Harold Cressy is more than a school

Famed city in­sti­tute of learn­ing em­bod­ies courage, com­mu­nity spirit and in­tel­lec­tual pur­suit

Weekend Argus (Saturday Edition) - - FRONT PAGE - MICHAEL MOR­RIS

MUDDY pools of rain wa­ter and seep­age from a gouged­out em­bank­ment at a build­ing site on the fringe of the city re­flect the chilly grey sky of an un­sea­son­ably in­clement af­ter­noon, and the out­line of a work-in-progress that is as much about the past as the fu­ture.

The scene is dom­i­nated by a bold mod­ern struc­ture whose greater mean­ing is in­ad­e­quately con­tained in its for­mal de­scrip­tion as a “multi-pur­pose hall”.

The emer­gent mul­ti­mil­lion- rand build­ing is more ac­cu­rately an ex­pres­sion of the chal­leng­ing motto, vo­lenti ni­hil dif­fi­cile – “to those who are will­ing, noth­ing is dif­fi­cult” – of a his­toric school that richly com­mem­o­rates the will­ing­ness to over­come dif­fi­culty.

“Harold Cressy” is at once a school, 65 this year, and an amal­gam of ideas, in­flu­ences and con­vic­tions. It is also, as the most re­mark­able schools are, a fam­ily, and, in a sense, the new hall ris­ing on the lower por­tion of the Roe­land Street cam­pus is a prod­uct of it.

It is a fam­ily that counts some fa­mous fig­ures among its off­spring – for­mer ac­tivist and highly re­garded fi­nance min­is­ter Trevor Manuel, film com­poser Trevor Jones (he has scored more than 100 movies, in­clud­ing Not­ting Hill, Mis­sis­sippi Burn­ing and Ex­cal­ibur, and dozens of TV se­ries), ra­dio and tele­vi­sion per­son­al­ity Ran­dall Abra­hams, scholar and for­mer deputy vice-chan­cel­lor of UCT Crain Sou­dien, Alexan­der Forbes for­mer chief ex­ec­u­tive Ed­ward Kieswet­ter, play­wright and arts ac­tivist Mike van Graan, and UCT his­to­rian Mo­hamed Ad­hikari, the bi­og­ra­pher, in­ci­den­tally, of the man after whom the school is named. No­tably, the prin­ci­pal to­day, Khalied Isaacs, is a for­mer pupil, who ma­tric­u­lated in 1990.

Chiefly, though, the Harold Cressy com­mu­nity is a gather­ing of what might be termed or­di­nary peo­ple of the Western Cape, drawn of­ten from less wealthy homes and, for a long pe­riod of its his­tory, the de­lib­er­ately dis­ad­van­taged ma­jor­ity.

And it is this broader com­mu­nity, the famed few and the ob­scure many, who have been – and must con­tinue – rais­ing the mil­lions needed to com­plete the new hall, con­ceived as a venue for school and com­mu­nity to con­firm Harold Cressy’s place at the cen­tre, not the fringe, of the metropole.

Here, no less, the school motto is mean­ing­ful.

Med­i­cal doc­tor Shafick Is­mail, a ma­tric­u­lant of 1980 and chair­man of the school’s 10-year-old alumni as­so­ci­a­tion, de­scribed this week how a class of to­day’s pupils con­trib­uted to a re­cent golf day fund-raiser by giv­ing R2 apiece. “Some of them,” he said, “had to bor­row the R2.”

There have been other con­tri­bu­tions of dif­fer­ent kinds that speak to the en­dur­ing at­tach­ment of for­mer pupils, such as pro bono or heav­ily dis­counted work by struc­tural en­gi­neer Buddy Sy­dow (class of ’67), one of the ar­chi­tects, Adri­aan Marais (class of ’89), con­trac­tor Faik Haroun (class of ’72), and her­itage con­sul­tant Quah­nita Samie (class of ’95).

A cake sale at a mod­est Lon­don school, or­gan­ised by for­mer Cressy teacher Barry Ack­er­man, raised R11 500. In this way – cou­pled with a R6 mil­lion grant from the province – the school com­mu­nity has raised some R9m to­wards the new hall’s R13m price tag.

One of the range of ini­tia- tives, this one the brain­child of long-time prin­ci­pal Victor Ritchie, is the spon­sor­ing of plaques for a “wall of hon­our” by in­di­vid­u­als, cou­ples ( no fewer than 20 met at Cressy and mar­ried after leav­ing school), com­pa­nies and cor­po­rates. Tellingly, some for­mer pupils have spon­sored plaques in hon­our of their old teach­ers.

Other as­pects of the school’s her­itage will be re­flected in dis­plays, photographs and mem­o­ra­bilia in the broad foyer ar­eas that will even­tu­ally flank the new hall. The build­ing it­self will match a va­ri­ety of func­tions – as a con­ven­tional school hall, theatre and in­door­sports cen­tre, but also as a venue for the broader com­mu­nity, for so­cial and other events, in­clud­ing con­fer­ences.

Is­mail ex­plained that a key ob­jec­tive was to guar­an­tee the school an ad­di­tional in­come stream, mainly for bur­sary fund­ing, to en­sure its sus­tain- abil­ity. The site of the new hall has a long his­tory. A map from 1860 shows for­mal gar­dens on the grounds, and another from 1891, a wa­ter well lo­cated on what is to­day the berm between the new build­ing and the open quad.

