sons, when they were convicted, well when they were arrested for shooting a security guard in Belgravia Road, wanted to involve me in a crazy scheme. He wanted me to smuggle an axe into the court where his sons were appearing and he wanted to chop off his hand in the court. Now to me that was militant, that was just complete craziness. And he was many years my senior. But I was ready to … say to him already then that I wasn't going to do it. I didn't have to find an excuse you know. I just said to him no I’m not gonna do it because it's crazy. If you want to be a soldier then you need two hands to shoot a gun. What is this you know, but Boeta Mylie was like that he was completely impulsive, and when you have uprisings frequently those impulsive people take root you see. I mean it's a lot more attractive to people who can't find a way out but that is if you only see events. If you learn about political transitions then you know that political sustainability requires many, many different attributes, and I think we were fortunate we were exposed at an early age... "



Inspired by Chris Hani as a political orphan

"... When I look back at leaders, and I begin to understand the role that Chris had played. The risk, the personal risk that he’d subjected himself to, because there was always the opportunity to push back and bear in mind that militants who were in the country all had access to arms caches. But Chris having built the trust, and when it was necessary could harvest that trust and use it to persuade people about the correctness of political decision and hold discipline. You see if you can't hold discipline, if you merely say whatever comes into your head, then you aren't a leader in the same way, so for me when I look at that period of the transition, from an arms struggle to a purely political struggle, it was there, it was observing at first hand the conduct of people, it was trying to understand what this meant, it was recognising what important role a disciplined movement plays in holding people together. That was very important and so it wasn't about individual decisions. I think it was about understanding the value of an organisation that had embraced you, that you’re committed to, and that allowed you to be... The key issue for me is learning in the process of maturing, bear in mind that we were of a generation that didn't actually have previous generation that we could touch. We were growing up as kind of political orphans, who were the big people in our communities, who could kind of handover skill to us… When I was coming through there were people that we were very attached to, in Gugs for instance Chris Tinto, Malintle… Mandu Mildred Lesiea, they played a very important formative role, it all was a kind of political role. Oscar Mpethu was a very angry man, was a bit like Harry in some respects, but we worked with all of them, we learnt to distinguish, we learnt some of the craft from them. But what that does, if you are conscious of being an orphan if you must, you learn to take responsibility early, and so it wasn't just observing the conduct of Rivonia trialists, it was also appreciating that we had a leadership role ... "


Taking responsibility means accepting the size of the cake

"... When they didn't like what Thabo Mbeki did, they described it as the Zanufication of politics in South Africa. I don't know whether they would replace the Zanufication with a Zumafication, but I've never really been affected by the little labels that people give. The key issue for me is to understand that part of taking responsibility as being in Cabinet entails is about the ability to take decisions. The ability to take decisions you must always understand will not be in conditions of your own making. If you only want to take decisions in fair weather, you’ll never make it as a leader, it's an ability to understand that even on difficult issues. If you've embarked on an attempt at explaining and persuading and there are still disagreements, you can't hold off this thing I promise you that if we had waivered on (Growth, Employment and Redistribution) Gear in ‘96, and pretended that you could negotiate this because ultimately governments must take responsibility… But you can't run microeconomic policy on that basis, you can't run interest rates on that basis. What you need is to recognise that macroeconomic policy decisions always have large technical considerations. But in dealing with those technical considerations you must afford an opportunity to debate - not to negotiate - to dialogue on them. But you’re not going to achieve anything unless you all serve trust. And political trust is very important… The third dimension of this is that it's always hard to be a finance minister. You ask people if they went to people now in senior levels of government and you ask them, they may frequently still express a view that the problem is the treasury… you have to accept the size of the cake is what we have, we agreed five months ago that the deficit will be this, so we’ve only got so many billions to spend… "



When stock markets sneezed because of his resignation

"I mean there was a big fallout of course, because I was in the States. I’d left that same Saturday and I was travelling between New York and Washington when the news broke, my letter was leaked and the Rand fell out of the bed. I had to have a press conference from D.C. to talk to people about the decision, to indicate that I've already said to the person, who wasn't president yet, Motlanthe if he needed me to serve then I would serve. It's not a factional issue. Later, subsequently in 2009 I said to Jacob Zuma as ANC President, I’m not available to serve anymore. Here is my nomination form, I haven’t signed it yet to go back to Parliament. And he says to me: “No we need you.” And I said: “But, the Rand fell out of bed when I resigned, there's too much of a conflation between the individual and the portfolio, that's wrong in any society, you can't have that, it weakens democracy. And he says to me: “Okay, okay but I have something else for you to do. Not Minister of Finance. Don't ask me what it is because I want to be fair to everybody”. And I then agreed that I would go back, but it would be for one term maximum. So I've tried to take the secrecy out of it, and to recognise that there's actually some rational basis to the idea of at the pleasure of the president. And you know I’d like to believe that we must not be factional in our conduct."


Full Interview 

Trevor Full Interview
Trevor lesson

Servant Leaders must have sound institutions to hold them accountable


"Government in broad must be a sound institution. The Treasury, where I work must be a sound institution. It must bring people through. It must be able to replicate skills. It must have a voice, that is what a sound institution does. But sound institutions also need sound leadership, and these two things always go together. It doesn't matter how good a leader you are, if you don't have an institution that you can fall back on, that can hold you to account, you can't have good governance. And so I think that by recognising the pleasure of the president it became for me a very important issue... "


Daniel in conversation with

Trevor Manual


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