GARETH VAN ONSELEN: The pious hypocrisy of Trevor Manuel
He may be an ANC ‘wise elder’ espousing ethics, but that doesn't mean he’s not entitled to free flights for himself and the missus
Trevor Manuel has made something of a profession out of sanctimony since he left the ANC government proper. As one of the ANC’s “wise elders”, he sees himself as entirely virtuous, untainted by what the ANC has become. A man apart. Thus, regularly he delivers unto the ANC and the public his moral wisdom. SA’s own fountain of piety.
“One would hope,” he said the other day, “that people who occupy senior positions in political organisations have the highest standards of ethics and they must be seen to lead from an ethical basis.”
This stuff flows from Manuel’s mouth like syrup. He is clever, when it comes to his reputation. The Zuma years — which he was at first perfectly happy to indulge and legitimate by taking up a seat in the executive — became an immoral counterpoint he could later use to vilify and condemn. And he has wasted not a single opportunity on this front. Strangely, though, no introspection about his initial position, which is something of a pattern with Manuel.
Turns out, however, that while he was busy coating everything in moral sugar, he and wife, Maria Ramos, had been flying free of charge, in contravention of the relevant rules and regulations, to the collective tune of R383,473, in 2018 and 2019 — the result of a defunct parliamentary benefit, itself part of the endless and unethical largesse the state provides to past and present members of the executive.
R383,473 probably doesn’t matter very much to Manuel and Ramos. Ramos is a millionaire several times over; Manuel is likely not too far behind. The private sector has been good to both of them, as it always is to any ostensible ANC “wise elder” willing to explain to boards how best to appease their previous employer.
People who aren’t quite so flush might think otherwise. People who pay tax, too. Actually, anyone with a modicum of appreciation for the state of the economy would likely find it obscene. Not Manuel, however, or Ramos. They deserved it. Just ask them. They took every cent without a moment’s hesitation, or introspection.
Everyone in the ANC is in on the game. Some steal outright. Some steal indirectly. And some simply indulge unethical rules because, well, that at least gives the veneer of legitimacy to their self-indulgence
And you can be sure of this, too: were it not the DA, who were compelled to use no less than the Promotion of Access to Information Act to even make this all available to the public, they would have carried on regardless.
See no evil, hear no evil, speak no evil. Unless you are giving a speech about corruption, or ethics. In which case, damn with the moral conviction of a saint.
Regardless of the legality, is this evidence of the “highest ethical standard” Manuel proscribes to others? Or is it more a case of self-indulgence and self-importance, brought together in the way only Manuel can, and the result nothing more than rank hypocrisy?
Manuel has something of a history of indulging the kind of largesse that defined the Zuma years and then, when caught out, falling just past his sword. In 2009, along with almost every other member of the executive, he took ownership of a brand new R1m BMW. When this was revealed to the public, he said “in my case” the decision was “ill-advised”. But he kept the car.
In taking a stab at the DA in the National Assembly, he said at the time, “We would all like to be more Catholic than the pope.” Speak for yourself. Mind you, you get the sense Manuel has long since elevated himself above the pope, and it’s God he has his eyes on now.
No word from Manuel or Ramos on the free flights yet. And why would there be — there doesn’t seem be a single journalist who wishes to apply some pressure on the former minister, for an explanation. Or to put all that public moral wisdom to Manuel and to ask him to square the circle please.
You see, the thing is, everyone in the ANC is in on the game. Some steal outright. Some steal indirectly. And some simply indulge unethical rules because, well, that at least gives the veneer of legitimacy to their self-indulgence. And that is OK. Of course, the state should absolutely be funding Maria Ramos’s flights because, you know, she is Maria Ramos; and he is Trevor Manuel, the Trevor Manuel.
“We must be relentless in calling out bad actions,” Manuel said during one of his public sermons, “Moreover, we must mobilise for the election of a values-based leadership cadre, which will demonstrate its ability to ‘pass through the eye of the needle’.”
No-one is going to call Manuel out because the idea that the Manuels of this world exist at all is the last great fantasy onto which many in SA hold. That there exists this legion of once virtuous, now alienated ANC doyens who, led by Cyril Ramaphosa, will deliver us from evil.
It’s the same reason no-one will admit or talk about the catastrophic set of labour laws Tito Mboweni produced when labour minister. Because today he is saint, Mboweni. At least that was before he folded on SAA’s latest bailout, really the only distinguishing feature he had in his repertoire. If you hadn’t drunk too much Kool Aid you could see that coming from a mile off. But then you can never have enough Kool Aid.
The number of commentators who pounce on every bit of Manuel moral condemnation and amplify it is sickening. The assumption is nothing hurts the ANC like ANC criticism, and Manuel is the perfect foil. How brave he is. Who would the media use if they didn’t have Manuel? It’s a wonderful, entirely symbiotic relationship: you can outsource your morality to Manuel, he will damn the incompetent and the corrupt; in return he and his wife will take your taxes to pay for their flights, and no-one will say anything about it.
And so it goes.
And what does it matter either, in the big scheme? Out there, at the Zondo commission and beyond, there are missing billions being investigated. R383,473 is peanuts. So, perhaps in the ultimate irony, the massive corruption Manuel constantly speaks out against does have one benefit — it so dwarfs his own unethical indulgence that it came and went without so much as a whisper.
Perhaps God will take the matter up with Manuel at some point in the future; that is, if he can get a word in edgeways.
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