Harold Cressy is more than a school
Famed city institute of learning embodies courage, community spirit and intellectual pursuit
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.