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SACP general-secretary Blade Nzimande has been in the job for 14 years – and is set to continue as party boss for another five years after this week’s congress.
There are no indications he will bow to pressure – a little from within SACP ranks and more from outside, including from Cosatu and some affiliates – to resign his cabinet portfolio of higher education.
Nzimande has consistently and forcefully argued that the party is not an NGO and is thus interested in state power at all levels.
Instead, it is expected the SACP will amend its constitution to formalise the current interim arrangement of deputies looking after SACP matters while the general-secretary takes care of government business.
This is a far cry from mid-1998, when Nzimande was elected general-secretary and announced he would vacate his seat on the parliamentary back benches, and as chairman of the education committee, to dedicate himself full-time to the party post.
By all accounts it was a bitter-sweet parting from Parliament for the politician, who during the constitutional assembly negotiation had brokered the compromise on the education clause in the Bill of Rights, accommodating opposition parties’ wish for single-medium instruction schools to remain at least an option.
In an impromptu farewell from his honourable colleagues during the September 1998 debate on the Further Education and Training (FET) Bill – he had also shepherded through the SA Schools Bill and Education Policy Bill to irrevocably change the education system from apartheid segregation – newspaper reports quote then PAC leader Stanley Mogoba as saying it was a shame Nzimande was going to the SACP and not to the church, while then Democratic Party MP Mike Ellis said “we are very pleased you are going; you have overstayed your welcome”.
Over the previous four years Nzimande, who holds a PhD specialising in sociology from the then University of Natal, proved himself to be an astute, politically crafty, at times rude, but always extremely capable education committee chairman.
Though he was touted in the Financial Mail of April 1996 as “among the foremost middle-ranking ANC figures tipped for ministerial office”, it would be another 13 years before Nzimande got that cabinet portfolio.
In some ways his 2009 appointment as the first higher education minister meant having come full-circle: Nzimande energetically touts the Further Education and Training (FET) colleges, established under a law during his tenure at the national legislature, as one of the keys to sort out SA’s skills shortage.
But before he got there, Nzimande spent not inconsiderable energy, first on the SACP – and later also on supporting Jacob Zuma through his legal troubles from 2005 and backing him for ANC president at the 2007 Polokwane national conference.
That support sparked tensions within the SACP as not everyone agreed that Zuma was the leader on whom to hitch a left and socialist vision for SA, given his controversial stance on issues like virginity testing, his polygamous marriages and strong traditional cultural views.
But Nzimande was not deterred. Young Communist League secretary and SACP member Mazibuko Jara, who expressed misgivings over backing Zuma in a piece published in November 2005, was ousted and Gauteng SACP leader Vishwas Satgar resigned in late 2006 after clashing with Nzimande, who he accused of the “re-Stalinisation of the SACP”.
In 2007, then SACP treasurer Phillip Dexter was suspended for criticising the party and subsequently left. Also that year, Willie Madisha got the short shrift in the controversy over the R500 000 reportedly delivered in black plastic bags to Nzimande in 2002.
Nzimande denied receiving the donation and said the fraud and corruption charges were part of a smear campaign to discredit him.
He survived and moved into cabinet, although in 2010 clouds hung over the Higher Education ministry when, first, director-general Mary Metcalfe left, reportedly due to a disagreement over the minister’s trip to Cuba, then spokeswoman Ranjeni Munusamy.
The working-class son of a mother who, according to various media reports, took out loans and gambled to pay for Nzimande’s university tuition, also survived controversies over his R1.1 million luxury car and stays in Cape Town’s famed Mount Nelson hotel.
However, the label Gucci communist never stuck, even if Nzimande had long before jettisoned the worker’s cap.
Mark Gevisser, in his 1996 book Portraits of Power, described the SACP leader thus: “You respect Blade Nzimande the way you do a Jack Russell terrier; both are compact, tenacious, intelligent, scrappy when provoked, affable once they get to know you, and intensely loyal to those they trust.”
There would be agreement on this “scrappiness” among those who have been at the receiving end of Nzimande’s sharp blade – be it opposition parties in Parliament, the media or, more recently, business voices such as Nedbank non-executive chairman Reuel Khoza for his comments that SA had “a strange breed of leaders”.
