Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Interview with Pippa Green

DA: We’re here with Pippa Green, who’s the author of Choice, Not Fate, the biography of Trevor Manuel. Pippa, take us through the process of writing biography, especially somebody, a subject such as Mr. Manuel, somebody who has been in the headline recently. I mean, what is it like to embark on a project of this scale?

PG: Well, it’s quite a responsibility I suppose, because you have to make sure that everything’s right. There’s a lot of checking to do, a lot of research to do. But it’s also a real priviledge because it gives you an insight into the lives of people – not only him but a lot of others – who made our history what it is. And I think that’s quite an extraordinary thing. In South Africa we haven’t told our own stories enough but we’re beginning to do that now.

DA: What was the genesis of the book?

PG: I had always thought, I had long thought that he had an interesting story to tell and I asked him if I could write his biography about five or six years ago. And I started working on it three years ago.

DA: It was alluded to in the presentations that a lot of the book is more about the times of Trevor Manuel rather than the man himself. Do you think that the historical elements are more interesting than the subject? He does have quite a personality and a public profile.

PG: Yes, I’ve tried to marry them, I’ve tried to interweave. What is important is his place in history and the role that he’s played. So I’ve tried to marry the two. And sometimes you have to take a step back from the narrative and say this is what is actually what was happening around at the time. I hope that it’s interesting, but I don’t believe you can understand people without the historical context.

DA: There’s been a real plethora of biographies. There’s another biography on Jacob Zuma, the excellent example is Mark Gevisser’s biography on Thabo Mbeki. Do you think that South Africa is suffering from a bit of a saturation of biographies? Do you think maybe a different medium would be more appropriate in the future?

PG: I don’t think so, I don’t think we have enough, and I don’t think we tell our own stories properly. After the American Revolution people began to tell the story of the founding fathers, the signers of the constitution. I think that it’s only recently that we have begun to tell our own history because some people have only begun to get the confidence to do it recently. And I hope there are many, many more; there are incredible people to tell stories about in the country.

DA: And in the whole course of writing the book, which section or chapter stands out for you? Which was the most challenging and which was the most compelling for you personally?

PG: Well, I think it was most fun writing the section on the Emergency years and his time in jail. I think what was most difficult was the economic policy, the making of economic policy. I had to really work hard to make sure that I understood things correctly.

DA: And did you have any personal interactions with Mr. Manuel and his family?

PG: We did quite a lot of interviews. I interviewed his family, I interviewed him probably about twenty or so times over a period of three years.

DA: How accessible was he?

PG: Look you can’t just make an appointment for the next day, but we used to schedule them about once a month. He agreed to my doing it, it wasn’t authorized, it was my work, but he did make the time for me to do it in the beginning. Afterwards when we got later on it got more difficult, simply because of time constraints but we still managed to squeeze the last three in.

DA: Trevor Manuel is often vilified as one of the key protagonists of the “1996 Class Project”, the so-called neo-liberal revolution in South Africa. Do you think he has been unfairly treated by those on the left or other members of the Tripartite Alliance?

PG: I don’t think it’s right. If you read the book you will see that he wasn’t that vilified. I mean, I have both Vavi and Cronin saying complimentary things about him. There also was the issue that we were really poised on the brink of a debt crisis – I mean a very serious debt crisis. And there were certain decisions that needed to be made. He was the guy who was in the seat who had to make them. But I think the book looks at some of the issues around and the debates around the macroeconomic policy and what drove it. Because in a biography what you have to do is to understand what drives people and certain points of history.

DA: Alright Pippa Green, thanks very much for speaking to Quid Pro Quo, it’s been an absolute pleasure.

PG: Thanks very much indeed for having me, thank you.


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