COMMUNIST. Industrial psychologist. Educationist. Trade unionist. And lover of expensive cognac and luxury cars. This is Blade Nzimande, the son of an immigrant Mozambican, who has emerged as an outspoken politicians since he was brought into President Jacob Zuma’s inner circle.
Shunned by former president Thabo Mbeki, despite his wealth of political activism and experience in trade union and education circles, Nzimande is now having his turn in the limelight and is relishing his newfound centre-stage role.
In some circles he is seen as Zuma’s right-hand man, and is being likened to Essop Pahad, a close adviser to Mbeki. Others, however, say the influence and power are imagined.
The divide, even within the ANC and the tripartite alliance, was clear during the political storm that erupted at the ANC policy conference over the “Second Transition”, a phrase rejected by his detractors as “Marxist jargon”. The “Second Transition” document was largely believed to have been scripted by Nzimande and linked to Zuma’s quest for a second term as ANC president.
It later emerged that it was crafted by Tony Yengeni, a fellow communist who seems to have had a fallout with Zuma.
Nonetheless, there is no question that Nzimande has returned to the political stage with a bang, having revived his political career after suffering some setbacks during the Mbeki era.
There was no love lost between Nzimande and Mbeki, with Nzimande rejecting Mbeki’s growth, employment and redistribution strategy.
Given Nzimande’s role in shaping the outcomes-based education curriculum and contribution to education policy development initiatives, and as a result became the first chairman of the post-apartheid standing committee on education. He was expected to take over the reins of the education department after the departure of Sibusiso Bengu.
When he was overlooked by Mbeki, Nzimande quit parliamentary politics and took on a full-time job as general secretary of the SACP.
Nzimande’s opening to re-enter formal politics came when Zuma’s troubles began. Ironically, as Zuma began to fight for political survival, Nzimande’s star began to rise as he waged an intense campaign to save him after he was fired as deputy president after Schabir Shaik’s corruption conviction.
Nzimande was one of the key foot soldiers who waged a vocal war against the corruption charges faced by Zuma which culminated in Mbeki being “recalled” by the ANC as the country’s president after he had been trounced for the ANC presidency in Polokwane.
The campaigning has clearly had its pay-off, with Nzimande now ensconced as one of the influential players in Zuma’s cabinet; many insiders say he is the “brainpower” behind Zuma’s presidency.
“What Mbeki possessed in terms of intellectual prowess, which Zuma lacks, Nzimande provides. He is believed to be having a lot of influence on Zuma’s cabinet appointments,” said an insider.
Although many who supported Zuma during his court battles have since cut ties with him, Nzimande remains one of the few who continues to back him.
“His influence looms large in the Zuma administration and he punches far above his weight.”
Opinion on Nzimande within the alliance is, divided, though. Some ANC nationalists see him as having spread the influence of communists in the Zuma administration, and influenced the appointment to key positions of people from the SACP.
These include Finance Minister Pravin Gordhan, Economic Development Minister Ebrahim Patel, Deputy Minister of Co-operative Governance and Traditional Affairs Yunus Carrim, Transport Minister Ben Martins, Public Works Minister Thembelani Nxesi, and Trade and Industry Minister Rob Davies.
University of KwaZulu-Natal political scientist Zakhele Ndlovu believes that out of all communists in the Zuma government, Nzimande is “probably the most prominent”.
“The perception is that Nzimande is the key brain in Zuma’s cabinet. Coming from KZN, he seems to be trusted by the president and he is definitely in his inner circle. It is quiet clear that he enjoys the confidence of the president,” he said.
SACP spokesman Malesela Maleka said that since Polokwane there had been an improvement in the manner the alliance operated, and meaningful consultation, but to attribute such an advance to the relationship between Nzimande and Zuma is “mischief at its best”.
“Actually this is no different from the rooi gevaar (communist threat) mentality. People who raise this are in the main those we suspect are not happy with the policy direction of the ANC and the government. They are unsatisfied with progressive policies the ANC and the government are starting to implement and therefore want to use Nzimande as a scapegoat,” said Maleka.
But has the presence of ministers with communist backgrounds had any influence on policy or how SA is run?
Solly Mapaila, the SACP’s secretary for administration, alluded to the influence of the SACP on the government since Nzimande joined the ministerial ranks, saying several ANC ministers had even gone as far as making presentations to the SACP central committee on their departmental programmes.
Now, with Nzimande and the SACP having been able to argue against those calling for him to be in the office full-time as general secretary, he is likely to be re-elected to his current position at the party’s conference, held in Empangeni until Sunday. Which means Nzimande will most certainly remain a strong political force in the future.