Not to mention City Press, against which Nzimande called a boycott over its reportage of The Spear painting portraying Zuma exposed below the waist.
Nzimande also coined the term “anti-majoritarian liberalism” to critique all those from opposition parties, civil society and others who are considered uncomfortable with a black government.
One of the few public representatives to regularly get published in newspapers’ opinion and analysis pages, Nzimande, a one-time lecturer, trade unionist and former director at the University of Natal’s Education Policy Unit, also has a track-record of academic publications.
And perhaps the quality of loyalty is what others, possibly including the president, count on.
As the tide turned against the second transition discussion document in favour of the second phase of transition in debates at the recent ANC policy conference, Nzimande continued to echo the president’s call for a radical shift.
“We do need a renewed focus and much more radical steps to tackle unemployment, poverty and inequality,” he told journalists on the sidelines of Zuma’s walkabout in the Progressive Business Forum networking lounge at the policy indaba.
And he added the renationalisation of Sasol and steel manufacturer ArcelorMittal were the type of state interventions the SACP supported, rather than the wholesale nationalisation envisaged by the ANC Youth League.
The SACP has claimed – in support of its general secretary’s cabinet post and continued backing of Zuma’s administration – its sway over government and ANC policy.
Claimed policy successes also include state-led industrialisation, a focus on state intervention to boost beneficiation of raw materials before export, the increased role of state-owned enterprises in the economy, the government’s commitment to the R800bn infrastructure delivery programme, the National Health Insurance scheme and increasing financial aid to students from poor and working-class families, which effectively amounts to free tertiary education.
But for the SACP and Nzimande it has been a gruelling journey to this place in the sun after first raising the need for an interventionist developmental state in early 1997.
In a critique of the then ANC discussion document The State and Social Transformation, Nzimande, then deputy SACP chairman, and deputy general secretary Jeremy Cronin laid into the view of the state as a regulator and mediator.
In the mid-1990s the party was at an ebb. Membership had fallen, reportedly to 14 000.
The SACP struggled to deal with the drafting of key communists into government – remember Geraldine Fraser-Moleketi, Charles Nqakula, Alec Erwin, among others – and the deaths of notables such as housing minister Joe Slovo in 1995 and the 1993 killing of Chris Hani.
In July 1998, 600 delegates to the 10th SACP congress voted in Nzimande as general-secretary over incumbent Nqakula, who had taken over after Hani’s death, in what was widely described as a stand-off between the young radicals and the old guard.
It was not without drama, when then president Nelson Mandela let rip against the SACP for speaking out publicly against government and ANC policy and Mbeki followed suit. Gear (Growth, Employment, and Redistribution) in June 1996 had replaced the Reconstruction and Development Programme and its focus on privatisation, labour market flexibility and economic growth strategies came under sharp criticism from the SACP and Cosatu.
But Nzimande refused to shut up and rolled up his sleeves: first came the Red October campaigns, targeting specific areas of activism, from factory floors to farms and anything in between, then the financial sector campaign against the banking monopoly and high charges, while in 2003 the Young Communist League was relaunched.
A relative late-comer to the SACP – according to some reports Nzimande joined at age 30, while others say he discovered Marxism during his days at the University of Natal – Nzimande does not share the experience of exile that so many other communists went through.
Instead, as a close associate of ANC stalwart and SACP hardliner Harry Gwala, Nzimande had to deal with the often bloody conflicts between the ANC and IFP, particularly in the Midlands region where he was in office in the early 1990s.
It is perhaps with some irony that he recently stood accused of having been an IFP member – which was denied by the SACP.
He once pointed out during a newspaper interview that his wife’s whole family had been killed by the IFP and he never retracted his comments that the IFP fraudulently won KwaZulu-Natal in the first democratic elections.
Amid the raucous criticism of president Thabo Mbeki, which recently went as far as blaming the DA’s improved election support on the Mbeki administration’s failure to deal with corruption, and the vocal cheers for Zuma, hard work paid off as Nzimande stamped his authority on the party.
Today the SACP has 150 000 members. From Wednesday, an estimated 1 900 voting delegates will discuss its strategic direction until 2017 at the University of Zululand, where in 1976 Nzimande was among the students protesting against the honourary degree conferred on IFP leader Mangosuthu Buthelezi.