In April 1996 president Nelson Mandela reshuffled his cabinet. He appointed a promising young leader named Trevor Manuel as minister of finance. Over the next 13 years Manuel was to become South Africa’s most successful finance minister and a darling of business, but at the time he spooked the markets. The rand weakened; business leaders made scared noises.

The appointment had a profound impact on Mandela’s administration in a different way. He was in a government of national unity (GNU) that included the National Party (NP), with FW de Klerk as deputy president alongside Thabo Mbeki. The union was predicated on consultation and consensus-making...

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