Veteran Marxist activist Michael Blake, fondly remembered by friends and colleagues as a “most principled comrade” and a “gentle revolutionary”, died of a heart attack in Cape Town this week.
Blake, who was born on the last day of September in 1954, is acknowledged for his selfless devotion to the cause of socialism and for investing his time and energy in teaching socialist ideals and strategies to young adherents and countless community, civic and labour organisations.
Deficiencies in the material conditions of the poor, particularly in the housing sector, were a primary focus of his work. His conviction was that He believed people themselves had to be the agents of the change they yearned for.
Blake is remembered is “a real gentleman”, and one noted for his ability to quote Lenin from memory, as well as for his love of English football and jazz.
Blake’s activism began as a student at the University of the Western Cape in the mid-1970s. He rose to prominence in the influential Cape Areas Housing Action Committee in the 1980s, organising resistance to evictions among other things and, later, the Anti-Eviction Campaign.
He was a key figure in the International Labour Research and Information Group, an NGO based at Community House in Salt River that provides education, publications and research for labour and social movements in South and southern Africa. Among its primary objectives is to resist notions of the inevitability of capital-driven globalisation and to argue for a socialist alternative. The organisation was founded in 1983, and, until 2003, was linked to the sociology department of the University of Cape Town. Since then, it has functioned as an independent Trust.
In more recent years, Blake played a leading role in establishing the Housing Assembly, an organisation that confronts social injustice across the Cape Flats.
In a radio interview this week, Workers’ World media productions director Martin Jansen said of Blake that he had “committed his whole life to the cause of working class and poor people”.
Jansen explained that Blake’s activism had two distinct strands: the need for people to have political clarity, to understand and be able to analyse their condition, and to “know who their enemies were”, and to put their ideas into practice.
“He believed strongly that it was not nearly enough for people to be politicised and to be able to theorise – the important thing was for them to practise their ideas, to organise themselves and change their own conditions,” Jansen said.
The Housing Assembly in whose founding Blake played a key role, would form part of the activist’s “lasting legacy”.
A fellow activist, who acknowledged Blake’s work in “building the Workers International League of South Africa in the 80s through to the Revolutionary Marxist Group today”, noted that “(w)hile so many of his comrades were sectarians who tried to impress ideas onto some falsely conscious working class, Mike knew that ideas don’t fall from the sky. I’ve never seen someone with such a delicate pedagogical approach, rejecting the caricature of vanguardism in favour of facilitating self-organization”.
In generous tributes on the SA Facebook page of the International Socialist Movement, friends and colleagues remembered Blake as a friend and formative influence in their lives and thinking.
One said: “In all of my years organising, I’ve never encountered anyone as tireless, generous, strategic and above all, (being) as supportive of those he mentors politically as Michael Blake."