Book Review: Choice, Not Fate - The Life and Times of Trevor Manuel

By Colette Francis Ashton · 9 Dec 2008

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Picture: Fazila Farouk
Picture: Fazila Farouk

Book: Choice, Not Fate: The Life and Times of Trevor Manuel

Author: Pippa Green

Publisher: Penguin Books

Reviewer: Colette Francis Ashton

When I sat down to read the biography of Trevor Manuel I knew that, for me, it would stand or fall on how well it answered three nagging questions I had about the Finance Minister. Firstly, what exactly was Manuel’s role in the arms deal? Is he really a ‘neoliberal’? And lastly, what was the personal motivation behind his resignation that rocked the markets?

The first half of the book deals with Manuel’s early life. With his story as its focal point it affords a view of struggle politics in the Western Cape that is perhaps unparalleled outside of academic literature. Green’s account of factionalism in that province is essential reading for those who wish to understand current day divisions. There are plenty of rousing stories and she tells them well. The climax of the book is the triumph of democracy in 1994. Pity it came halfway through.

These days, the ‘times’ are more textured and the division between right and wrong less clear-cut. Yet, Green casts Manuel as a hero with inconsequential, even charming flaws. He is brave, clever and honourable. When he loses his temper it’s understandable. Having shown herself capable of rigorous research in the first half of the book, Green disappoints in the second by allowing her partisanship to inform a shallow, incomplete account of the various cases against Trevor Manuel.

Andrew Feinstein, in his book After the Party, wrote that Manuel exhorted him to turn a blind eye to possible corruption in the arms deal. ‘Just let it lie,’ Manuel is reported to have said to Feinstein, then co-chair of SCOPA, the Parliamentary Standing Committee on Public Accounts. I wanted to hear Manuel’s side of the story from his biographer. In full. But Green doesn’t even mention Feinstein. Instead she writes that to accuse Manuel of impropriety ‘on the evidence’ is hardly credible. On which evidence? The scanty stuff that she provides? 

Green should have made me wait to find out the answer to my second question, whether Manuel is really a ‘neoliberal’. It would have heightened tension – always a useful engine for getting the reader through a six hundred page tome. Instead she nails her colours to the mast on page one, choosing quotes selected to deflect criticism from him and his economic policies. It’s almost as if she had made up her mind what she thought of Manuel before she wrote the book and she wants the reader to do the same. History is not of our own making, we are told, and he inherited a set of fiscal constraints within which he has done the maximum possible good. She mounts a solid argument in his defence. Her enthusiastic portrayal of Manuel made me like him well enough to want to ask whether a lack of service delivery can be laid at his door? How much more is it the fault of poor administration in the government departments to which he allocates money? Indeed by the end of the book I was wondering whether I had deluded myself that the so-called ‘ultra-left’ had a rational case against his policies after all.

Co-incidentally, that afternoon I took a call from a contact in the unions who laid into Manuel’s import-led, service-industry-driven policies. By the end of the conversation I was convinced that there is a hard-hitting argument from bright people on the other side. It usually gets bad press, or no press at all. 

As for the third question, Green’s defence of Manuel’s resignation is paper-thin. Gullible. She accepts at face value his explanation that the timing of his letter’s release was a technical glitch. This, despite describing him as a canny street-fighter of a politician. It is precisely this reading of his character that makes one suspect he seized this opportunity to strike a blow against his opponents in COSATU and the SACP, one that would make them count, rand by rand, precisely how much he is worth to the South African economy. R220 billion, to be precise.

Green’s writing is faultless, plain, sincere. The book is an enjoyable read. The problem is that her decision to skim or omit the arguments of Manuel’s accusers leaves me unable to make up my mind about him. But then I always was ambivalent about Manuel. My businessman father would love the book. My contact in the unions would not.

By Colette Francis Ashton, a Political Philosophy graduate. Her first novel "The Great Book of the Universe" received an honourable mention at the 2008 New York Book Festival.

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