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Facilitating Breakthrough on Equality: Adam Kahane in Conversation with Trevor Manuel

Adam Kahane
October, 2021

On September 16, 2021, I conducted an online interview with Trevor Manuel. Mr. Manuel is a South African politician who served for twenty years as a minister in the cabinets of President Nelson Mandela and his successors. As an activist during the struggle against Apartheid he worked for political equality, and as Minister of Finance and then Minister in the Presidency for the National Planning Commission he worked for economic and social equality. He has also been a leading player in international negotiations for North-South equality, including in the World Bank, the IMF, the G20, the Task Force on Global Public Goods, and the Commission on the New Climate Economy.

I asked Mr. Manuel to describe the approach he had taken to contributing to the momentous changes in South Africa. He answered from the perspective of someone for whom collaboration is not an extraordinary or rarified undertaking, but rather the everyday practical work required to make progress on tough problems. The crucial principle I took away from this conversation facilitating breakthrough on complex challenges involves a day-in-and-day-out practice of meeting, talking with, compromising, and collaborating with diverse others. This practice is neither simple nor easy.

Here is an edited transcript of our conversation.

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Mr. Manuel started off by describing the work of the multi-stakeholder Mont Fleur team which he and I were part of in 1991-92, during the transition from Apartheid to democracy (before the first democratic elections in 1994 that brought the Mandela government to power). This team constructed and employed a set of multiple scenarios of possible futures for South Africa to contribute to the transition, and he highlighted the importance of openness and learning in such processes:

I think that the Mont Fleur project was actually exceedingly important and we couldn't have chosen a more appropriate time. I don’t think that it would be entirely accurate to see us as the catalysts for democracy in South Africa, but it happened at a particular time and I think the time was important for more reasons than only the stage of political transition.

When we were working on the scenarios, it’s quite important to remember that we tried to draw international experience but without access to the internet. We had to work without the benefit of emails, it was a slow slog, and what needed to happen was that there was first internal learning and then persuasion…And having eventually agreed on what the scenarios were, we then had to take that same work—not as a set of precepts but as a set of ideas and possibilities—into the quarters of various political and social organizations. That was fundamentally important because you weren't coming with a manifesto: you were trying to engage in discussion.

There were some political organizations that we were able to get across the line, and that I think was was quite important. Sometimes getting organizations across the line meant that they had to consider their own position in relation to the constitutional negotiations. Now you pause for a moment and reflect on the fact that the negotiations in South Africa focused primarily on just a few political organizations, but in truth there were more than 30 parties that participated, some large and some small. It was more than just giving some parties more weight than others, because there needed to be a sense of inclusion, even though, in the sidebar, there was a view that if three of the parties agreed on something then you had sufficient consensus. Now that was fundamentally important I mean, the idea of sufficient consensus is certainly not a dictionary term, you know: it was a working definition that was used to get the show on the road.

Mr. Manuel observed that he worked in this way to engage diverse others throughout the whole period of the transition to democracy:

Part of what we needed to do was to persuade a diversity of institutions and views. In one morning I would be with a group of business leaders in an affluent area, and in the afternoon at the university campus with some very radical students, and in the evening in a very poor community.

Part of what we needed to do was to persuade everybody that the struggle needed to find a conclusion. Bear in mind that there were there were very deep and gaping scars then still: many of us have been to prison, many had been in exile, many had lost friends and associates in struggle. And the economy had also ground to a halt, and so you could say to business people that they needed to ensure that they came along and had an interest in the negotiations.

So all that we and I could do was to try and persuade people that we had one shot at this. And that persuasion created the basis for the absence of significant resistance. Sure, there were small parties opposed to the idea of negotiations, but they were kind of negated by circumstance.

That was kind of the day job; the night job was to work with other groupings in the African National Congress to try and define what the shape and form of South Africa would be: when we spoke of an economy, what is it that we was seeking, how would we get there. So you needed to run these processes at the same time: one was very practical and the second was marginally more futuristic, and we needed to transcend these processes. This was the only way to bring about the transition.

He characterized his thirteen years of work as Minister of Finance in a similar vein:

One of the interesting tasks that the Minister of Finance has is that you get this one big shot a year, which is when you table the budget proposals. In my case I would speak to 400 members of Parliament who have to vote these proposals into law. And you’re also speaking to traders sitting on trading floors around the world, who are judging what you're doing. The you have a constituency of people—and I've always taken the view that my mother, who was a pensioner (sometimes she would be in the gallery at Parliament and other times with others at home)—I needed to satisfy about the decisions I was taking. So whilst we had the ability to present the budget in highfalutin economic language, it was also important that we communicated with people. Also trade unions, who have a vested interest in this as well, and they have voice.

So you take all of these constituents and you need to be conscious of them, and your strength and the consensus that you can arrive at is through speaking to all of those. So you make a single speech and communicate to all these constituents, and your success is your ability to reach all of them, in the space of about an hour.

One of the key parts of our conversation was when Mr. Manuel pointed out the contrast between a collective, collaborative way of working and an individualistic, competitive way:

A few years ago I was in discussion with an academic. He said that that he was in awe of my ability, and those with me, to engage and arrive with conclusions and not feel threatened by other people. So we had a long discussion about this, and he said to me, in his life as an academic from the time he gone to graduate school, he was on his own, either in the library or at a desk working on his dissertation. And then when he graduated with a master's degree, he needed to do a PhD, and that was even longer, but it was entirely isolated, and the ethos of that kind of academy is to produce for yourself.

But we came from an environment where it was not competitive: the thoughts needed to be collaborative so that you could get other people to come along. So, whether you look at the Mont Fleur scenarios or any of the policy engagement and policy papers we've worked on, they were all collaborative efforts.

That distinction between the way in which we function and the way in which academics function, perhaps is something that is not understood, but I think that those were lessons I was able to take forward with me in other things I did in life.

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