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Harold Strachan: Bram's Bow-maker PDF Print E-mail
Monday, 05 March 2007 01:36

Harold Strachan: Bram's Bow-maker

Zoë Molver – University of KwaZulu Natal


Talking to Harold Strachan last year, he said that people thought he and Hugh Lewin, old comrade in arms, were too sentimental about prison, “going on about it as they did”.  He disagreed. “It’s not just about prison.  It's about how you confront yourself in the minutest way; it's an opportunity for self-reflection.  When you enter ‘boep’ (prison) you belong to the prison services, you have no status there – you have to give it a purpose.  I established a way of looking at prison and a survival strategy, which had nothing to do with ideology.  When Bram (Fischer) came into Pretoria Local I told him that they would try to break us – all that we had to fall back on were small personal things." Harold and Bram spent 20 minutes every day exercising together, during which time they told each other stories, Bram of trips with his wife Molly to the Waterberg, and Harold of fishing.  “I told Bram, pick up your feet and float."


There has been much debate in post-apartheid South Africa amongst writers and critics about the difficulties in finding a voice to tell the stories of this country’s long struggle for democracy, a voice which would engage the imaginations of readers jaded by doggedly explanatory stories with overtly political agendas.


In the Introduction to Writing South Africa (Literature, Apartheid, and Democracy, 1970-1995), editors Attridge and Jolly comment that the need to “tell the underside of apartheid history” is matched by a desire to find an appropriate form of narration.  They go on to say that “South Africa has passed through a period that has … produced a large body of what one might call judgemental texts, both critical and creative; texts that assume an ethical sufficiency to exist in the condemnation of apartheid and its agents.  For this reason, the current South African situation forms a productive arena for the exploration of the uses and limitations of, as well as alternatives to, judgemental writing” (1998: 7).


I have recently read three 'struggle stories’, quite different in kind: Bram Fischer. Afrikaner Revolutionary, a biography of Afrikaner dissident Bram Fischer by Stephen Clingman published in 1998, Bandiet Out of Jail, a republication in 2002 of a classic work of South African prison literature by Hugh Lewin, and Ben Turok’s autobiography, Nothing But The Truth: Behind the ANC’s Struggle Politics, published in November 2003. Harold “Jock” Strachan appears briefly in each of these texts as a secondary but unforgettable character. Clingman describes how Bram Fischer is issued with outsize clothing and a large, greasy old hat as part of the routine humiliation of political prisoners. Jock Strachan’s response is to distinguish the hat by decorating it, sewing on a magnificent red and green checked bow. Bram continued to wear the hat proudly. Hugh Lewin recalls Strachan’s artistic ingenuity in producing props and costumes from bits and pieces - sweet papers, cardboard, rags, feathers, ink dyes - for the 1966 Pretoria Local’s Christmas production of Shakespeare’s Henry IV: “Jock produced colour where there was no colour; colour, briefly, in the dull sameness of the yard’s gloom” (Lewin 2002: 154).Ben Turok pays tribute to Harold Strachan’s companionship in prison and his extraordinary political and emotional integrity under extreme circumstances.


Clingman's substantial bibliography lists more than two pages of taped and written interviews - Strachan's name is not on this list, albeit that he intersects with and has survived many of the central figures mentioned in the biography.  He remains undocumented, an unsung hero of the liberation struggle flying under the radar.   Dan Jacobson, in an article published last year in The London Review of Books on Strachan’s 1998 bildungsroman, Way Up, Way Out,  has commented on how few readers in and outside SA are familiar with his writing. “I read the book ‘blind’, admired it greatly, and then discovered that I was not alone in never having heard of it.  … I made … attempts to rouse some interest in the book, and … was told by the publishers I contacted that it was ‘too South African’ to appeal to readers in this country.  Too South African?  While I understand why this charge may be made against the book – however wrong-headedly- I also suspect it to be a cover for another, contradictory source of dissatisfaction with it: namely that it is not South African enough.” (London Review of Books, January 2, 2003). 


