By Fiona Wakelin and Charndré Emma Kippie
This year the esteemed winner of the Top Empowerment Lifetime Achiever Award was philanthropist, business leader, and believer in active citizenry, Trevor Manuel, who had served as a Cabinet Minister from 1994 to 2014 under the first four Presidents of democratic South Africa. He was first appointed to Cabinet as Minister of Trade and Industry in May 1994, a portfolio he held for two years. In April 1996, he became Finance Minister, steering the South African economy for 13 years as one of the world’s longest serving finance ministers. During his last term in office, he served as Minister in the Presidency responsible for the National Planning Commission, a position he held from May 2009 to May 2014.
During his Ministerial career, Trevor Manuel assumed a number of ex officio positions in
international bodies, including the United Nations Commission for Trade and Development
(UNCTAD), the World Bank, the IMF, the G20, the African Development Bank and the Southern African Development Community. He was appointed as Special Envoy for Financing Development on two occasions, in 2001 and 2008, by successive Secretaries General of the United Nations and has served on various international commissions including the Global Ocean Commission (2012/4 – which he also co-chaired) and the Commission on the New Climate Economy (2013/4).
He has received a number of awards and recognitions, including Africa’s Finance Minister of the Year and the Woodrow Wilson Public Service award. He has 8 honorary doctorates from South African tertiary institutions in a range of disciplines, sucha s Commerce, Law, Technology, and a Doctor of Laws from MacMaster University, Ontario Canada.
Trevor Manuel served as the Chancellor of the Cape Peninsula University of Technology (CPUT) from May 2008 until 2013, and is an Honorary Professor at the Mandela School at UCT (since 2015) where he is a Senior Political Fellow. He has also served in the role of Professor Extraordinaire at the University of Johannesburg (since 2014).
Currently, he is Chairperson of Old Mutual Limited and is a Senior Advisor to, and the Deputy Chairperson of, Rothschild South Africa. He also serves as a Trustee on the Allan Gray Orbis Endowment Trust and on the Advisory Board of the Centre for African Cities at UCT.
What a remarkable lifetime span of achievements. In his acceptance speech, Trevor Manuel accepted the award on behalf of the many unrecognised heroes and heroines of our nation and noted that the opportunity of the awards event was “a moment to consider what we are sensing (it’s a difficult time in the life of our nation), to reflect on the journey and how we are deviating from where we ought to be, and then to use this moment to renew our commitment to where we want to be [in terms of our empowerment journey].”
Trevor started out as an activist in the community where he was born and raised and engaged with others and built various organisations, each a progression on the other, and each presenting opportunities and responsibilities for leadership and action. From a community, to a provincial and eventually a national activist role, he and others with him, stepped up to responsibility. These steps were seen as ‘opportunities for responsibility’ rather than moments for honour or indulgence.
He spent about 25 years of his life involved in governmental responsibilities, 20 years in cabinet and parliament preceded by a few years of honing the skills, followed by a few years of phasing out some, especially international responsibilities. Now, he devotes his time and resources to governance in the private sector, and to continuing plough-back by serving on commissions or occasional teaching.
“In these reflections, I’d like to believe that my life is a continuum. I’d like to believe that if my 18-year-old self looked at me now, it would not find contradictions in the core values of service and using opportunities to transform. Yes, of course I’m older and wiser, and far less bright-eyed and bushy-tailed. And yes, I’m able to address my responsibilities and revert to values, having lost much of the ideology that I clung to in my youth. But the core values which are about service remain intact.
“With the benefit of hind sails of the journey I’ve been on, I remain convinced that the most important element of leadership is the strength of the undercarriage of values. If indeed this is strong, one can rely on it to enable decision-making, especially of the tough decisions that need to be taken. I remain of the view that taking the tough decisions earns trust and respect…You will not earn trust and respect by avoiding taking the tough decisions.
“All of this requires the ability to either build teams (if the opportunities are afforded to build teams) or to mould individuals into teams who each understand their roles and responsibilities. Teams work when each member is focused, empowered, energised and enabled to challenge anybody in the team and to be committed to account for the actions of each individual — and the actions of the team.”
Transformation and empowerment
Reflecting on his own journey, Trevor recognised the value of giving opportunities to people who may be overlooked. In this regard, he was very mindful of the role that an individual like Nelson Mandela played in his own development, giving him opportunities, and not taking no for an answer – empowering him.
He went on to say that we have to create opportunities for people who may be overlooked frequently for reasons of their own personal history, be this race, gender, or geography. That having been recognised, we will advance by our genuine commitment to unearth new pools of talent.
The greatest threat to empowerment is the cynical checkbox approach that masquerades as empowerment. Trevor’s belief in the future of South Africa, his commitment to the country and its people, is implacable. His commitment aligns, fully, with the preamble to our Constitution, which is about healing the divisions of the past and building a society based on democratic values. Secondly, it is about a focus on a democratic and open society where all are equal before the law. And, thirdly, to improve the quality of life of all citizens and free the potential of each person.
He was clear that we need to reaffirm our commitment to these values and accept that it will not come about simply because we agreed to it between 1994 and 1996, and then wrote it down:
“What we have to do is to agree that performance will be measured and that time frames at which they’re measured will be agreed to in advance.
“We all need to understand that in society there is no ‘manager’ or ‘boss’ other than the people and the institutions we serve. It matters not whether we are in government or in parliament at national, provincial or local level. It matters not whether we are in the private sector or NGOs. It matters not whether we are in trade unions. I think that we need to look at ourselves, understand that we all have responsibilities to ourselves and to each other. We cannot ever let the side down. We must remain committed to values. And, finally, we must never ever give up on the courage to take the right decisions” – Trevor A. Manuel.