Trevor Manuel was born in Kensington (Cape Town), during the apartheid era and classified as a Cape Coloured. His mother, Philma van Söhnen, was a garment factory worker, and his father, Abraham James Manuel, was a draughtsman. According to Manuel's "family legend", his great-grandfather was a Portuguese immigrant; he had married an indigenous woman. He grew up and was educated in the city. He matriculated from the prestigious Harold Cressy High School in 1973 and studied Civil and Structural Engineering, and later, during his detention, law.
Manuel entered public life in 1981 as the General Secretary of the Cape Areas Housing Action Committee, after which he became a National Executive member of the United Democratic Front (UDF). In September 1985 Manuel was detained and then banned until 31 August 1990. However, Manuel's ban was lifted on 25 March 1986 after it was ruled that it was not in line with the provisions of the Internal Security Act. On 15 August 1986 Manuel was again detained under the emergency regulations for almost two years until July 1988. He was released from detention under severe restrictions but promptly detained again in September 1988, this time until February 1989. His release came with stringent restriction orders.
After the unbanning of the African National Congress (ANC), Manuel was appointed as deputy co-ordinator in the Western Cape Province. At the ANC's first regional conference in 1990 Manuel was elected publicity secretary. At the ANC's 1991 national conference Manuel was elected to the National Executive Committee. In 1992 Manuel became head of the ANC's Department of Economic Planning. Manuel was elected as an ANC Member of Parliament in 1994 and was appointed by President Nelson Mandela as Minister of Trade and Industry; two years later, in 1996, he was moved to the post of Minister of Finance.
The World Economic Forum selected Manuel as a "Global Leader for Tomorrow" in 1994, and he has received numerous international awards and recognition for his accomplishments. He is regarded highly by a broad section of the South African public and is widely viewed as one of the most competent South African ministers.[who?]
South Africa reported its first budget surplus in 2007. A combination of increased prosperity, high commodity prices and a wider tax base were credited with the surge of revenue. Manuel increased spending for education, housing and sanitation.
On 23 September 2008, Trevor Manuel resigned as Finance Minister along with a number of other cabinet members after the resignation of President Thabo Mbeki, unsettling the financial market, but it was subsequently announced that he would be willing to continue to serve under the next president. Manuel explained the resignation as a principled gesture, and he expressed surprise at the market's reaction. He was retained in his post in the cabinet of Mbeki's successor, Kgalema Motlanthe, which was announced on 25 September.
On 2 March 2011, Manuel published an open letter to Jimmy Manyi, the spokesperson for the South African government, in which he accused him of racism and compared him to Hendrik Verwoerd. This letter was precipitated by the remarks that Manyi made about a change in the labour laws he had proposed in his previous position of Director-General of Labour. These changes affect the racial quota that employers in South Africa are to apply to their work force. Previously they needed to reflect the ethnic composition of the local community; this would now be changed to the composition of the country as a whole. Such a change would have severe consequences for the Coloured community of the Western Cape as well as for the Indian community of KwaZulu-Natal. For the former only 10% of jobs would be available in regions where they form a 60% majority. Manyi claimed that there was a "surplus" of Coloureds in the West-Cape and that this 'problem' should be solved by making the members of this community spread over other provinces—a solution similar to that of relocation under apartheid.