JOHANNESBURG – South Africa's top communist is in danger of losing his working-class hero status after treating himself to the latest BMW 750i and using $120,000 in taxpayers' money to buy it.
Blade Nzimande, general secretary of the South African Communist Party, is often seen wearing a Mao cap and is known for breaking into his favorite tune: "My mother was a kitchen girl, my father was a garden boy. That's why I am a communist."
But his new wheels have soured his relationship with his close ally COSATU, the country's largest labor organization.
COSATU says the purchase of expensive cars by Nzimande, who is the country's higher education minister, and other Cabinet members is a "slap in the face" of millions of poor South Africans. About a quarter of South Africans are unemployed and the country is suffering from its first recession in more than a decade.
"It gives an impression that they do not care about the message this opulence gives to the poor," COSATU said. "It encourages the view that government office is a stepping stone to quick and easy personal wealth."
COSATU has asked ministers to return their costly cars and instead opt for cheaper ones favored by Finance Minister Pravin Gordhan, who bought two cars for the same price as Nzimande's one.
The SACP is a powerful lobby group that helped Jacob Zuma get to the presidency. But party is also being increasing ridiculed: Its leaders are among some of South Africa's richest men and women, who have made their fortunes through ministerial positions or lucrative government contracts.
"Nzimande was the one least likely to go on a profligate expedition ... when the (SACP) often rails against the excesses of unchecked capitalism," said a Wednesday editorial in Johannesburg's daily newspaper The Star.
The SACP has defended Nzimande, saying the German luxury sedan was bought on the recommendations of the police VIP protection unit. The rule book for ministers allows for such purchases.
COSATU and the SACP on Tuesday denied the car kerfuffle has cause a rift between the two organizations and said Nzimande has apologized for "any offense."
But there is no sign of Nzimande returning the car.