JOHANNESBURG, SOUTH AFRICA — Speaking recently on Nelson Mandela Day, the chief of South Africa's Communist Party urged citizens to stick to values of equality and selflessness. He sometimes sports a Mao-style cap, and as minister of higher education, he has called for revolutionary content in university schooling.
So why did he choose a $137,000 BMW for his official car, and buy it with government money?
His party says he needs it for security reasons; his ministry casts it as a money-saving gesture, saying it ended the expensive car rentals of his first few months in office.
On the other hand, Blade Nzimande's union allies disapproved. Disappointed bloggers asked why Nzimande was so afraid of the masses -- given that no government minister had been attacked since the advent of democracy in 1994.
The opposition Democratic Alliance has dubbed the purchase "Cargate."
The extravagance of the new Cabinet has been the most serious embarrassment for President Jacob Zuma since he took office in May. But Nzimande broke no rules. Government ministers are allowed to spend the equivalent of 70% of their salaries on any car they like.
Communications Minister Siphiwe Nyanda got two BMWs totaling about $280,000. Police Minister Nathi Mthethwa also bought two BMWs for a total of $172,450.
Then there was Transport Minister Sbu Ndebele, who accepted a Mercedes as a gift from a group of contractors. An outcry ensued and he eventually returned it. (Zuma told him he could keep the car if he wanted.) He also gave back the two cattle thrown in with the present.
Critics are asking how the purchase of such an expensive car, and Nzimande's reported fondness for fine red wines, squares with his Communist credentials.
In a recent speech, he said that no capitalist ideas would solve South Africa's economic problems and blamed capitalism for the global recession.
Nzimande urged South Africans in his June speech honoring Mandela to stick to the values of equality and selflessness: "It is through the consistent inculcation of these values that we can roll back the greed, corruption and selfishness of capitalism," he said.
Short-statured with a reedy, singsong voice, he has called for the inclusion of revolutionary content in university education.
Ministry spokeswoman Ranjeni Munusamy said Nzimande was "opposed to any form of unnecessary extravagance. Minister Nzimande does not condone wasteful expenditure under any circumstances and stands firm in his condemnation of greed, corruption and selfishness in society."
Nzimande was one of the key ANC supporters to swing behind Zuma, helping to deliver him the presidency.
At Zuma's last rally before the election this year, Nzimande broke into a song: "My mother was a kitchen girl. My father was a garden boy. That's why I'm a comm - u - nist! I'm a communist! I'm a communist!"
One reader on a popular political website, devastated by Nzimande's BMW splurge, wrote: "I'm in tears. I first heard this [song] at a rally and I heard it from Blade. It struck a chord. . . . NOW THIS???"
Another, under the signature Mgababa, wrote: "I am so disappointed in the minister, first it was red wine and now it is BMW. Is Blade still a true communist?"
The red wine reference was to a recent jibe by Julius Malema, the fiery president of the governing African National Congress' Youth League, who attacked "a small group of elites in the alliance [of the ANC, Communist Party and unions] who present themselves as working-class leaders, while there is very little to show that in everything they do. They spend most of their time drinking red wine."
Nzimande is so well known in ANC circles as a lover of red wine that everyone assumed Malema was attacking him.
The Communist Party accused the opposition of trivializing the issue by questioning the BMW.
But its stance was undermined by the news that Finance Minister Pravin Gordhan had bought a more modest Lexus for $74,000 and an Audi for $78,000. And millionaire Cabinet Minister Tokyo Sexwale announced that he was driving his own car to work, and flying economy to save money.
The Communist Party's traditional allies, the trade union confederation, said that even if the ministers had broken no rules, they had been highly insensitive.
"Spending so much money on vehicles is a slap in the face of the unemployed and people living in shantytowns. It gives politics a bad name," the union group said.