Nzimande and Vavi: former allies reunited as Zuma outcasts

Blade Nzimande. (File: Beeld)
Blade Nzimande. (File: Beeld)

In his famous essay "Has socialism failed?" published after the collapse of the Soviet Union, Joe Slovo lamented at the way in which the ideology of socialism had been distorted by Stalinists.

The results of the distortion were, among others, the stifling of democracy under the guise of so-called democratic centralism, suppression of individual freedoms and exploitation of producers.

In a spirited attempt to rescue the credibility of the failed socialist project, Slovo, then general secretary of the SA Communist Party, called on communists to reflect on their role in this failure. "It is not enough merely to engage in the self-pitying cry: 'we were misled'," he wrote. "We should rather ask why so many communists allowed themselves to become so blinded for so long."

In South Africa today, there is an outcry among SACP leaders after President Jacob Zuma once again exercised his prerogative to reshuffle his Cabinet. Communists are angry that he has fired their general secretary Blade Nzimande. It's a declaration of war, they say.

To their credit, they protested even when Zuma fired non-communists in one of his irrational reshuffles. But the communists are shocked that Zuma, a man of proletariat upbringing, has been captured by corrupt elements to whom he has ceded the country's executive authority.

They see this as a betrayal of the political support they mobilised for him to ascend to power. After Zuma was fired by President Thabo Mbeki from his Cabinet in 2005, following the conviction of Schabir Shaik, his partner in corruption, the communists threw their weight behind Zuma.

They saw him as a victim of Mbeki's abuse of state institutions to get rid of political opponents. This was, according to the communists, the extension the "96 Class Project". For a very long time, they had debates with Mbeki over his economic policies, particularly the Growth, Employment and Redistribution (GEAR) policy framework that was implemented in 1996.

In their support for Zuma, the SACP, self-styled vanguard of the working class, combined forces with the Congress of South African Trade Unions (Cosatu) to clothe Zuma with revolutionary socialist credentials. Leading this campaign were two leaders: Nzimande and Cosatu general secretary Zwelinzima Vavi.

The story of the relationship between Nzimande and Vavi is the stuff of thrillers. Their joint animosity towards Mbeki's policies brought them together to fight him. Communists in Mbeki's cabinet who implemented his "neo-liberal" policies were said to have committed "ideological suicide".

In SACP conferences, lobbying for positions was dominated by whether any of Mbeki's ministers would be purged from the party's central committee. In addition to political manoeuvrings, it is safe to say that during Mbeki's presidency, the SACP and Cosatu were intellectually productive. One only has to look at the discussion documents they produced to counter Mbeki's policies.

When Mbeki fired Zuma, the two combined their animosity towards Mbeki with a political 'bromance' towards Zuma. After Mbeki's defeat in Polokwane in 2007, they couldn't wait to see Mbeki's back. For them, Polokwane had been a launching pad of a new relationship with the ANC.

They would no longer be lectured about the global economy by a president who thought he knew it all. There's consultative leadership style of Zuma would signal a new beginning. The alliance, hitherto sidelined, would be back in the centre of political decision-making.

The strategic centre of power would shift from the Presidency to the tripartite alliance and Luthuli House. Centralisation of power in the Presidency at the Union Buildings would end. So would the abuse of state resources to fight opponents. Consequently, the criminal charges against Zuma had to be dropped. Nzimande and Vavi articulated all of this with utmost lucidity. Their supporters cheered.

In his early days in the presidency, Zuma delivered. He consulted allies on key government appointments and got Nzimande into his cabinet. The SACP went to the extent of amending its constitution to insert a "Blade Clause" that would allow him to serve in Cabinet but retain what was all along a full-time position of the general secretary.

Vavi, a senior member of the SACP, was not a fan of this arrangement. Although it wasn't a big issue that would divide them, it nonetheless planted seeds of distrust. Meanwhile, Zuma settled down and made all his supporters feel they were truly in power while he was outsourcing executive power to the Guptas in exchange for corrupt benefits accruing to his family.

Vavi was among the first alliance leader to speak out about corruption under Zuma. This caused tension between him and Nzimande who, enjoying the perks of being a minister, saw no need to criticise Zuma's leadership. Vavi was also critical of the fact that the ideological shift they expected under Zuma was not happening. Instead, the hyenas were at the dining table.

Nzimande felt that the communists in government were making a difference and Vavi was out of order. Nzimande had an ally in Cosatu president Sdumo Dlamini. The result of the tension between Nzimande and Vavi was tragic. What was once a formidable Left that they jointly led, united in its animosity towards Mbeki, quickly became a disjointed Left divided in its love affair with Zuma.

Pro-Zuma forces in Cosatu and the SACP began to isolate Vavi and his allies. Cosatu was headed for a split. Cyril Ramaphosa was brought in to prevent the imminent breakaway or expulsion from Cosatu of the National Union of Metalworkers of South Africa (Numsa) led by Irvin Jim. He failed.

In the end, Vavi, Numsa and other former Cosatu affiliates joined forces to form the South African Federation of Trade Unions (Saftu). Nzimande tirelessly lashed out at them. Until the monster of Gupta state capture became unbearable. He began to speak the language Vavi had spoken earlier on.

Though no longer together politically, they were now speaking the same language on state capture. Zuma, paranoid and intolerant, fired Nzimande from his cabinet. The result is that Nzimande and Vavi, once united in their criticism of Mbeki and adoration of Zuma are now the outcasts of the latter. Cosatu, the SACP and ANC are in tatters.

There are political lessons in this story. Borrowing from the question Slovo asked about the failure of socialism, we must put the question directly to Nzimande and Vavi: It is not enough to say you were misled; why did you allow yourself to be blinded? 

- Mkhabela is a fellow at the Centre for the Study of Governance Innovation (GovInn) at the University of Pretoria. 

Disclaimer: News24 encourages freedom of speech and the expression of diverse views. The views of columnists published on News24 are therefore their own and do not necessarily represent the views of News24. 

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