Graeme Bloch: Activist and education reformer 1956-2021
Graeme Bloch, who has died in Cape Town at the age of 65, was at the forefront of the struggle against apartheid in the Western Cape.
He was banned for five years while a student at the University of Cape Town, detained multiple times without being charged, held in solitary confinement and tortured by the notorious security policeman “Spyker” van Wyk.
In 1983, two years after his banning order was lifted, he participated in the launch of the United Democratic Front (UDF) and was elected onto the Western Cape UDF executive. He helped start the End Conscription Campaign and the Detainees’ Parents Support Committee.
In addition to his physical courage Bloch, a karate black belt and keen mountaineer, was a talented academic and lifelong campaigner for equal education. He wrote numerous policy papers in the 1970s, ’80s and ’90s for a post-apartheid education system.
In 1986 he helped start the National Education Crisis Committee (NECC) in the midst of school boycotts, to counter the popular rallying cry of “Liberation Now, Education Later”. He was concerned that a generation of young people were growing up uneducated and would have no future in a post-apartheid SA.
The NECC tried to get them to go back to school and continue classes, using slogans such as “Education for Liberation”. Under the leadership of Bloch, among others, the NECC played a key role in ending the schools boycott.
His record on the education front after 1994 was more mixed. He was one of the principal architects of Outcomes-Based Education (OBE) in SA, which was imposed on state schools in 1997 in the teeth of wellinformed criticism.
Twelve years later he wrote The Toxic Mix: what’s wrong with South Africa’s schools and how to fix it, in which he admitted that OBE was a disaster.
It was “unrealistic and impossible to apply”, he wrote. It required infrastructure and resources the country lacked. “We were all guilty of over-optimism,” he wrote.
OBE, he wrote, created “a shallow view of empowerment in which the student voice was substituted for the hard task of learning the basics”.
He conceded it had contributed to 60%80% of schools in SA being “dysfunctional”, producing barely literate and numerate pupils, and being ranked near the bottom in the world in maths and literacy.
He admitted later that he was “bipolar” about the South African school system. Sometimes hopeful, more often “depressed by the sheer scale of the problems”.
Bloch was born in Cape Town on January 23 1956. He matriculated at Westerford with the seventh highest results in what was then the Cape Province.
In 1976 he was arrested while leading a march of UCT students to Gugulethu in support of black students involved in the 1976 uprisings. He was then banned until 1981. He was refused a passport from 1976 to 1990.
After obtaining an MA in economic history he lectured in economics and the history of education at the University of the Western Cape.
After 1994 he was the head of social development in the department of welfare, and a visiting adjunct professor at Wits University’s public and development management school.
In 2000, while living in London with his wife, South Africa’s high commissioner — fellow former UDF activist Cheryl Carolus, who he’d married in 1990 — he wrote a spirited defence of the new SA in the Guardian newspaper in response to South African expat novelist Christopher Hope, who’d said it was becoming as “thin-skinned and repressive” as it had been under apartheid.
“We no longer hear the midnight knock on the door,” Bloch wrote. “People are not murdered for their views.”
Post-apartheid SA was also better “because I can look my fellow citizens in the eye”.
In 2018 Bloch was devastated when his 84-year-old mother Rosalie, herself an activist and member of the Black Sash, and his de facto stepfather for 30 years, 96-year-old Aubrey Jackson, were murdered in the house in Mowbray where Bloch had grown up.
Bloch died seven years after being diagnosed with progressive supranuclear palsy, a rare degenerative disease that left him unable to move, speak or swallow, but still, as always, able to appreciate a good joke.
He is survived by his wife Cheryl and eight siblings.