As oppositional as his voice was to the dominant discourse of apartheid in the 60’s and 70’s, so seventy-nine year old Strachan’s writing now is frequently oppositional to the dominant struggle discourse.  “One thing I haven’t got is reverence or piety”, says Strachan.

He characterizes his attitude as ‘astrant’, an Afrikaans word meaning ‘bold’, ‘cheeky’, ‘impudent’, about as close to ‘chutzpah’ as you can get in Afrikaans.  In 1960, shortly after the shootings at Sharpeville, near Johannesburg, Strachan took a stand outside the Durban Prison in front of 500 black protesters, effectively preventing the police from opening fire on the crowd.  This is how it is described in Make a Skyf, Man (2004), Strachan's second autobiographical fiction which Jacana is publishing later this year:


“At the bottom of Berea Road the police make a stand: Saracens across the road and armed men down the side streets.  They open fire there.  Jess and I are on our way home to lunch, the art school closes early on Friday.  In front of us a guileless slightly-built bloke with a bag of cheap Granny Smith apples strolls across the road into Syringa Avenue and takes a bullet through the back.  His apples fly about the road.  He dies.

It all looks like a Ben Shah painting: his blue denim jacket rocked up round his neck, his green apples and their purple paper wrappings against the grey gravel under a violet-stemmed rubber tree in the full glare of the subtropic summer sun.  And the thin trickle of blood across to the storm water drain.  How irreverent to think about a painting at a time like this, but Ben Shahn did a great one of an American marine shot to hell on a Pacific beach, and there was also a trickle of blood, says Jess.  Why don’t you do a painting of it? she asks, and I do, but years later, when things have settled into sullen stasis.”


"It wasn't heroics, it was ‘fuck you, man’, defiance.  There was a lot of that in the country which could have been better utilised,” despairs Strachan.  In 1992, when the ANC held its first conference back in South Africa, Robben Island veteran, Govan Mbeki, greeted Harold as a long lost comrade: “You know Govan, we were quite brave”, Harold said.  “My God”, said Govan,” We were fucking brave, we really were.”  Both men wept.


Make a Skyf tells the story of his ‘Boys Own Armed Struggle’ which led to his arrest in 1962, trial, imprisonment and release.   In 1961 came the decision to set up Umkhonto we Sizwe, the ANC’s guerrilla wing.  To Harold’s amusement, he became the movement’s explosives expert.  In an interview, Strachan says:


“I’ve never been a great political thinker. In fact, most my opinions have been wrong, but I’m absolutely right about the failure of the armed struggle, because I was the failure, you know, I was the first person to be arrested on Day One, in fact it was Morning One; the armed struggle didn’t last a day, it lasted from half past ten at night until eight in the morning.  In any case, we thought we’d give it a go.  Jack and I were asked to invent and design explosives for MK and these devices had to be new inventions, because the rule was that they had to be such that any unschooled, untrained person could make them. I mean it was all right, I had matric physics and chemistry, things to which I had never attached too much importance, but you don’t realize how educated you are, so this was our job – devices and explosives.  So I said, for God’s sake, why me?  And they said, no well, you were a bomber pilot in the war, you see, so you must know how to make bombs.  I said, but for Christ’s sake, Govan, (Mbeki) we didn’t make our own bombs.  And they said, but you know about those things and I said, no, bombs were made in bloody factories, I don’t know.  So he said, anyway, you’re appointed.  We did a good job, actually.”


Make a Skyf, Man offers a singular take on the Struggle because it entertains the reader rather than attempting to explain or persuade.  In his essay,”Interrogating Silence: new possibilities faced by South African literature”, Andre Brink contrasts the South African writer’s need to function as an historian, through reporting and representing, with Herodotus "who was more concerned with the imaginative structuring of his massive history in terms of the 9 muses than with chronology, causality, or even veracity" (Brink in Attridge and Jolly: 18).  “This history of mine has from the beginning sought out the supplementary to the main argument”. (Herodotus, Bk 4, ch 30)    Brink’s injunction to the South African writer is to engage creatively with the past and its silences, to “perceive the world as a story to be told with an endless capacity for renewal, metamorphosis, reinvention...”  Harold Strachan has a remarkable ability to transform old hat.


