Though his political foes might have contrary views, what cannot be disputed is that outgoing SACP general secretary Dr Bonginkosi “Blade” Nzimande made his presence felt in the country’s political life.
The long-time ally of the governing party will hold its national congress in July to elect new office bearers and members of the central committee, which is the SACP’s highest decision-making body.
It had become almost like a ritual that Nzimande would stand unopposed for the influential position, but after 23 years of his reign, Nzimande is expected to relinquish the powerful portfolio.
Political commentators said though Nzimande had not lived up to the expectation of ensuring that government policies were aligned to the socialist ideology, to a certain extent, his appointment to cabinet as minister in various portfolios brought about positive changes.
He is credited with heralding a new dawn in the higher education sector, widening access to post-school education for poor, and predominantly black students.
“Like any other politician, he is not without any blemish. But there were positive changes that he made while a minister of higher education, such as increasing access to post-school education for black students,” said Prof Bheki Mngomezulu, University of the Western Cape academic and political analyst. “Under his tenure more funds were allocated to TVET [Technical and Vocational Education and Training] colleges, for instance, and they became institutions of choice. He elevated them out of the periphery.”
He said Nzimande also spearheaded the process of providing free undergraduate study for financially needy students.
“A programme known as the New Generation of Academics, where young potential African students are absorbed into academia, is one of his legacies. His department was also able to build new universities. There was also more money budgeted for the previously disadvantaged institutions such as those in rural provinces of Limpopo, KwaZulu-Natal and Eastern Cape.”
Mngomezulu was quick to note that Nzimande could have done better in managing the issues that continuously bedevil the National Student Financial Aid Scheme.
Nzimande, who would make it known to whoever cared to listen that he was from Kwa-Dambuza, a township located a few kilometres from Pietermaritzburg in KwaZulu-Natal, is admired for his public speaking prowess. He would often charge: “Ngingowase Gxa mina (I’m from Gxa),” a reference to KwaDambuza.
He popularised phrases such as the “yellow communists”, a rebuke to those who used the party to advance their political ambitions. He also came out against those he called tenderpreneurs, saying they were milking the state dry. When the going got tough under his former confidant and ex-president Jacob Zuma, Nzimande pulled no punches, saying “Sisatshiswa ngezikhundla”, meaning cabinet positions were used to silence critics.
At one stage he called former statesman Thabo Mbeki a 1996 class project. The SACP coined the phrase to describe Mbeki’s administration, accusing him of pushing anti-worker policies founded on neoliberalism.
Wits University politics professor Daryl Glaser said Nzimande would be remembered as someone who wasn’t flexible as SACP general secretary.
“He was like somebody who lived in the past and stuck to the Leninism and Marxism ideas. He couldn’t let go of historical loyalties and ties to countries such as Russia. Dr Nzimande, as general secretary of the SACP, will also be remembered as a person who helped bring Zuma into power,” said Glaser.
“When Nzimande realised there was nothing left wing about Zuma’s presidency, he switched allegiance and supported Ramaphosa.
“Also worth mentioning is that the SACP was never drawn into the radical economic transformation (RET) discourse. Maybe they realised that RET was not a noble idea. While at the helm of the party, he could not push for socialist agenda relating to worker struggles. The party also has no ideology to lead in what is happening in the ANC,” he said.