Analysis: Blade Nzimande’s ever-increasing loneliness

By Stephen Grootes 18 October 2010

The last few weeks and months have seen a strange thing happen to Blade Nzimande. He’s gone quite odd. There've been his comments about the media (which have not been fully backed up by his party), his silence on some of the big issues of the day, and now the resignation of his director-general, Mary Metcalfe. What's in store for the once-formidable player in SA politics? By STEPHEN GROOTES.

She’s a close personal friend of his, going back to the days of the United Democratic Front. So for him to start turning on people that close to him would appear to be evidence that something has gone wrong.

The most startling sign has been his lack of rational cogitation when it comes to the media. His claim that the media “is the biggest threat to our democracy” is just so out of touch with reality that it led to widespread ridicule. It became the iconic soundbite to show how irrational the whole idea of the media appeals tribunal was. But it really seems to be a sign of a deep-seated frustration.

Nzimande seems to be suffering from a lack of anger-management. He is frustrated. He is unable to get what he wants done. This inevitably leads to a question about how much power he really has. We’ve always thought President Jacob Zuma’s appointment of him to the post of higher education minister was quite cunning. It’s not a ministry that matters much in the hierarchy of SA’s government. But he couldn’t say no, because he has a doctorate in education, and thus couldn’t turn down the chance to be the major player in the field. But all he can do is use the bully pulpit it offers him to rail against the ills of society. And that’s all he can do.

It’s a far cry from the man who used to be one of the main acts in the concert troupe that was Zuma’s support band during his court appearances. His cry of “My mother was a kitchen girl, my father was a garden boy, that’s why I’m a communist” was the political ditty of 2007. In political circles it set the tone for Zuma’s speeches. In a political culture where songs about leaders are crucial, Nzimande has lost the role of choirmaster.

The roots of this would appear to lie in a mistake he made at Polokwane. He allowed himself to be voted onto the ANC’s national executive committee. Looking back now, all that meant was that he had be inside the tent pissing out. Going into cabinet was an even bigger mistake. It meant he could not break cabinet conventions by being too publicly critical of government decisions, no matter how counter-revolutionary they may be to his way of thinking. It also means he is now judged on performance. It’s not about what he says anymore. It’s about what he actually does. When starting a department from scratch, the deck was stacked against him, in that he had an incredibly hard task to make changes to the higher education sector in a relatively short time.

To add to what must have been his immense frustration, his cabinet appointment then immediately became a story about the trappings of power. The revelation (part of a series of DA questions about ministerial cars) that he had not one, but two luxury vehicles at our expense became two German-made albatrosses around his neck. Suddenly Nzimande wasn’t the communist in cabinet, he was the former communist selling out.

Reading how this translated within the SACP itself is not easy. But we are struck by how he was the one person outside of the usual suspects in the ANC (that is, those with lots to gain from a muzzled press) who made increased media regulation a burning issue. For him it’s obviously personal. In this week’s Business Day, editor Peter Bruce uses his “Thick End of the Wedge” column to ask again for Nzimande to provide a list of people whose lives have been ruined by the media. It’s the perfect riposte to an argument that lacks power and realism. But Nzimande’s views aren’t shared by all in his party. Its top bodies have made much more nuanced suggestions, and don’t seem to have the same level of ill-feeling towards reporters.

For the last few months the story of the alliance has really been the story of Cosatu and the ANC. Zwelinzima Vavi has made hay out of his independence. Nzimande has been hobbled. At the same time, the ANC Youth League’s campaign against Gwede Mantashe has had a serious impact on the SACP. Mantashe’s position as chairman means the League has really been playing ball against the communists. And the communists’ two main leaders have been unable to hit back. This would seem to explain why the super-cerebral Jeremy Cronin has been deployed in this war so often. No one else in the party can be.

Nzimande could end up doing some long-term damage to the SACP. Simply put, it doesn’t seem to be where the action is. If you’re young, clever and ambitious, the SACP is not the place to be. The action is in the ANC and Cosatu. No doubt Nzimande would disagree; he would point to Sadtu’s comment last week that the membership of the SACP needs to be increased, and that Sadtu members should join it. But Nzimande is in danger of finding that his current job is his last big one. Even if he believes he’s destined for higher things. DM

Grootes is an EWN reporter.


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