The death in Cape Town of veteran socialist and anti-apartheid activist, Michael Blake, at the age of 63 of a heart attack shocked and saddened many who had experienced his restless, revolutionary mind, his visionary writings, his building of working class movements and his passionate activism over a period of almost 40 years. He was the guiding force for new movements such as the Western Cape Housing Assembly today continuing in the history of such initiatives in the apartheid era as the Cape Areas Housing Action Committee (CAHAC), the Bokmakierie, Bridgetown, Silvertown, Kewtown Residents Association (BBSK) and various socialist groups.
Michael Blake was born in Black River park – an area from which he and his family were forcibly removed when the area was declared white. He showed his political passions and developed the seeds of his world view while still at Athlone High School on the Cape Flats where a new generation was responding to the extreme repression of 1960s apartheid. At an early age he got involved in the non-racial sports struggle and also came under the influence of black consciousness through a brother that had studied with Steve Biko and others.
In 1973 – a seminal year in the anti-apartheid struggle in which the Durban strikes signalled the birth of a new movement – Michael was part of a leadership core at the University of the Western Cape who staged a walk-off and a boycott, demanding a black rector and radical curriculum reforms. Under the leadership of the Action Committee, including Johnny Issel, Ruben Hare, Ben Palmer and others, the 73’ generation took the struggle at UWC into community activism starting the tradition of militant community struggles in the Cape. Over these mid-1970s years Michael’s political ideas evolved from black consciousness to Marxism and by 1976 he was convinced that apartheid could only be defeated by contesting the power of capitalism. In this Michael’s Marxism differed from traditions associated with the SACP which asserted that socialism was only possible once South Africa had passed through the stage of democratic capitalism – which they called the “national democratic revolution”.
Although 1976 was an important uprising nationally the 1980 Schools’ boycott had more significance in the Cape. This boycott was organised democratically – via SRCs and co-ordinated by the Committee of 81 – a development that marked the first time that African and “coloured” schools united and planned together despite the apartheid divisions. In 1980 Michael had become – for a short time – a school teacher and was part of a tradition of radical school teachers who assisted the boycotting SRCs. In the wake of 1980 the generation involved took the struggles into two arenas – some joined the burgeoning labour movement, of which the Fattis & Monis strike was in inspiring example, and others flocked to communities and formed civics.
Michael joined this latter movement and was a leading figure in the formation of BBSK and the Cape-wide body, CAHAC. In this movement he was one of the first to identify that the then-apartheid government’s decision to freeze new black public housing and encourage residents to buy their own council houses marked a decisive turn (in which we can see the seeds of today’s neo-liberal policies). In this Michael was to reveal his capacity to see the deeper long-term strategies of the elite and the need for movements to develop their tactics accordingly…this attribute Michael continue to bring to bear in current housing struggles and in his research work with the NGO, the International Labour Research and Information Group (ILRIG) in the 2000s.
In the late 1980s Michael went into exile In Britain, where as an internationalist, he became active in the Anti-apartheid City Group and in the British Left struggling outside and inside the Labour Party. He returned to South Africa in the 1990s and once again through himself into current struggles as the promises of democracy in South Africa were not fulfllled. He became active in the Advice Offices, in the Anti-Eviction Campaign, whilst continuing to produce research work on the housing crisis in South Africa at ILRIG in the 2000s. Here he became the leading force behind the formation of the Housing Assembly – a movement of housing struggles against evictions in the Cape.
Throughout his life Michael strived to exemplify the idea that Marxism was a practical guide for social justice and that one’s personal life should be in harmony with ones’ political convictions.
He is survived by his daughter from his first marriage, Nina, and his life partner, Karen.