On 21 September, Trevor Manuel delivered this year’s Neil Aggett Memorial Lecture. As a Kingswood alumnus, Neil Aggett is remembered through an annual lecture series at Kingswood College, in the past delivered by luminaries such as Justice Albie Sachs and Thuli Madonsela.
Mr Manuel took the opportunity to see in Neil Aggett, a moral example for today’s leaders – he found the current leadership of the country falling far short of that standard. In amongst light-hearted quips about the Guptas, he compared the simplicity of Aggett’s life to the greed and avarice that marks South Africa’s endemic corruption today. Apart from condemning said corruption, along with the failure of the legislature and executive to hold corrupt officials accountable, Manuel urged citizens to take action against evil, rather than appear complicit in moral decay.
The lecture began with a commendation of Kingswood College for remembering Aggett’s legacy. For Manuel, remembrance of the past is the key to avoiding the subtle corrupting influence of power. This moral corruption was the major cautionary tale of the lecture, with the former ANC MP going so far as to suggest that South Africa’s current situation – particularly in terms of educational disparities – is worse now than it was under Apartheid. Without a conscious effort to avoid further regression, he warned, South Africa’s populace would lose sight of the very values it fought for.
To this end, Manuel emphasised the importance of South Africa’s Constitution as an embodiment of the nation’s ideals and said that all South Africans should be taught the values of the Constitution. Those elected into power by that Constitution should, he believes, not have to be kept in line solely by the courts, as is his current perception of the South African government. Where office holders fail to uphold their oaths, and the people of South Africa allow them to get away with it, “we are setting the bar very low.”
The materialism of South Africa’s leaders and people was also criticised. Focusing on Neil Aggett’s near complete lack of possessions, Manuel spoke on the importance of knowing when one has “enough,” saying that if wealth bred happiness, then Atul Gupta “would be ecstatic.” The crisis of capitalism, he said, was in that while it gave people so much, it took away their ability to feel that they had enough, and thereby opened up a never-ending cycle of want that left the wealthy unhappy and determined to take ever more from the poor, because “corruption never steals from the rich, it is the poor that suffer.”
Perhaps in recognition of the shortcomings of his own term as finance minister, Manuel made reference to the famous Grootboom court case, where it was established that the government was obligated to provide emergency housing for those left without homes. By the time of her death 8 years later, however, Irene Grootboom was still without a house. Again, Manuel believes that holding the organs of state accountable for the provision of their mandated services is a necessary function for everyday citizens to undertake.
Manuel used Neil Aggett as an example of the power of such individual integrity. Without military training, possessions or aggressive militancy, he said, Aggett was such a danger to the Apartheid state that he was killed. Manuel thus believes that an individual’s moral example is one of the most powerful ways of combating corrupt structures and exposing moral decay. The choice to forsake the material gains of a corrupt life is, therefore, a necessary step to leading a good life and combating evil.
In this important fight, Manuel says “we must look to the youth for leadership, we must look to you to take responsibility. The history of Neil Agget is one we tell of one who made a significant difference early in life.”
“If you don’t do it with your abundance of energy, then the values of our constitution will be like the words of that great poem, ‘A Dream Deferred.”