South Africa


Sharp sharp, Blade: Two major issues define Nzimande’s decades on top of the SACP

Sharp sharp, Blade: Two major issues define Nzimande’s decades on top of the SACP
South African Communist Party leader Blade Nzimande during an interview on 13 July 2017 in Boksburg, South Africa. (Photo: Gallo Images / Sunday Times / Masi Losi)

As Blade Nzimande moves on from his position as general secretary of the SA Communist Party (SACP), it is time for an assessment of his 24 years on top of the party. First elected to the post in 1998, he is the only SA politician to remain a key player in a political formation since the days of Nelson Mandela. So, what has Nzimande done with his position atop the SACP and the power that was vested in him for so long?

There can be no doubt that Blade Nzimande was an important power player, and that the SA Communist Party (SACP) had an important role in some of South Africa’s key moments of the last 24 years. To assess his time in office is almost the same as it is to assess our very democracy.

Two issues stand out. 

The first, which may dominate thoughts about Nzimande for many, is his attitude, and the attitude of the party he led, towards former president Jacob Zuma. 

The second, less examined these days, is the role the SACP played during the Mbeki-era HIV-Aids tragedy.

It is almost impossible to properly assess a time in office that started before the Democratic Alliance was formed. And it may be that the sheer length of Nzimande’s term on its own has had positive and negative outcomes for the party.

He himself has said that he believes the SACP is much stronger now than it was in 1998. He told the SABC this week that it has grown from just over 10,000 members then to over 300,000 now. As he put it: 

“I am handing over a much larger Communist Party than it has ever been in its 101 years… there is no doubt about that. It’s a much stronger Communist Party in the sense it has got a presence throughout our nine provinces, in many communities, in urban areas, townships, informal settlements and in the rural areas.” 

But numbers are only part of the story, particularly for a party that has often argued for the principle of “fewer but better”.

Of course, Nzimande’s long tenure must have contributed to continuity, to a sense of predictability in the SACP’s views and positions. And there was also his experience — it was clear he always had a detailed understanding of what was happening in our politics.

But there were negatives to this. While the party claims to have a large number of members, it is uncertain in which way it has really altered our country’s direction. Was the SACP under Nzimande able to alter our trajectory at important moments, and for the better?

It is hard to answer this with certainty. It is surely true that the actions of the SACP have been the first hints that real change was coming in the ANC, and sometimes there have been moments of true political bravery. Nzimande’s stance on HIV/Aids is a good example.

But there have also been moments of political cravenness, such as when the SACP refused to condemn e-tolls despite the obvious point that it was a clear case of crude privatisation of a public asset.

For many people, two important issues stand out.

Standing up to Mbeki

The first is how the SACP and Nzimande stood up to Mbeki on HIV/Aids.

In 2000, Mbeki was at the start of his time in power — he had been elected unopposed as leader of the ANC and dominated our politics. He was able to use this power to make it undesirable to even utter the phrase “HIV causes Aids”.

Despite that, at the Cosatu congress in September of that same year, Nzimande said publicly

“The SACP accepts the view of the scientific community that the HI Virus causes Aids. The SACP also agrees that opportunistic diseases that thrive in conditions of poverty like TB and malaria do indeed increase amongst poor people infected with the HI Virus.”

The party has said that his punishment for this was to be lectured for eight hours during a meeting of the ANC’s National Executive Committee (such was Mbeki’s power, Madiba was subjected to a similar punishment for a similar “crime”).

It took real bravery for Nzimande, and the SACP, to do this at the time.

Time has marched on and the landscape has changed markedly since then — while HIV/Aids continues to shape and scar our society, the Zuma phenomenon became the biggest political issue over the last 15 years.

Support for Zuma

There can be no doubt of the strength of feeling Nzimande and the SACP had for Zuma. Time and time again, the party and Nzimande expressed their support for him, particularly outside his court cases in 2006, ahead of the ANC’s Polokwane conference.

At one event, an SACP birthday rally in 2006, and just ahead of a court appearance, the song We Want Zuma defined the proceedings. This was part of a much bigger programme where Zuma was given stages to speak from during this time.

This support for Zuma was clearly important, and the SACP played a significant role in ensuring he was elected leader of the ANC and then President.

It is unlikely that the SACP would wish to dwell on it these days. But perhaps it would point to Mbeki’s conduct and suggest that the real problem was that Polokwane was a contest between only two people. And as Mbeki had angered the SACP on HIV and the 1996 Gear budget, they had no choice but to back Zuma.

That said, it is also true that Nzimande and the SACP were rewarded for their support. 

He went into Cabinet, appointed to that position by Zuma.

This led to the revelation that his department spent more than R1-million (which was worth a lot more then than it is now) on a new Mercedes-Benz for the minister’s use. What followed was the spectacle of the SA communists defending the choice of a luxury sedan for their most public leader.

For a while, it seemed that Nzimande’s support for Zuma knew no bounds. He even supported a call from the SACP in KZN for a law to protect the President from “insults”. And he backed the Protection of State Information Bill, a proposed law which would have imposed tight restrictions on how journalists reported on the activities of the state, at one point asking, “What quality does an editor have to decide the public interest?” 

