Philma Manuel: Working-class mother who raised three girls and a leading figure of the struggle

A young widow, she was left to bring up four children alone

21 June 2020 - 00:00 By Pippa Green
Philma Manuel at home.
Philma Manuel at home.
Image: Terry Shean/Sunday Times

Philma Manuel, the mother of former finance minister Trevor Manuel, died this week aged 94.

She embodied old-fashioned values: courtesy, modesty, hard work and faith.

Her life was that of thousands of dislocated people and of women who went to work at an early age in the garment factories, which were once a mainstay of the local economy.

Her faith, she would say, gave her strength to cope with disasters that befell her. When her husband, Abraham Manuel, died of a heart attack in 1969, she was left to bring up four children alone. Her only “prayer” at the time, she said, was that she could raise them to be “decent”, a meaningful hope in communities broken and scattered by the Group Areas Act.

Years later, in the 1980s, when her son, Trevor, then a leading activist in the United Democratic Front (UDF), was being sought by the security police who raided her home, she gave them a theological lesson.

“There’s something that’s guided me all through my life,” she told them. “If God is for you, who can be against you? You know, it looked as though their eyes were going to pop out of their heads. And one said, ‘Dis tog maar waar.’ [‘It is indeed true.’]”

Manuel was born Euphemia Quarantina Mary von Söhnen, on June 6 1926, the only child of Anne von Söhnen, of an established Stellenbosch family in Andringa Street.

She never knew her father but she grew up in the warmth of the Von Söhnen family, even as the strictures of apartheid seemed to tighten around them.

Her maternal grandfather, Maximillian von Söhnen, had arrived in the Cape from Prussia in the 1880s, married a Nama woman, Pauline Daniels, and set up a plumbing and welding business in Stellenbosch. Anne was the second of six children and her younger brother, Leonard, inherited the house and the business.

Accounts of local Stellenbosch history describe the Von Söhnen family as “respected” and “loved” in the community.

They also had a reputation for staring down injustice. In 1940, white right-wing students from the nearby university trashed property and attacked coloured residents. The students had apparently been angered by a call from the Jan Smuts government for a minute’s silence in support of South African troops fighting the Nazis and Italians.

Throughout the rampage, the Von Söhnen father and son — Manuel’s grandfather and uncle — were said to have sat stoically on the veranda glowering at the hooligans.

Manuel’s uncle Leonard stared down Group Areas Act officials in a similar manner. In 1972, he was served notice by the government that the house his family had owned since 1896 was no longer his. He ignored the notice despite increasingly threatening visits from the “the Group”. He took the government to court and lost.

As the houses were demolished around him, he stayed on. At one stage Piet Koornhof, an apartheid government minister, visited him and suggested that he reclassify as white.

“I don’t want to be reclassified,” replied Von Söhnen. “Because then I’ll be like you people, and you are just bullies.”

He left the house in a coffin in 1977, and a few months later his daughters, Manuel’s cousins Dawn and Ursula von Söhnen, with whom she had grown up, were forced to move to Ida’s Valley.

Manuel left school at 15 because she felt her mother needed help. She found work in Cape Town’s biggest clothing factory, Rex Trueform.

At that stage her mother worked in one of the canning factories in the Boland and had become involved in the Food and Canning Workers Union, a nonracial trade union set up in defiance of segregation.

Manuel boarded with Fredericka Brown, a woman who lived in Woodstock and who became a second mother to her.

She hoped her son Trevor would find a place in the factory where she had worked, but he wanted to be a lawyer. She told him he’d end up on Robben Island

The years of World War 2 had accelerated the demand for military clothing, and the industry was booming. Before the war, in the late 1930s, Rex Trueform employed 4,000 people, mainly young coloured women. Manuel was paid 15 shillings a week. “You worked overtime till 9pm. You’d get two biscuits and a cup of black tea,” she once recalled.

But she did not complain. “Everybody was like one family. There was no apartheid in those days.”

She worked there for 18 years until soon after the birth of Trevor. Then she found work in another factory, closer to home. After 36 years, in 1976, she left the industry. Her wage had been R21 a week.

She married Abraham Manuel, a council worker, in 1950. He came from a large family in District Six, soon also to be destroyed by the Group Areas Act. Shortly before Trevor was born, Abraham Manuel bought a modest three-bedroomed house in Kensington, at the time an area of African and coloured people. It was here that Manuel lived for the next 65 years.

The house accommodated her children, her mother, and her foster mother. In 1967, the year that Abraham Manuel’s family were being turfed out of District Six, both “mothers” suffered serious illnesses. Manuel gave up her job at the garment factory to nurse both women. They died within weeks of each other. The family, already short of Anne von Söhnen’s salary, was now short of Manuel’s too. “But God was good to me,” she recalled. “There were always people bringing me things.”

Her son Trevor emerged as a political activist around the time of the 1976 uprising. She had hoped he would find a place in the garment factory where she had worked, but he wanted to be a lawyer. She told him he’d end up on Robben Island.

She could not afford to send him to university anyway, so he became an apprentice at an engineering firm, while studying for a diploma. She nonetheless supported her son in his political career with equanimity and mild surprise.

She attended the 1983 launch of the UDF and was amazed by the sway her son held over the exuberant crowd, many of whom had scrambled onto the beams of the ceiling of the Rocklands Civic Centre to get a better view. “My godfathers, all those people,” she recalled. “And people started going up the beams and he said, ‘Come down from there, you’re going to get hurt.’ And I was so amazed because people listened.”

In the subsequent crackdown on the UDF and internal resistance, her son was to spend most of the years between 1986 and 1990 either in prison or banned. He was detained soon after the birth of his oldest son, Govan. Govan was already two years old when he was released.

Manuel took the rise of her son to one of the most powerful positions in the country with her usual equanimity. When Nelson Mandela appointed him a cabinet minister in 1994, she recalled: “The phone didn’t stop ringing.”

Some well-wishers were relatives who had been silent during his long periods in jail. “After I got my breath back, I said, ‘Ooh, we’ve got lots of family now. But where were you when we needed you?’”

Throughout her son’s career in government — at one stage he was the longest-serving finance minister in the world — Manuel remained in her Kensington home after her children had grown up, with her partner, Selmo Poggenpoel, a retired sea captain, who died eight years ago. Pictures of her children and grandchildren adorned her living room, the only reflection of closeness to power a photograph signed by Mandela. She had been photographed with him on her 80th birthday.

I spoke to her on her 94th birthday on June 6. She said she said a bad cough but thanked me for the call. A few weeks earlier, at the beginning of the lockdown, she had invoked the Bible again and urged me to “just obey” the regulations. A few days after her birthday, she was admitted to hospital with Covid-19 symptoms, but until the end was responsive and aware. She prayed with Rev Michael Weeder, dean of St George’s Cathedral, on a video call, and laughed with her grandchildren on a group call.

She died early on Thursday morning, leaving four children, Beryl, Pam, Trevor and Renecia, 10 grandchildren and nine great-grandchildren.


• Green is the author of Choice not Fate: The Life and Times of Trevor Manuel, and is the press ombudsman

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