Sun Oct 23 03:40:13 CAT 2016

Blade to stay sharp

By unknown | May 18, 2009 | COMMENTS [ 0 ]

Like bees to a honeycomb, we line up with a gaggle of other journalists - photographers in tow - to see Blade Nzimande, the new Minister of Higher Education and Training.

Like bees to a honeycomb, we line up with a gaggle of other journalists - photographers in tow - to see Blade Nzimande, the new Minister of Higher Education and Training.

But old habits die hard, it would seem. Or is it that he hadn't hit the ground running?

We meet at Cosatu House, a dishevelled third floor where the only novelties are, strictly, the plasma TV tuned to a news channel and the day's papers. Not the posh offices of a government minister. Like the Buddha in places like Thailand, Nzimande's pictures are everywhere - on calendars and flyers announcing the funeral service of a dead comrade.

From a smoke break, the die-hard communist, who still finds Marxism a fascinating read, emerges dressed in his trademark golf shirt.

"I will continue wearing these," he says. "In red," he adds, "it is a beautiful colour."

Like his predecessor, the matronly Naledi Pandor, he's a former university lecturer. His PhD, he corrects the error, was in industrial psychology, not sociology.

He talks the talk. His response to whether he'll walk the walk is another thesis on education. But it is clear that if, in the logic of one Jomo Sono, good coaches are cut from the cloth of former players, Nzimande, a hugely fanatic Orlando Pirates supporter, is equal to the task of heading national higher education.

His first year of undergraduate studies was in 1976, a watershed moment even for a boy from Dambuza. "Three major events took place that year," the fingers come out, "the installation of Dr [Mangosuthu] Buthelezi as the chancellor of the university, the food boycott and, on June 18, in direct response to Soweto, we burnt down the university."

The act of arson is particularly poignant because "I lost my matric certificate in that fire".

Many moons later, as a minister responsible for education, the young man who had to seek ministerial sanction to study at the "white" University of Natal, says all he'd want to import to campuses from his days is student activism. "Of course, it has to be different," he says of the activism.

But the student action on his in-tray is the sort that wants to kick out a university principal, Professor Barney Pityana at Unisa. Spearheaded by the Young Communist league (YCL) - "we are actually on the same floor" - he takes issue with our earlier reports ascribed to him that Pityana was staying. "We need to talk," he says about the problems at the landmark university.

He did not take flak from the YCL over Pityana, the new minister says, but what he instead finds worrying about Unisa is that 20000 students "are likely not to write exams".

Contrary to what the YCL and Sasco may wish for, bottom line, says the minister, a Saso activist in his university days, removing and installing vice chancellors is not his call.

Placating the exuberance of the young lions at Cosatu House would perhaps come in the form of making higher education more accessible to deserving students, he'd say in interviews during the day.

Far better than a teacher at a township school who sends their own children to formerly white schools in town, tertiary students can take comfort from the fact that the minister believes in the system. "I have two children at university." One of his two boys is finishing a degree in accounting and the younger of her two daughters is in her third year.

University is not a strange phenomenon in the Nzimande household.

"My eldest daughter is married," says the 52-year-old father of four, "She works for the government."

His wife is with the SABC, a body that has rarely escaped the wrath of the fiery SACP general secretary.

The "black sheep" of the family is the younger son "who is crazy about flying". He has a private pilot's license, says the father: "I will support him."

Between them, the boys have taught him cricket and "from the tour of Sri Lanka" daddy dearest has been hooked.

With his blood redder than the rest of us, even his reading matter matches the colour of his ties. "I'm reading another biography of [Fidel] Castro."

US President Barrack Obama's is still untouched, says Nzimande, who confesses that his biggest extravagance is books and music.

The passion of his own words brings a smile to his face when he talks about his eclectic taste in music, from maskandi, hard metal to what he calls "the real R&B", Shirley Brown and Aretha Franklin.

"I am very complicated," he says about his ear for sound.

National Geographic Wild is another welcome distraction.

As the minister thaws, the 45 minutes allotted us inch towards an hour. He talks about many things - how he can never forgive Willie Madisha, "a man who tried to destroy me with lies", to his support for President Jacob Zuma.

He talks about how isiZulu political oratory is a skill he learned from the late Harry Gwala, Mangosuthu Buthelezi and Zuma.

He talks about his involvement in the NEC of old, his membership of the National Association of Sociology in Southern Africa.

But, more importantly, he shares this particular dream with us. It is a recurring dream.

An A-student nicknamed Blade by a fellow pupil after coming out of hospital to be top of the class, Bonginkosi Emmanuel Nzimande has always been a top performer.

As he takes this all-important exam - the last time he sat for one was in 1980 when he did his Masters - of being minister in charge of education, one is almost certain Blade will still be as sharp as a razor.


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