JOHANNESBURG — NELSON MANDELA used the comic timing of George Burns to keep his National Assembly on pins and needles waiting to hear who would be the new finance minister while he took a well-timed sip of water. Then he smiled, impishly. His audience laughed.
But outside the National Assembly, South Africa's business community - and likely the foreign investors so important to economic growth - were less easy to reassure. The reassignment of Cabinet posts had been sparked by the resignation of Finance Minister Chris Liebenberg, and when news of it leaked ahead of Mandela's announcement last Thursday evening, South Africa's financial markets went on a roller-coaster dip.
President Mandela chose Trevor Manuel, now serving as minister of trade and industry to replace Mr. Liebenberg. For members of Mandela's ruling African National Congress (ANC), Mr. Manuel's appointment was good news, even if they were sad to see the fiscally cautious Liebenberg go. It was another step toward asserting full authority after taking the reins of power in South Africa's first democratic elections in April 1994. Manuel is South Africa's first black finance minister.
Liebenberg, former chief executive of a large banking group and not politically aligned, had been asked by Mandela 18 months ago to handle the finance portfolio. The move was an olive branch to a business community still dominated by whites who remembered that many in the ANC espoused socialism during the liberation struggle of the 1970s and 1980s.
Ironically, Manuel symbolizes probably more than most the ANC's ideological shift to free-market values. A former engineering technician, Manuel made his political name in the 1980s as a radical activist in the United Democratic Front, which served as internal wing to the then-banned and exiled ANC. He spent more than 35 months in political detention.
AFTER the ANC was unbanned in 1990, Manuel was made head of the party's economic-planning department - an appointment that critics slammed because of his lack of experience in the field, and because he was seen as a socialist.
But as trade and industry minister, Manuel confounded the critics when he spearheaded the abolishment of measures protective of South Africa's insular economy and helped engineer a return to world markets. His insistence that the country's economy would have to become competitive brought him into conflict with business and labor alike.
While not a banker, Manuel is seen as bright and a fast learner. In 1994, he was selected as a "global leader for tomorrow" by the World Economic Forum and appointed to the United Nations Initiative for Trade Efficiency advisory committee.
The National Party, which ruled during the apartheid years and is now a coalition partner, said although it respected Manuel personally, it was concerned that this finance minister was not politically neutral. But on Friday, the country's markets and business community appeared to accept the new appointment, cautiously. They were encouraged by statements from Manuel that there will be "no change in the broad fiscal direction," and from Liebenberg that he is confident the "foundations" of fiscal discipline are in place.