Trevor Manuel was born in Kensington (Cape Town), during the apartheid era and was 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
Manuel grew up and was educated in the city. He matriculated from the 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.