What’s Blade on about?

2009-08-21 00:00

BLADE Nzimande, the Minister of Higher Education and Training, and the secretary-general of the Communist Party, has recently made a number of very provocative statements:

• Earlier this month he reportedly told members of the National Health and Education Workers Union (Nehawu) that “we need to give higher education a revolutionary content, and not a liberal content”.

• He also warned against “human rights fundamentalism” and said that it and academic freedom, are used by the “elite” classes to undermine the transformation of the higher education sector.

• He said that there are no capitalist ideas that can address the problems that we have, and claimed that “capitalist ideas” caused the current global economic crisis.

• More recently, Nzimande threatened “war” against those who opposed the African National Congress’s proposed National Health Insurance (NHI) scheme. He said that “the capitalist classes have already started a huge campaign in the media to try to discredit this system, and we want to say to them as communists today, war unto you”.

As the Minister of Higher Education and Training, Nzimande should know that the essence of excellent university education is academic freedom to access, research, teach and express knowledge in any sphere of inquiry. Students and academics should also be free to be revolutionary (or reactionary) if they wish, but they should never abandon the quintessentially liberal commitment to academic freedom. Our Constitution is a liberal document. It requires ministers, through their ministerial oath, to uphold academic freedom, along with all the other rights and freedoms in the Bill of Rights. It is, no doubt, the insistence on such rights that Nzimande regards as “human rights fundamentalism”. However, fundamental rights and freedoms are paramount in our Constitution and trump even the critically important goal of transformation.

Nzimande goes on to attack capitalism and to blame it for the current economic crisis. If he is referring to the kind of undiluted greed, stupidity, short-sightedness and irresponsibility that lie at the root of the crisis, he might have a point. However, equally culpable were the United States government’s wild anti-market interventions that rashly encouraged and guaranteed the toxic subprime mortgages that precipitated the crisis. Nobel Economics Laureate Joseph Stiglitz is very critical of the failures in the market system that contributed to the crisis. However, he also expressed his concern that “as they see more clearly the flaws in America’s economic and social system, many in the developing world will draw the wrong conclusions” (precisely as Nzimande has now done). He pointed out that, in the final analysis, “there has never been a successful economy that has not relied heavily on markets”.

According to Nzimande, there are no capitalist ideas that can help us address our current economic challenges. How about the quintessential capitalist ideas of competition, free markets, cost-effectiveness and hard work? Properly applied, they will generate wealth just as they have done throughout the ages.

What communist ideas would Nzimande like to suggest in their place? Can he adduce some successful models from communism’s history since 1917? The Sovie­t Union? East Germany? Perhaps Kampuchea? On which of the four remaining communist states would he like to model South Africa? On North Korea, which has stuck most resolutely to communist ideology? On China and Vietnam, which are now experiencing unprecedented economic growth because of the intro­duction of market reforms? Or Cuba, where Raul Castro has just admitted that the state can no longer afford current levels of expenditure on social programmes?

Finally, at the beginning of August, Nzimande launched a bitter attack on the “capitalist classes” (including capitalists in the ANC?) who he claimed are intent on discrediting ANC proposals for a new NHI scheme. He threatened that workers would meet capitalists in the streets and warned them to “prepare for a huge battle bec­ause we are going to mobilise the workers and the poor of the country to fight against you”. The whole tenor of his approach is to pit classes against one another, rather than to encourage the kind of national co-operation that we will need if we wish to address our enormous health challenges.

Nzimande’s statements cannot be ignored — particularly when viewed against the background of the SACP’s strategic medium-term vision “to secure working class hegemony in the state in its diversity and in all other centres of power”. At its 12th national conference in 2007, the SACP resolved that to achieve this objective it would need to reconfigure its alliance with the ANC to ensure that the alliance (and not solely the ANC) would henceforth be the strategic political centre. The alliance would then play the key role in driving strategy, broad policy and campaigns (like the one on the NHI?). Is this what we are now witnessing with Nzimande’s outspoken statements? The question is: where is the alliance’s strategic political centre now? Does it lie with Trevor Manual, Mathews Phosa and Tokyo Sexwale; or with President Jacob Zuma; or with the increasingly outspoken Blade Nzimande, Julius Malema and Zwelinzima Vavi? Citizens concerned about the preservation of human rights and freedoms — and the remaining foreign and domestic investors — would like to know.


• Dave Steward is the executive director of the F.W. de Klerk Foundation.

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