The populist politician and the principled educationist have always coexisted uneasily within Blade Nzimande, but this year the former won hands down in an explosion of self-serving crassness.
The spectacle of his marching on an art gallery in May and calling for a painting – Brett Murray`s The Spear – to be burned clashed horribly with his championing of the humanities at universities.
But, in a larger sense, the obscene Fahrenheit 451 moment also once again raised a long-standing worry about this enigmatic figure. How safe is education in Nzimande`s hands when the political chips are down – as they have been with the endless pre-Mangaung jockeying – and he leaves far too much of his portfolio to non-educationists such as his director general and other comrades?
On the credit side, he has stuck to his guns in his skills development focus on South Africa`s three million “neets” (those not in education, employment or training). His substantial green paper on post-school education and training, released in January, was the year`s most prominent demonstration of his consistency in trying to both multiply and improve the options of those 18- to 24-year-olds whom the schooling system has failed.
His department also ticked over logistically with an efficiency all the more striking for its absence in basic education and again achieved clean financial audits.
But 2012 again demonstrated this minister`s alarmingly autocratic impulses. He is, for instance, driving a little-noticed amendment to the Higher Education Act that will essentially make it far simpler for the government to intervene in a university`s governance.
That he is doing this in the year he got his nose bloodied when yet another university he placed under administration, the Central University of Technology in the Free State, challenged him in court – and won – seems far from coincidental.
Nzimande might still win that one on appeal, but the larger question remains: Why tamper so crassly with delicate institutions that his own green paper says remain the strongest features in South Africa`s bleak education terrain?