Blade Nzimande's influence in the ANC-led tripartite alliance has flourished in the past few years under President Jacob Zuma. That is since being labelled an ultra-leftist during the rule of former president Thabo Mbeki.
But the South African Communist Party (SACP) boss, who is also the minister of higher education, has been harshly criticised for his shoot-from-the-hip rhetoric, including backing a call last week by his party in KwaZulu-Natal for a law to protect Zuma against insults and personal attacks. Some ANC leaders said this week that it was another desperate attempt by Nzimande to ingratiate himself with Zuma before the ANC's national conference in Mangaung next month.
Earlier this year, Nzimande was touted as a possible candidate for the position of deputy president of the ANC. But he is not popular with ordinary party members and his campaign has since fallen by the wayside – he was not nominated. Zuma's supporters favour Deputy President Kgalema Motlanthe or businessperson Cyril Ramaphosa to deputise for him after Mangaung.
Opinion on Nzimande in the alliance is strongly divided. Some of his comrades in trade union federation Cosatu and the SACP accuse him of abandoning the working-class struggle in favour of the capitalist agenda of the government. Examples to back this up are his support of the Gauteng e-tolls and the new growth path, which Cosatu believes is no different from Mbeki's macroeconomic policies.
Nzimande's lavish lifestyle has also been scrutinised by political observers in and outside the alliance. Soon after he took over as minister, Nzimande bought himself a R1.1-million BMW and spent thousands of the taxpayers' rands on luxury hotels.
"Under Blade and the current collective of the SACP, I think the SACP has neglected the genuine politics of the left and defined itself as a faction in the ANC," said Floyd Shivhambu, the former ANC Youth League spokesperson and a Young Communist League executive member. "The SACP is a faction in the ANC which uses the phuma sinhgena [our turn to eat] mentality of wanting to replace the governing elite in order to continue with the rapacious and callous looting of state resources."
But Jacob Mamabolo, the SACP Gauteng provincial secretary, this week described criticism of Nzimande as a "liberal offensive" and part of a campaign to discredit him.
"Blade has no personal interest in the ANC. There is no plot to take over the ANC. He is merely defending the ANC and the alliance against tendencies such as the so-called forces of change," Mamabolo said.
"Any person or persons who define themselves outside the ANC will soon learn a harsh history lesson – ask Clement Kadalie [former leader of the Industrial and Commercial Workers' Union], the Pan-Africanist Congress, the Gang of Eight, the 1996 Class Project, the demagogues and the tenderpreneurs like Julius Malema who displayed alien tendencies in the movement.
"Where are the leaders of these new tendencies? They are gone. The forces of change in our ranks will also be gone after Mangaung."
Mamabolo also defended what Nzimande's opponents described as Stalinist purges against his enemies in the party.
"The communist movement defended itself against two tendencies – the right wing and ultra-left [Trotskyites]. People like Nkosiphendule Kolisile [former SACP provincial chairperson] and his allies in Gauteng [Vishwas Satgar and Zico Tamela] wanted to destabilise the party. All these elements were ill-disciplined and refused to subject [themselves] to democratic centralism," Mamabolo said.
But some ANC, SACP and Cosatu members said Nzimande's apparent ambition to succeed Zuma was his undoing. In recent weeks, Zuma is alleged to have "cooled off" his relationship with Nzimande.
Zuma's inner circles
An ANC source close to Nzimande claimed this week that his call for the introduction of anti-insult laws to protect Zuma was an effort to get the president's attention.
"He is no longer close to JZ. His recent utterances are a desperate attempt to get back into Zuma's inner circles. He feels that Thulas Nxesi [the public works minister] has taken his space," said the source. "The president now trusts Nxesi more than Blade."
Another source close to the two men said: "JZ has lost trust in him [Nzimande] because of his attitude of trying to destroy people's reputations. He said embarrassing things about Kgalema Motlanthe, including lying about his romantic affairs. He sees Kgalema as an obstacle for him to take over as president after Zuma. He wants Zuma to anoint him."
Philip Dexter, a former SACP treasurer, said under Nzimande's leadership the SACP had failed to push working-class issues. "The SACP is supposed to be a potent political force, especially in the wake of Marikana [and the] mining and farm strikes, but the sad thing is that the party is nowhere to be seen."
A senior Cosatu leader accused Nzimande of being "uncommunist" in character and outlook: "Is it Marxist-Leninist to support anti-insult laws to the president, to oppose nationalisation, to call workers criminals, to march and defend R250-million of taxpayers' money being spent on the president's compound? There has definitely been ideological misfiring under Blade and it has become tragicomic."
Another union leader said Nzimande took over the SACP in difficult times and revived it to become a strong force for the left. "It was dead under Charles Nqakula. He [Nzimande] fought against the 1996 Class Project. But now he has become the biggest destroyer of the party. He is co-opted by nationalists within the ANC.
"As a leader of the vanguard, he has not played a meaningful role to ensure unity in Cosatu and the alliance. He is very divisive. He captured a number of [Cosatu] affiliates. All they have been doing is to isolate [Cosatu general secretary Zwelinzima] Vavi because he has the balls to criticise the ANC and government under Zuma's leadership.
"Blade is now in government. He has left a domestic servant to look after the party while he is looking after his personal interest in government. He is ruthless. If you differ with him, he purges you."