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Harold Strachan PDF Print E-mail

Harold Strachan (1925 - ) was born in in Pretoria. He obtained a BA (FA) from the University if Pretoria, and won an Emma Smith Scholarship to study at the Camberwell School of Arts and Crafts, London, and at the Staatliche Akademie der Bildenden Kunste in Stuttgart, Germany. As an artist, Strachan worked closely with Selby Mvusi in the 1950s. In 2011 the Durban University of Technology conferred an honorary Doctorate of Technology in Arts  and Design upon Strachan.

Strachan was an anti-apartheid activist and was one of the few early members of Umkhonto we Sizwe during the apartheid era. He trained MK cadres in explosives, and his anti-government stance led him to house-bannings and prison terms during the 1960s and 1970s. Before his arrest, he worked underground with Govan Mbeki in the Port Elizabeth area and was involved in publishing a newsletter.

Due to Strachan’s political commitments, he had little opportunity to truly manifest himself as an artist during the struggle. However, he is now represented in the Durban Art Gallery collection and in private collections in South Africa.

Now, three decades later, his debut book, Way Up, Way Out, is likely to make an impact nearly as explosive, though in an unexpected way. Misleadingly termed a satirical novel by the publishers, it is, in fact, the wonderfully scorching first part of a semi-autobiographical trilogy. It deals not with bombs and clandestine activities, but with growing up in South Africa between the two world wars. I had better admit at once that my response is partisan. I knew Strachan as Jock, the fellow bandit who taught me the crucial elements of boepcraft - the art of surviving in prison - when we shared a cell in Pretoria Central back in the 60s.

Brave, tough, resilient, he made my life and those of many other political prisoners endurable and even sometimes enjoyable with his wiliness, his robust wit and his talent as a raconteur, racy, irreverent, but always humane. These gifts are richly on show in this book, which takes its sensitive yet unvanquishable protagonist on an eventful journey from impressionable childhood to war-ready manhood.

Highlights of this odyssey include Strachan's early years in Pretoria, diverse wanderings in the Natal Midlands and the Drakensberg with mates as alienated and innocent as himself, a wonderful account of designing a glider with the unexpected help of an old San labourer, his characteristically cunning reaction to bullying at boarding school, funny-tender vignettes of sexual initiation and hilarious adventures with a horse called Mary.

But these "lovely long hours of our childhood" cannot last, and in the powerful closing chapters of the book we find Strachan and his friends training as pilots for active service with consequences it would be crass to disclose. Those who know Strachan's history might be expecting a book about politics or at least one with some ideological aims. Refreshingly, it isn't, although his antiracism is detectable in the affectionate gusto with which he depicts his extensive cast of characters. It's possible, too, to see the anatomy of the later artist and resourceful urban guerrilla in the young Strachan. But what suffuses this book is Strachan's passion for his country and its people and his impulse to reach beyond stereotypes and orthodox judgments to an acceptance of South Africa's complex nature and the unexpectedness which makes it so fascinating to those who try to understand it.

(Sunday Times Arts & Entertainment, 10 May 1998.)

Selected Work

from Way Up, Way Out (1998)

Marthe Guldenpfennig made her way past my ouma's house at 80 Koch Street like the Queen Mary slipping along Merseyside outward bound for the new world and the wild free swell of the North Atlantic, without yet the bone in her teeth, the modest hiss of her discreet eight-knot wash suggesting the rustle of Marthe's tussore silk and taffeta clothing . . . She had about her the murmur and pulse of a great ocean liner. Even as she stood motionless, hove to, you could sense the low frequency resonance of her throbbing generator . . . As she glided down Koch Street Marthe Guldenpfennig would nod as graciously to the hensoppers as she would to Professor Gerrit Burt, who lived opposite and played the Poet and Peasant Overture on the honderd perdekrag cinema organ in the City Hall on Tuesday, lunch time. The right beads, the right tilt of the hat, the right carriage of the head and the Gustav Klimt glance: Marthe Guldenpfening was an exceedingly elegant woman of sixty.

Anyway so here we all are, and here I am 103 percent in love, with this awesome erection under the blankets on this really snoeky night among the gun logs. I haul out of my pocket my mondfluitjie, for I'm sleeping in my clothes Reagan style, and I play for her, for her only:

Well the first time I went a-hoboin'
I took a freight trein to see my frien'

She looks long at me and after a bit she says, 'Do you only play native music?' and I say 'No, anything really,' because I'm still quite a lot in love with her, though the erection is not what it was.


1998. Way up, Way Out.  Cape Town:  David Philip Publishers.
2004. Make a Skyf, Man. Johannesburg: Jacana Books.