Honouring the principled mother who shaped Trevor Manuel

Philma Manuel with President Nelson Mandela, her son Trevor and her grandchildren at parliament in Cape Town in 1997.
Philma Manuel with President Nelson Mandela, her son Trevor and her grandchildren at parliament in Cape Town in 1997.
Image: Gallo Images/Oryx Media Archive

The mother of a friend died last week.

To her four children, Philma Manuel was more of a friend.

To her only son, Trevor, she was an inspiration and, at times, she pulled him in line when he needed it.

To most South Africans he was Nelson Mandela’s choice for minister of trade and industry, and then the country’s first black, longest-serving, and most successful finance minister.

The last position Trevor Manuel held was as minister of national planning in the presidency.

I was fortunate to have worked closely with Trevor from his first appointment by Mandela to his last post in national planning (with breaks at the London School of Economics and at the World Bank in between).

I also knew him before that, when I was a reporter and he an activist.

Never mind all his incarnations, to Philma Manuel he was just Trevor, the boy with the “golden curls” who was “very smart [and] always doing his best”, Trevor’s biographer Pippa Green wrote in Choice not Fate: The Life and Times of Trevor Manuel.

Over all the years I have known him, I have never written anything about Trevor.

I made no public statement or spoke about him.

We have a bond of steel, trust and mutual respect.

But if you want to know Trevor, you would have had to know his mother and the role she played in his life, from its humble beginnings in Cape Town’s working-class districts to wherever Trevor has ended up today.

Likewise, if you want to have any insight into Auntie Philma, you have to know Trevor.

I don’t know where Trevor got his tempestuous nature from, perhaps from the streets where he grew up, perhaps from the pent-up anger of his days as an activist.

But I know where he got his ethics, trust, professionalism, dedication and self-destructive work ethic from. It was from Auntie Philma.

She was a strict disciplinarian.

When it came to education, their motto was short and simple — Manuels don’t come second or third.

“Manuels come top.”

Auntie Philma carried the family when her husband, Abraham, died in his sleep when Trevor was 13.

Then aged 43, she had to care for four children on her own.

Trevor’s biographer wrote: “... his mother ... had four children to feed, clothe and educate on her garment worker’s wages.

“Life chances changed and dimmed as the family contemplated the need for extra income.

“Asked how she coped, Philma Manuel said her only prayer at the time was that she could bring up her children to be ‘decent’, a meaningful hope in an environment that was fast turning dangerous with disaffected gangsters.

“But there was another lesson [from Auntie Philma] too, for the young Manuel, one that stayed with him as he built his activist and later his political career — start with what people care about.

“Start talking to them about their homes, their wages, the buses, their children’s schools, before you start with high principle.

“That’s how you build an organisation.”

When I think of the courage and confidence, the honesty and integrity (he never abandoned people who worked with him, nor did he conspire against them, and cowardice was not something you associated with him), I remember Auntie Philma.

There was a point, about 20 years ago, when I was working at the World Bank, when it was said: There are only two South Africans that could walk into any institution in the world with pride and respect — Nelson Mandela and Trevor Manuel.

All of this notwithstanding, Auntie Philma made sure Trevor’s feet remained firmly on the ground.

The only other time I felt that Trevor hurt as much as he does now is when Mandela died.

Mandela saw in him what Auntie Philma had instilled in him and harnessed that.

I want to believe that the passing of his mother, and the passing of Mandela, were probably the most life-altering occurrences of his life.

I want to believe that if Mandela had stayed alive, and active, Trevor would not have left government and politics in 2014.

Then again, politics had become too filthy and the top was a snake pit.

Auntie Philma’s son become increasingly out of place in government.

After Trevor left, I let my contract run down and left the planning commission.

In truth, Auntie Philma’s son was that only minister I could work for, because I knew that he would always stand by me as I carried out my duties and responsibilities — never mind the challenges.

He can be, how can I put it politely, “difficult” at times ... When he was in prison, years ago, Trevor wrote his mom a short note: “Right now. Pain seems like the only reward for a lifetime of toil to rear your only son. Courage, faith and fortitude. The dividends will yet be yielded.”

And how they have ... Hamba Kahle, Auntie Philma, and thanks for giving us your only son.

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