George Peake was a bricklayer, a resistance leader, a capable trade unionist and a socialist. He had links throughout Southern Africa and an understanding of the social linkages between struggles particularly in Zimbabwe and South Africa.
Born in 1922, George Peake was a bricklayer by trade, becoming active in the Western Province Building Workers Union after the Second World War. He had the buff honest manner of a worker used to hard work and large toughened hands which could wrap themselves around the bricks he laid.
In 1953 George was a founding member of the Coloured People's Congress, allied to the ANC, and soon became its national President. He was a delegate to the Congress of the People in 1955 where the Freedom Charier was adopted. As a powerful leader against the regime, George inevitably suffered his share of persecution. From 1956 to 1958 he was one of the defendants In the Treason Trial. In 1956 and again in 1961 he was banned. During the Emergency of 1960 he was imprisoned without trial.
In 1961 George was elected to the Cape Town City Council by the people of District Six, a community besieged by rampant apartheid reaching towards the height of its power. During this period, he became one of the first to volunteer for Umkhonto we Sizwe. As a member of the underground he drove Mandela around for some of this time. In 1962, arrested for sabotage, he was imprisoned on Robben Island. On his release he was placed under house arrest; in 1964 he was forced into exile on an exit permit, never being allowed to return home to South Africa.
In exile in Africa he participated fully in the ANC but was deeply troubled by the practices of the ANC exile leadership. He moved to Britain in 1968.
In exile as at home, George unreservedly threw himself into the struggle of the working people. Employed as a building worker, he served as a shop steward until he was elected a full-time convenor for UCATT, the building workers' union in Britain. He worked hard to represent his union members under increasingly difficult times in the early 1980s when Thatcher’s austerity led to cuts in local government.
He was also elected a Labour Party municipal councillor in the town of Slough where he lived. He often felt isolated and frustrated by the ineffective labour opposition to the Thatcher government. But George always retained his orientation to the South African freedom struggle. He was active in the Anti Apartheid Movement and, in 1980, helped to launch the South African Labour Education Project. As a socialist, George matched his life-long struggle against the exploitation and oppression of his class with an equally stubborn opposition against ideas and methods on the part of the leadership which he found so damaging to the struggle.
George made contact with the Militant group in the Labour Party in his struggle for the interests of the union members, constituents, and the South African workers who were always in his mind. He found in these ideas the conscious expression of everything he had been fighting for and made these his own.
An ever-fresh enthusiasm for the struggle was George's outstanding quality. He continued to invigorate younger comrades with his lively spirit, his humility, and his wealth of experience. He spoke at young socialist camps and shared his intimate knowledge of the liberation movement. He had plans to move closer to South Africa to link more closely to the living internal movement and to participate more decisively.
in discussions about South African liberation he often reverted the failings of the ANC leadership and, particularly, to the sexual abuse in the camps. It was a preoccupation which burned in his mind and unfortunately became a prime factor leading to acute moods of depression. His experience with the ANC leadership led him to doubt its capability in the liberation struggle and to dim the prospect for South Africa becoming a democratic republic implementing socialist ideas.
As a participant in these discussions recounted: “His powerful building workers hands clasped and unclasped as he talked; describing, repeating, and further detailing these things. He had intimate knowledge of the family and community networks between people in Harare, Bulawayo and Cape Town we could draw on. We were to work together in Zimbabwe to build bases for democratic socialism in Southern Africa but before we left, he was gone. We had to go ahead without his knowledge, drive and enthusiasm.”
At that time the disturbing recurring memories of the abuse that women cadres experienced in the ANC camps; were memories which he could not let go. He would recount the details in great anxiety. In early October I981 he died a tragic and premature death in exile. Unfortunately, he never saw the rise of COSATU and the development of a mass democratic movement which attempted to confront the problems he recognized so graphically. George Peake has earned an honourable place in the annals of the workers’ movement both In South Africa and internationally.