Nzimande waves the red flag over Guptas
Blade Nzimande speaks to S'thembiso Msomi about his longevity as SACP boss, Zuma, betrayal and a family in Saxonwold
Sunday Times: I thought you'd be stepping down, seeing as you've held the post since 1998.
Blade Nzimande: I was hoping to, honestly and frankly.
ST: So what changed?
BN: Look, there has been a discussion that ... two views, and I would say the one view prevailed. The discussion has been that as the SACP, alliance and country, we are faced with the most difficult situation in a while. The next six months are very uncertain as to what may happen. So the debate was, do you change leadership during this difficult situation? Some were saying: "No, don't change leadership, retain leadership and try and navigate the next six to 12 months and then see what you do." But others say: "Well, precisely, it is at this time that you need fresher legs to run."
On my side, I was really hoping I would be stepping down because it has been a long time, but some other comrades disagreed.
Now you get faced with the situation where ... people [say:] "At the end, though, it is not your decision." That is why it is even difficult for me to talk about this. I am not a powermonger, I am not dependent on any position in any organisation - both inside and outside government.
ST: Your detractors say you are staying to secure your government position and because you are not sure you'd make it into the new ANC national executive committee in December?
BN: I am not wild, by the way, about standing for ANC NEC ... The party has no positions in government. We don't run a single municipality, let alone a province. There is no provision that the general secretary of the SACP shall be in cabinet. So I may have been appointed to cabinet not necessarily because I am a generalsecretary to the Communist Party, but perhaps because of what I would bring to cabinet.
So people must disabuse themselves of this thing ... I saw something which said that if I stepped down my political career would come to an end; I don't believe politics is a career. And you know, I have got lots of things I would like to do.ST: Like what?
BN: I would like to go back to academia even if it is not on a full-time basis. I already have offers, by the way.
ST: Are these local or international?
BN: Here ... and there is one outside, but I wouldn't be based there full time. I would love to do research, I would like to supervise master's and PhD students around matters related to the SACP and the working class.
My wife and I, we are establishing a foundation. The primary aim of this foundation is to join the effort of provision of libraries to townships and rural areas, to promote the culture of reading and writing.
ST: What would you say have been your major achievements over the past 20 years as party leader?
BN: No, the party has not been built by me as an individual. I would really be taking too much for myself; it has been built by a collective of the central committee. Also we have had very good provincial secretaries. So I would say what has been achieved, not by myself, since I became general secretary, is that we have grown the party. That is a very important achievement. You know when I took over, KwaZulu-Natal only had three branches. We decided to grow it deliberately so that we could grow its influence. But of course we don't just want numbers, we want quality as well and I think we have produced a number of cadres who are playing important roles in different parts of South Africa - the trade union movement, in government, in NGOs.
ST: Why does it still matter in South Africa when other communist parties in the world are struggling to survive?
BN: As comrade Chris [Hani] said, as long as there is capitalism there will always be a case for the Communist Party. Remember, South Africa remains the most unequal country in the world in terms of income, so ideas of a party like ours will always attract some people. Also, South Africa has had a relatively strong, if not the strongest, trade union movement in Africa, which has been a source of building a strong Communist Party.The relationship between the party and Cosatu deepened greatly during the mid-1990s. This played a crucial role because one of the reasons why the Communist Party has grown is that we have been in the trenches after 1994 when some of our comrades in the ANC were saying: "What struggle are you talking about after 1994?" We insisted and led important struggles on the banks, on the land, on social grants.
We were the first ones who picked up this issue of social grants and noMashonisa [loan sharks]. We fought together with Cosatu against privatisation and Gear [the growth, employment and redistribution strategy]. So that is why the Communist Party attracts people, because we have taken up the struggles of the workers and the poor, and we have not only been active during election time.
ST: You had an opportunity in 2006 and 2007 to enter electoral politics on your own but decided to stay with the ANC and back Jacob Zuma's presidential bid. Do you regret that, especially seeing how successful the EFF has been?
BN: We never formally pronounced on the ANC leadership in 2007, we never did that, although, as comrade Jeremy [Cronin] would say, there may have been some body language (laughs) which showed our preference.
But the strategic orientation of the SACP is to drive a national democratic revolution, headed by the ANC. So that is why from '94 we adopted a path which says we are not going to contest elections directly, we are going to campaign electorally as the SACP for an ANC victory and that we would actually stand on ANC lists. So that is what was informing us, that you still need the maximum possible unity of organisations representing the formerly oppressed and the exploited to work together.