The first school here was Hope Lodge Pri­mary, founded in 1934 to cater to the Jewish com­mu­nity. From 1940, the build­ings be­came the home of He­wat Train­ing Col­lege, the first coloured ter­tiary in­sti­tu­tion and the seedbed of a long tra­di­tion of in­tel­lec­tual re­sis­tance to racial or­der­ing and dis­crim­i­na­tion.

The as­so­ci­a­tion is echoed to­day in Harold Cressy’s ethos, re­flected in con­tem­po­rary doc­u­men­ta­tion that dis­dains “the non-sci­en­tific and in­hu­mane clas­si­fi­ca­tion of peo­ple by ‘race’,” and re­grets hav­ing to “in­voke apartheid ter­mi­nol­ogy” to de­fine the de­mo­graph­ics of en­rol­ment.

Al­most from the mo­ment of its in­cep­tion in three pre­fab­ri­cated class­rooms on the grounds of He­wat Col­lege in Jan­uary 1951, the school had to con­tend with what would be mount­ing threats founded on race. Just a few years after the col­lege re­lo­cated to Craw­ford in the early 1960s, and the school took over the cam­pus, the dec­la­ra­tion of Dis­trict Six as a white group area – and the gather­ing depre­da­tions of apartheid law in the decades that fol­lowed – might have un­der­mined a lesser in­sti­tu­tion.

By 1982 more than 60 000 peo­ple had been re­lo­cated from the Cressy neigh­bour­hood to the Cape Flats, but the school – like Trafal­gar, Liv­ing­stone and South Penin­sula, all sim­i­larly lo­cated in white group ar­eas – re­mained res­o­lute, and not just about stay­ing put.

Look­ing back in 2010, long­time prin­ci­pal Victor Ritchie – whose 27-year stint be­gan in 1963 – gave an ac­count of the hos­til­ity and de­pri­va­tion of re­sources in those years, yet ob­served: “But these crude con­di­tions and the op­pres­sive po­lit­i­cal sys­tem were never al­lowed to be used as an ex­cuse by teach­ers and stu­dents for not de­liv­er­ing their best re­sults.”

The school was like a mag­net. Vet­eran teacher Lionel Adri­aan, who took his first class in 1965, re­called this week how, when the new year be­gan, peo­ple were clam­our­ing to get their chil­dren into Cressy. “Peo­ple used to queue overnight,” he re­mem­bered. “They’d have bar­be­cues on the pave­ment.”

To­day, pupils come from a wide feeder area, from Kensington, Wood­stock and the Bo-Kaap to Hei­de­veld, Mitchells Plain and Khayelit­sha. In im­por­tant ways, the lodestar over the years has been the re­mark­able fig­ure of Harold Cressy him­self, after whom the school was re­named in 1953.

Born at the Rorke’s Drift mis­sion in Fe­bru­ary 1889, Cressy moved to Cape Town when he was eight, and even­tu­ally qual­i­fied as a teacher at the Zon­nebloem Col­lege in 1905. Cressy was de­ter­mined to get a de­gree and though his aca­demic achieve­ments earned him a state bur­sary, over­com­ing the race bar was another mat­ter. He suc­cess­fully ap­plied to Rhodes Univer­sity Col­lege, but he was re­fused en­try when it was dis­cov­ered he was a coloured man. He was re­jected on the same grounds at Vic­to­ria Col­lege, Stel­len­bosch (fore­run­ner of Stel­len­bosch Univer­sity).

Per­se­ver­ance, and the per­sua­sive in­flu­ence of Dr Ab­dul­lah Ab­du­rah­man, Cape Town city coun­cil­lor and pres­i­dent of the African Po­lit­i­cal Or­gan­i­sa­tion, suc­ceeded in se­cur­ing Cressy a place at the South African Col­lege (now UCT), where, in 1911, he be­came the first coloured per­son to gain a de­gree.

A year later, he was ap­pointed prin­ci­pal of Trafal­gar Sec­ond Class Pub­lic School, the first in the coun­try to of­fer coloured pupils sec­ondary school­ing.

Ed­u­ca­tion was every­thing to Cressy – he was a co-founder of the last­ingly in­flu­en­tial Teach­ers’ League of South Africa – but his life was cut short when he died of pneu­mo­nia in Kim­ber­ley at 27.

Harold Cressy might not have lived long, but he more than matched the Teach­ers’ League motto, “Let us live for our chil­dren”. It is a credo which, in 2016, is ev­ery bit as true of the school that bears his name.



A stitched im­age of Harold Cressy High School in Dis­trict Six, Cape Town. It was founded in Jan­uary 1951 as the Cape Town Sec­ondary School.


Victor Ritchie with some of his stu­dents dur­ing his time as prin­ci­pal at Harold Cressy High School. Ritchie was prin­ci­pal at the school for 27 years.


‘Six of the best’, for­mer Harold Cressy teach­ers who, to­gether, rep­re­sent more than 300 years of com­mit­ment to the school. They are, from left, Sedick Wil­liams, Amien Fred­er­icks, He­len Kies, Lionel Adri­aan, Peter Meyer and Victor Ritchie.


Shafick Is­mail, chair­man of the alumni as­so­ci­a­tion, in the school’s new hall.

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