The unusual closeness between his speaking and his writing voice gives a particular stylistic resonance to his work; this is not surprising, given the fact that when he started writing in his seventies, he had been a raconteur for years, riveting friends with his wonderfully told stories.  He does very little editing: “It comes out right the first time”. “Thing is”, he says, “it’s the only way I know how to write, it’s the only way I know how to talk. I’ve never learned to write ‘properly’.” Notwithstanding this disclaimer, Strachan’s writing is richly figurative, the verbal dexterity drawing attention to the fictionality of the texts in the sense of creative shaping and constructiveness.  He refers to the texts by Lewin and Turok as “of archival rather than literary value.”  “Stuff I write isn’t evidential at all.  Sometimes it’s for the pleasure of words coming together.”  Trained as a young man in art schools in South Africa, London (Camberwell) and Stuttgart, he speaks about consciously transferring a painterly aesthetic to his writing practice:

“I like the idea of materials and techniques being basic to painting and that’s the only set I know, because I’m not a literary person.  I try to use words and sounds as I do colour and form and shape in a painting.  If you can match the earthy words against the convoluted French, Latinate words, you can actually find yourself mixing different textures to make quite a tension in a sentence.”


Here is how the narrator in Make a Skyf, Man describes fellow bandiet Dov Morris and himself – they are about to remove all boot scrapes from the prison passage by pushing “ a great rectangular block of concrete with a steel pipe embedded in it as a handle”.

“Dov Morris is of Lithuanian stock, the people of stone, a Lapith.  He looks like an imbhokodwe, one of those igneous easter-eggs the size of one’s head, that has thumped and polished its way downriver in flash floods all the way from the Drakensberg to the sea over a million or so years.  I myself am built like a piece of wire sculpture, steel wire and habitually springy.”


They push and heave, nothing happens:

“I realise I am not the piece of steel wire of narcissistic reverie, but like one of Count Dracula’s staff a translucent wraith of spectral skin stretched over a frame of second-hand coat hangers and old walking sticks and broken brollies, this polythene skin traced about with bumps and tints of blue veins to offset the crimson of the eyes and pallid pink of lip and gum.”

“Dov Morris is but a balloon, a head-sized easter-egg of used breath, who might leak if strained, a long slow whistle like a mosquito, until all left were some eyebrows and receding hair and stuff amongst the blue soccer shorts and red cotton hanky of his prison issue clothing.”


Strachan's writing is dominated by humour and irony, qualities generally absent from struggle discourse. In a passage of fantastic realism reminiscent of Dickens and Conrad, the eyes of Security Branch member, Maj. Op’t Boud, are described like this:

“The trouble with Major Op’t Boud’s eyes was that they didn’t blink synchronously. If you waited a bit you would catch a point at which they both blinked together; then you could try to work out a cycle at which they would once again coincide, but it was mathematically very advanced, because in between there would be left blink, right blink, left left right left, right right left right, and then the whole statistical system would fall apart because they would suddenly go random like three blinks of the left eye to one of the right, or vice versa, or anything, before suddenly going systematic again and coinciding.”


Later there is a similarly fantastic description of the segregated court facilities in Durban:

“The hodgepodge of court accommodation will soon be tackled by The Authorities, and Made Proper.  Never mind the huge pressure for simple floor space, it somehow seems improper that warmth from a black bum should be left in a wooden seat by one accused, there to be absorbed by the white posterior of the next accused.  Such heat energy is made by the eating of maize porridge, all mixed up with oxygen inside and turned into kilojoules which find their way through the buttocks into this or that surface, whilst Caucasian energy is made out of meat and two veg, with gravy, and finds its way through tremendous enterprise into the economy and the production of wealth, which eventually filters down to the benefit of all via the Receiver of Revenue.”


