Interviewing politicians can be difficult, because they hardly ever give a straight answer, and Minister for Planning in the Presidency Trevor Manuel, is a consummate politician. But in a wide-ranging interview, he spoke as openly as possible, among others, about how he has won over sceptics over the years, first as minister of finance and now as planning minister, about his displeasure at ministers whose utterances go against the Constitution, his anger at the policemen who killed a Mozambican man in Daveyton last week, his resignation in support of Thabo Mbeki and how his current job is very different from his previous one as minister of finance. He remained hesitant to speak about his future, however. By RYLAND FISHER.
We interviewed Manuel in his office at Parliament on Friday morning, a few hours after he had hosted a report-back meeting in the Rocklands Civic Centre in Mitchells Plain where he spoke about the need to rekindle the activism that was prevalent in the 1980s.
Below is an edited extract of the interview:
RF: When you were appointed minister in charge of planning in President Zuma’s Cabinet, there were obviously some sceptics who did not quite understand what it is that you had to do. Now that the National Development Plan has taken centre stage in our political life and, indeed, our economy, do you feel vindicated?
TM: I don’t actually set out with that objective. I think that too frequently we start out not being given the benefit of the doubt. What it entails is just working hard to get things right and if, in the process, you disprove the sceptics, that’s okay, but you start out to get things right.
In the last few years of Madiba, in spite of the fact that many people told him he was crazy to appoint me minister of finance, I did not set out to prove the sceptics wrong, but I hoped that through my efforts I would be able to win the trust of Madiba and the organisation that gave me the opportunity to do so. What is important is that one is able to take decisions and learn in the process.
I understand very clearly that if the only thing you want to do in a position of leadership is to please people, the quality of your leadership is going to be severely compromised. If you try and do things that go against the grain of your belief system, then you will be unhappy and feel compromised.
If you want to deal with these issues, you have to ask questions constantly about what your reference points are, about what is your value system. Some people use the term “compass”: so where are you heading and why?
The ability to think past ideological rigidity is also important.
If I take these points and try and use them to answer the question about the National Development Plan, it makes for an interesting read.
The commission [National Planning Commission] itself is an interesting construct. I’ll be bold enough to say that my initial thought was to have the commission structured more along the lines of the Indian Planning Commission which has about half a dozen ministers on it. It is chaired by the prime minister and often the president or the deputy president could chair it and I would do the spade work inside. I lost that battle, and it was not about wanting to be a prime minister. It was about wanting to follow a construct whose relationship to implementation would be understood.
The second thing about the plan and the commission is that its composition actually lives out “!ke e: ǀxarra ǁke (Khoisan for “diverse people unite”). It is quite a diverse group of people and that’s a real strength.
When we approached people to participate, on the recommendation of the president, some of them said: “Why are you approaching me? I’m not even an active member of the ANC.” However, everyone accepted. There were some people who felt rejected by the ANC. In putting this together, a lot of these people got a new lease on life and have given the commission a new lease on life. It has been very important for that reason.
The third issue is that, in many ways, when, 13 months into the process, the diagnostic report was released, it was a coming out for the commission. If people thought it was a lapdog, then the release of the diagnostic report – which deals with issues such as the unevenness of the public service, the breakdown of unity, the need to tackle corruption, etc. – spoke volumes about the way so many South Africans feel.
But it also spoke to the fact that the president, in inviting the commission to take a long-term, independent view, was actually not curtailing that. There was no censorship about the views of the commission. He allowed it to happen and has built on the momentum created by the National Planning Commission. It is going to be quite important because it was a commission started on his watch and it has been allowed to generate the unity and momentum. It is something that he wants to see through and that is very positive.