As late as 2012, at the SACP conference in Richards Bay, Nzimande declared that the party was “happy about many positive developments in government as led by President Jacob Zuma”.

To look at these events through the lens of the testimony and findings of the Zondo Commission is to wonder what would have happened if the SACP and Nzimande had not supported Zuma so strongly. Could we have been spared the era of State Capture?

It was also during this time that the SACP failed to publicly condemn the e-tolls project. Considering that this was the privatisation of a public asset, it should have gone against the SACP’s very ideology. And yet, there was no consistent campaign from the SACP against e-tolls, which stands in stark contrast to Cosatu’s public and consistent campaign against them.

This virtually unquestioning support of Zuma and the government he led may well have contributed to No 1’s confidence to embark on his corruption spree.

State Capture

But it is also to the party’s eternal credit that it was the body that defined the corruption as “State Capture”.

For an organisation within the ANC-led alliance to do this was incredibly brave at the time. It is probably true that the Zondo Commission was in fact the end result of the SACP’s actions.

But its efforts were not confined to just framing the narrative. It also pushed back against Hlaudi Motsoeneng’s excesses at the SABC from 2016.

This was a public sign that the SACP was prepared to push back against Zuma. As such, it possibly gave many people political cover to do the same.

It may well have been the SACP’s actions that allowed some people to publicly campaign against Zuma; it essentially gave the pushback against him and the Guptas a sense of legitimacy — it was cold outside the alliance in those days.

This culminated in Zuma’s midnight reshuffle at the end of March 2017, where he fired Pravin Gordhan, and Nzimande himself.

Within hours, the SACP had called on Zuma to step down, pointing to the Guptas as the main driver of Zuma’s actions.

The party also provisionally scheduled a special conference to be held in early 2018. The implication was clear: if Zuma’s preferred candidate, Dr Nkosazana Dlamini Zuma, won at Nasrec, the SACP was preparing to leave the alliance, which could have had negative implications for the ANC’s performance in the 2019 elections.

Put all together, the SACP first pushed for Zuma to become President, and then was among the first to push for him to be removed.

Nzimande could argue that it took real courage to recognise a mistake and for the SACP to move against Zuma. And he could ask what would have happened had he not guided his party in this way.

Whether that absolves him of blame for Zuma in the first place is a decision for South Africans themselves to answer.

The fact that the two main issues which marked Nzimande’s time in office were in response to issues in the ANC may well reveal the SACP’s underlying problem: that its power appears to rest within the ANC. This has led to the seemingly unending question of whether the SACP should, or even could, leave the alliance and go it alone.

The fact the party did not formally do this (despite coming close — it did run for office in the council of Metsimaholo in the Free State) may lead to questions around whether Nzimande’s position as a Cabinet minister played a role in this.


But it would seem unlikely that he alone could have held back SACP members had there been a groundswell of support for a move away from the alliance.

While Nzimande has said he is not available for the position of general secretary, he may still have an important role to play in the party. And as our politics change, the question facing the SACP may in fact become more fundamental: as the ANC loses significant political power and as more political parties enter the fray, is this the moment to cut ties with the party? 

If the SACP is ever going to do it, this may be the moment. If it misses the moment, it may find itself stuck to a sinking ship, unable to do more than help rearrange the deckchairs.

The fact that the SACP now has so many members, as Nzimande has pointed out, may well lead to speculation that it is preparing for change. If true, 300,000 members would be a desirable number for any party involved in national campaigning.

Anyone willing to make predictions in our politics at the moment is playing with fire. But it would seem more likely that Nzimande, should he retain an important position in the party, is more likely to push for continuity than a major break with the party’s current position. DM


Comments - Please in order to comment.

  • Heinrich Heiriss says:

    You are a lot kinder to Mr Nzimande in this article than I would have been Stephen. I don’t think he deserves an ounce of credit for exposing state capture. People like Helen Zille, whether we like it or not, deserve way more credit, since she had her finger on the pulse and predicted the way things would go long before Mr Zuma ever became president. I see Mr Nzimande as someone who seeks what is most expedient to him and his party. The SACP will never go it alone – staying within the ANC almost guarantees them positions, whereas outside the ANC? I don’t think they have a lot going for them in terms of a USP, never mind the fact their policies belong in the graveyard of politics. As for 300,000 members – well you said it best in you 21 Feb 2022 article about the EFF. It probably doesn’t mean much.

    • Andrew Wright says:

      Quite correct, in all aspects. The SACP – in my opinion – has been entirely cowardly by relying on the tripartite alliance to acquire power in SA. Have never had the guts to go it alone but insisted on corrupting the thinking of ANC followers by consistently & repeatedly espousing the Marxism of the old fashioned communist parties from Eastern Europe, despite the overwhelming evidence that it does not work in economic terms nor of succesful, inclusive country building.

      • Heinrich Heiriss says:

        Exactly. The problem with communist ideology is that despite its obvious destructive failure, particularly in Eastern Europe and elsewhere, is that Communists will keep saying that “that was not real communism”. I shudder to think what is real communism.

  • Paddy Ross says:

    An excellent analysis, Stephen. I realise that your article was focussed on his role in the Communist Party but I would have liked to know your opinion of his time as a Government Minister in Higher Education. To my mind, he has been only marginally more effective than Mantashe in Energy.

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