“This is a loss not only to South Africa but also to the country’s education system. Graeme was a passionate contributor to the debates and ideas on how to improve SA’s education system so that it could benefit all young people,” noted UWC’s Rector and Vice-Chancellor, Professor Tyrone Pretorius. “Professor Graeme Bloch embodied the qualities we hold dear at the University of the Western Cape. In the dark depths of apartheid, he was willing to hope, and to transform that hope into action, standing up against injustice and ignorance with the power of truth, and knowledge.”
The white, Jewish son of a plastic surgeon, Bloch came from a family of activists, and kept up the family tradition, fighting for a non-racial South Africa. He was part of formation of the End Conscription Campaign, an organisation that said “No” to military service. As a member of the United Democratic Front (UDF), he was detained and arrested numerous times for his involvement in the democratic movement. He was banned from 1976-81. But he would not be discouraged.
As his brother, Lance Bloch, noted on social media: “Banned, detained, beaten by the apartheid government, but he fought on, often at great cost to himself. Stricken by a terrible neurodegenerative disease which left him with a brilliant mind in a wasting body. But he accepted it and fought on.”
The ANC mourned Bloch’s passing in a statement: “The ANC in the Western Cape is saddened by the passing away of mass democratic movement stalwart and committed non-racialist, Graeme Bloch. The ANC salutes Comrade Bloch for his courage, integrity, commitment and role he played in making the first democratic elections of 1994 possible. We grieve with the Bloch and Carolus families and extend our deepest condolences to them.”
But Bloch didn’t just fight against oppression and ignorance. He also fought for education, and empowerment - and for the rights of future generations to equip themselves with the thinking tools they would need to build a better South Africa.
A graduate of the University of Cape Town, where he specialised in economic history, Bloch lectured at UWC for several years, and was a ministerial appointment to the UWC Council between 2003 and 2006. He was a project manager at the Joint Education Trust and an executive member of the United Democratic Front (UDF) and NECC (National Education Crisis Committee) in the eighties. He was a DBSA education policy analyst, a member of UCT Council, and visiting adjunct Professor at University of Witwatersrand Public; and he served on the Board of Equal Education.
He also wrote and published widely on education, in both academic publications and more popular venues, particularly about studies showing that South African learners are consistently underachieving, counting not only amongst the worst in Africa, but often amongst the worst in the world. His 2009 book,“The Toxic Mix - What's Wrong With SA's Schools And How To Fix It”, tackled the toxic mix of factors that are causing this crisis, taking government and teachers to task for not performing as they should and highlighting the socio-economic challenges that many learners face.
“It will not happen overnight, no matter how much we may wish or shout for it,” he wrote elsewhere. “This is not to blame history but to be realistic. This discussion includes teachers and the central role that has to be built for them in society. Fervent wishes can never replace a plan.”
“Graeme was an active participant in the UDF, and the National Union of South African Students. I served with him on the NECC. He wrote policy positions on a new education system in the 70’s, 80’s and 90’s. One of the most important things about Graeme is that he entrenched himself in the struggle against apartheid,” Comrade Saleem Mowzer, a former Mayoral Committee member when the ANC was in charge of the City of Cape Town and fellow member of the National Education Crisis Committee, said in a tribute.
A Legendary Love Story - A Metaphor for South Africa
Bloch cared very deeply about education. But he cared even more deeply about his family, and his wife, fellow activist and former ANC Deputy Secretary General, Cheryl Carolus.
The two could not have had more different backgrounds – he, the white, Jewish son of a plastic surgeon; she, from a tightly knit, working-class, coloured family. Brought together at UWC during the politically tumultuous 1980s, their relationship was formed under difficult conditions and frequently tested by circumstances.
“It was after my banning order was lifted in the Great Hall, when I first saw a woman in a long trench coat with wild hair. She was leading masses in song. But she couldn't sing! She later became my wife,” Bloch noted.
They tied the knot in 1990, “and we are still happily married though we fight like hell sometimes,” Bloch once joked. Carolus then added: "Graeme and I can spend quality time together. We can lie in bed on Sunday morning and read the papers. We go for long walks, go to a jazz club.”
He passed away with his wife by his side.
“When I fear for the future of our fragile democracy, and of our world, I think of Graeme Bloch,” Prof Pretorius said. “I think of how he embodies the best of what South Africa has to offer - coming together not in hate, but in love, to help teach future generations to build a better world. Let us learn from his example - and do him proud.”