The description of segregated beaches is a satirical tour de force. The narrator and his comrade Max are looking for a safe site to demonstrate their incendiary device to “Yoshke, the Main Ou in the Actual Party”:

“Next morning we’re off down the beaches to look for a better but safe demo site.  I use the plural here because there are many beaches.  First, of course, there’s the European beach, near to all the nice restaurants and clean toilets, then comes the Coloured beach with pie carts and dirty toilets, then the Asian beach, subdivided because it includes both Indians and Chinese, and we all know how ethnic communities everywhere suspect each other and hatred and violence well up.  These don’t have much by way of toilets at all, because ethnically they all defecate in the bushes anyway and don’t need restaurants because they eat out of their own biryani pots and woks, traditionally, they prefer it.  Then there’s a beach for Octaroons and one for Mulattos and a last but one for Eskimos in transit, and ultimately of course there is a beach for Natives, now known as Bantus, which has nothing at all but the signpost, and by the time you’ve got to the end of all these signposts proclaiming all these beaches there is scarce anything you’d recognize as a road and you’re twenty miles south of PE … Beyond all this we find an abandoned bog.  If there’d been enough South Samoans they could have had a beach of their own there, and the use of this galvanised ghost latrine, but it’s abandoned now for want of populations in terms of the Population Registration Act.”


The demonstration concludes on a note of revolutionary farce:

 “We say to all when we raise a fist in the torchlight down there you must start timing seven and a half minutes, and they find all this terribly thrilling in a revolutionary sort of way, and we go down and slosh in the glycerine and wave our revolutionary fists with our left fingers over the glass of the torch so as not to make a beam, and walk ewe gerus up the hill to the Olds.  At seven minutes Yoshke starts some interminable ideological comment on what’s going on, but its probable thirty minutes duration are interrupted at seven and a half exactly by a low resonance thud and a sphere of white fire the size of a smallish city hall, and in the middle of it a toilet seat spinning like crazy over the Indian Ocean.

Yoshke grips my left arm and cries POWER, COMRADE! and Max on my right grips the arm on that side and declares Comrade, if we’re going to conquer all South Africa one shithouse at a time we’ll all be in the grave before liberation ….” 


Make a Skyf, Man's narrative is perfectly framed - the opening and closing chapters, one and twenty seven - are tales of fishing.  Midway, chapter 13 ends with an extended description of flying.  Both fishing and flying are activities close to the narrator's heart as they have significantly defined his identity outside prison.  In Make a Skyf, Man they operate as metaphors, signifying spaces offering freedom and refuge.  As a banned person for over a decade, Strachan spent long pleasurable hours with Indian fishermen friends (he was forbidden any meeting of three or more).  Chapter one is an evocative account of fishing for shad at Pattie's Groyne off Durban beach.  The wry self-deprecatory voice of the narrator establishes at the outset the tone of the narrative to come, a story about race and power, laughter and lunacy:

“Pattie's was a random jumble of ten-ton concrete blocks and demolition rubble dumped in the surf…  Back on the golden sands thus preserved stood another sign nailed to another creosote pole.  It said EUROPEANS ONLY and went unread by us ouens of Pattie's Groyne.   Come to think of it, I was the only ou with any of the Pure Unleaded Fluid squirting round my cardiovascular system, along with a bit of undeclared substandard stuff from the Middle East and the Kalahari, plus a few tablespoons mixed in of that darkish tarry glop known around here as Huguenot Blood.  The rest of us were just shad-sammies.”


 A white man joins them on holiday from Brakpan in the Transvaal, who "wished to try Natal surf angling, of which he has heard great tales."  He doesn't catch as many fish as the Indians.  He looks at Lal on his rock.

“How many fish has that one got, you think?

 Lal man, how many fish you got, you?

 Twenty-seven, me, calls Lal over his shoulder.

 Anguished, dismayed, Brakpan flings his rod down on the rocks, shoves his hands in his pockets, frowns hideously and snarls That's the bloody trouble, so waar! The vokken Indians take all our fish, man!, as if I'm with him in his rage and the fish all belong to us, according to government policy, maybe, or perhaps we hold them in some inalienable fiefdom which disallows poaching. After a bit Lal hands his rod to his laaitie and gets off his rock. He makes his way over to Brakpan. Not European Ocean this ocean! he says; Indian Ocean!"

"Bring me headache, that fellow, says Lal."   


