As conference draws to a close, Trevor Manuel says he is a satisfied man. Delegates have given significant support for the National Development Plan, especially in localized ways. Nevertheless, he continues to set his sights on raising the bar. "We have to keep improving," he said. "We have to get better at what we do."
Manuel may no longer be on the NEC but, in a wide-ranging interview with WhatsUpANC, it was clear that he remains invested heart and soul in his country and his party. The activist spirit that has propelled him throughout his adult life remains undiminished.
Looking tired but relaxed in a crisp white linen shirt, jeans and leather loafers, Manuel said his decision not to avail himself for a position on the NEC had not gone down well with some of his colleagues. He however thought it was important for older comrades to step aside and make space for a younger layer of leaders. "I am committed to have time to mentor younger leaders," he said.
He was pleased about the growth in membership to over one million but not happy about the lack of attention to quality. "At Polokwane, we committed to raising the economic literacy of our members but have not done much of that," he said.
At Manguang, conference decided to implement a ten-year programme of education for members. This will be one of the tasks the new NEC will have to deal with immediately.
Equally important was a commitment to rigorous accountability.
"When we leave here on Thursday, we have to ask whether or not we have a firm framework for accountability. For example when Minister of Economic Development, Ebrahim Patel, goes back to his job in government next week, what form will this accountability take? How is he accountable to the movement to which he owes his government position? How is he accountable to Parliament, the centre of accountability?"
The president's announcement that school inspectors would be introduced also speaks to issues of ensuring accountability. "The president announced this in his speech. There will be no further argument. This will be implemented."
He saw progress in certain areas, especially in the health sector.
"We have definitely improved partly because we have learnt from past mistakes and we have a competent, dynamic minister in Aaron Motsoaledi."
Manuel spoke about his commitment to the ANC. It had always been amazingly good to him, he said. "In 1991, I was part of a cohort plucked out of obscurity," he said. "We were young when we were drawn into the negotiating team," he said.
" I was 35. Valli Moosa and Cheryl Carolus were 34. Sydney Mufamadi was 32. Three years later, I became a minister. So there was a trust in us and an affording of opportunity."
Manuel says he wants to do the same for a younger generation.
"I think it's very important that we bring young people through. Not all of them will be ready, groomed and perfect but we must give them the opportunity. If they stumble, we must support them. We have to ensure they have the correct ethics and values.
It was important that those elected to the new NEC understand clearly that they were making a big commitment. "They will have to accept there will be no weekends or holidays for five years," he said.
There was also a need for those who had served on the NEC to realize that they should not hang around and wait to be ejected. "The regeneration of leadership is a crucial task for the organization," he said.
A further challenge was to create policy consistency in the government. It was a problem if policies chopped and changed with every new incumbent. "We cannot afford to start afresh every time someone new comes into a position. This happens too often."
At times, delegates had insufficient information at conference to make informed policy decisions. For example, a Polokwane resolution committed the government to paying 75% of the SABC budget without stipulating targets. "Some with particular agendas can also load a commission and obtain the outcome they want. A minister then finds him or herself obliged to implement it."
Each conference brought new lessons. After the dramatic events at Polokwane and the subsequent recall of President Thabo Mbeki, he decided it was the principled thing to do to tender his resignation and allow the new president to decide whether or not he would like him on his team. "All of us serve at the prerogative of the president and we have to make it possible for him to assemble his team."
Principled practices must be followed. "Comrade Kgalema's resignation and his speech from the floor was an example of proper conduct. He was gracious in defeat."
Ministerial jobs were not for life. "If we leave people in positions for too long, the person becomes inseparable from the position in the minds of the public and the market."
It was important to build up a strong skills base to which the baton could be handed. "When we first came into government, many of us at the time had strong backgrounds in reading and writing. This was a practice widely encouraged in the movement," he said.
There was not the same conscientiousness now. This was reflected in weak skills in the public service, an issue discussed at conference.
"We have to set the bar higher so that ministers, mayors and councilors can receive quality advice."
He was concerned that a deterioration in the public service contributed to a relationship with the private sector based on favours. "Our economy is not what it should be," he said.
Some of this could be blamed on poor education but socio-economic conditions were also part of it. As a former student and current chancellor of the Cape Peninsula University of Technology (CPUT), he could observe at close quarters what factors affected the prospects of graduates.
"I see these youngsters coming through and their grades in engineering, say, are very good. They pass maths and applied maths. They however do not have the same confidence of students that who have grown up surrounded by books who invariably find it easier to shine in interviews. They battle to find jobs."
This same discrepancy in social capital applied to schools. "Just over 60% of our schools are no-fee. And whether you are at a top performing state school like Westerford or the poorest performing school in Khayalitsha, the per capita contribution from the state is the same. But at the higher-performing schools, you have active parents on the governing body who raise funds so that the school can employ more teachers. The kids' performance is then accelerated and so the class differences remain."
He raised some of these issues when he presented the National Development Plan to the conference plenary. Improving education would have to be one the main priority areas.
Manuel refused to be pushed on where he saw himself after the next general election in 2014. "The question is academic," he said. "I am a bit long in the tooth now. I am not sure that I will be able to run around all over like I used to," he said, chuckling. "I will probably not do any one thing but a host of different things."
Reflecting on the possibilities of the 2014 election, he commented that people tended to vote in ways they felt comfortable with. "We cannot know with any certainty but all our numbers have grown," he said. "Voters are loyal and influenced by class and race dimensions."
He hoped that South Africans will talk together in the new year.
"What the National Planning Commission says is that we must create the space to talk about our issues. It's not about slinging mud and apportioning blame. It's about putting all of this on the table for everyone to discuss - not just the government but the community as well."
Life includes perfections and imperfections. Both were on display at Mangaung. "Our future is under construction," he said.