We have no luxury in our country, given the major economic problems that we face, to go different ways. And this has been abused thoroughly. Hence the stance that we have taken.
ST: Abused by whom?
BN: By the ANC! By the faction in particular now that is hegemonic in the ANC, which thinks that we all go and contest elections and thereafter it is as if it was only the ANC that was contesting the elections. That must come to an end.
ST: But how does it end when, in 2007, you were complaining about the same and demanding a "reconfigured alliance" and a pact, but once all of you were elected into the ANC NEC and given cabinet posts, you forgot about the issue?
BN: Because we have been principled about our commitment to the ANC and our alliance. But with the deepening factionalisation of the ANC, that thing has actually been abused. That is why this conference must define what we mean by reconfiguration. If reconfiguring the alliance means us contesting the elections directly, let it be so, if congress so decides. This does not mean we are no longer committed to the alliance. It is just that conditions change.
ST: What did you mean when you said you felt personally betrayed by Zuma?
BN: Well, I will talk about that one day but that is how I feel. Politics as an art is not about personal bonds or personal relations, but there are actually personal relations. You know comrades say: "If you elect me or support me, I don't owe anybody anything." Fine, but also the revolution does not owe you anything as an individual, even if you are in a leadership position. You must know that. I want to say that very strongly. It is a mutual process.
ST: Any regrets on how things worked out with the ANC leadership?
BN: I don't want this to be caricatured. There are many things we did over the last 10 years or so that we would do again.
We fought against privatisation, relatively successfully. Little did we know that some comrades who were against privatisation were not [against it ] because they wanted state-owned companies to play a developmental role but because they wanted to eat through control of the organisation and the state.
Abuse of state security institutions to pursue factionalist agendas, we fought that and it was correct and we are going to continue fighting it. So we don't regret that. But had we known certain things we know now, we would have done things differently.
I don't want to get into specifics ... But let me give you one example: that there would be a push from some within our own movement to hand over our country to an immigrant family. Had I known that we would be having such a thing we would not have taken some of the stances that we took. We took the stances that we took because we wanted to correct what we saw as the pervasion of the character of the ANC; lack of consultation with the alliance - the alliance was like a formality.
ST: And then the ANC 2012 conference came and you still backed Zuma?
BN: The first Zuma administration did very important things that we thought we were going to build upon. For instance, the roll-out of ARVs [antiretrovirals] was a big positive thing, which has led to the rise in life expectancy. Huge achievements. The investment in infrastructure, increased support for things like extended public works programmes, continuing social grants and so on, things that were very positive.
ST: But even by then the Gupta influence was visible.
BN: It had not developed to this extent. As the SACP we were consistently raising this thing, around that time, in the alliance meetings and in our bilateral meetings with the ANC and hoping, we were hoping, that these things will be corrected. Little did we know ... Some of the things, though, we were not aware of. That is the betrayal, that is the main part of the betrayal. This thing of handing over our country to an immigrant Indian family is unpardonable, unpardonable. That is not what we agreed, that is not the understanding we had reached in the alliance.
ST: Your opponents blame you and the SACP for a weak and divided trade union movement.
BN: We have lived with this thing since 1921. Reactionary nationalists as well as ultra-left workerists have always blamed whatever problem is there on the trade union movement, or the ANC, or the Communist Party. Our record of building the trade union movement is unparalleled. The party was central, through its underground structures, in the building of Cosatu. So we can't all of a sudden be the ones now responsible for destroying it.
With Numsa [the National Union of Metalworkers of South Africa] we tried everything to meet them the last two years before they left. They had just told themselves they don't want to meet with us.
We had never given up. We invited them now and they gave us a long love letter, but we don't want to respond to that because our role has always been to build a united labour movement. We are concerned about this fragmentation of trade unions, it is not good for South Africa.
ST: What happens if the December conference is not to the satisfaction of your members? Would you be looking for new alliance partners?
BN: We are not looking at political parties per se, we are looking at a whole range of democratic forces that have an interest in driving a second and more radical phase of our democratic revolution, that hate state capture and focus on the challenges of poverty and unemployment.
You need a broad popular front, even if the ANC is there and strong - that is the lesson we have always known but is being further underlined. Even the checks and balances of the ANC should have been independent mass civil society actions and mobilisation, even if not hostile to government, but to keep a check.
ST: Would this broad platform you are talking about involve a party like the EFF?
BN: There may be formations who are not with us now but who may get attracted to this idea and may want to work with us.