On his release from prison the narrator takes a hike down to Pattie’s where he spots Lal:

“After a long while he says to me. Where you went last time, you?

No, I went to boep, I say, came out yesterday. Lal nods again. He doesn't ask what for, or say bad luck and all that rigmarole; everybody he knows, pretty well, has been in and out of boep for a bit. Well, the men, that is. It's nothing new.  It's part of being unwhite, and unemployed.


After an even longer while he turns to me again, Come back this place one shot, hey?


There's a lull, and suddenly I nearly lose balance on my slopy stone as a good strong six-pound shad drags down the tip of the rod and I strike back at him. I feel with my feet to a flatter rock and let him sprint about until he's quiet, and haul him out. I get my fingers in his gills and grip the shank of the hook and free it from amongst the furious teeth and drop him in my shoulder bag. We fish on, half an hour or so.


Hey Lal, I call, How many you got, you?

Twenty-seven, me, says Lal."


Trained as a fighter pilot during WW2, Harold Strachan spent hours of every day in solitary confinement devising how he would build an exact replica of a Tiger Moth, spar by spar.  On completing his imaginary construction of the Tiger moth, the narrator decides he’s ready for “the real thing”, competition aerobatics. Chapter 13 ends with a description of the narrator preparing his flying sequence:

"I have waited for the lovely summer moon to give me my bread

plate of beams on the wall when the sun has left off, so I can read my phantom slip of paper with the sequence on it. My flying hand is into a six-point hesitation roll without loss of a single foot of altitude when I hear the midnight special coming to shine his ever-loving light on me. That's all right; regulations say nothing about flying, even at midnight, as long as it’s not noisy. He stays at the spy-hole, tjoep-stil, but I know he hasn't moved on…  Wat maak jy daar, man? Wat maak jy?!


 Nee, ek vlieg, Meneer.  A long silence, maybe half a minute.  Jy WAT?  Ek vlieg, Meneer.  He's staring at me as I pace about and writhe my wrist.


Nee, God, man, jy's vokken mal!  Ja, meneer, dis van die tronk."


In his testimony to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission in 1997, Harold Strachan who spent 13 months of his three year sentence in solitary confinement, stated, “This tale of mine doesn’t have the drama of the evidence we heard this morning, but it is a tale about nothing because that is what happens to you in solitary. It is like I used to think that my life then was like a 400 page book with two ditto marks on each page and you had to take twenty four hours to read each page.” With a nod to Lawrence Sterne’s Tristram Shandy (Harold’s favourite prison reading), the narrator in Make a Skyf, Man addresses the reader:

“Now recounting all these adventures of body and soul in the Madhouse may give the impression, dear reader, that the day was as full of events as this page is full of words. But that's not seg. In segregation you don't have any adventures of anything.

If I were to describe the repetitious trifling details of each day's worth of trifling routine over such a stretch of time it would make but boring reading, whereas if I were to try to sustain a lively interest in this narrative from you, dear reader, you might just get the idea that this almost-year of nothing happening was lively and interesting."


Strachan’s wryly ironic narrator engages the reader partly because he does construct an “adventure”, he does manage to transform “this almost- year of nothing” into a “lively interesting” narrative.  Writing his story is part of the truth and reconciliation process in South Africa, says Strachan.  “There is a duty to tell the stories of ordinary people before they are smothered in some authorised history. I want people to write down everything and try to record it with a little delight.”




Attridge, D and Jolly, RJ. (eds) 1998. Writing South Africa: Literature, Apartheid and Democracy 1970 – 1995. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Clingman, S. 1998. Bram Fischer. Afrikaner Revolutionary. Cape Town: David Philip Publishers.

Jacobson, D. 2003. 'Ek kan nog vlieg', London Review of Books, Volume 25, Number 1, January 2.

Lewin, H. 2002. Bandiet Out of Jail. Johannesburg: Random House.

Strachan, H. 1998 Way up, Way out. Cape Town: David Philip Publishers.

------------------2004. Make a Skyf, Man! Johannesburg: Jacana.

Turok, B. 2003. Nothing But The Truth. Johannesburg: Jonathan Ball.