A Short Life with a Long Reach into the Future: Harold Cressy
Harold Cressy, the man for whom the well-known Cape Town high school was named, only lived to the age of 27–but he left a legacy of someone three times as old.
Cressy’s name invokes nods of acknowledgement as many times as it receives questioning stares—a mystery man if you will, who spent his short life fighting for equal and accessible education in the face of discrimination.
“He became the only acknowledged black student at the University of Cape Town and struggled against ill-health all his adult life,” said Mohamed Adhikari, a professor of history at UCT and author of Cressy’s new biography, Against the Current. “Of course he died young, but these were huge accomplishments.”
Some South Africans know Cressy as the first coloured person in SA to be awarded a Bachelor of Arts degree. Others know him for his visionary role as principal of Trafalgar High School—the first school in the country to offer secondary education to black students.
However, Cressy’s inspiring story goes beyond the milestones he reached before his death. As of yesterday, the tale of the determined SA educator and scholar can be found in bookstores under the title Against the Current: A biography of Harold Cressy 1886-1916.
“The title of course is a swimming metaphor and going against the current of being black,” explained Adhikari. “The key story here is when he applied to university. He kept getting denied until he finally made his way into the South African College, now University of Cape Town.”
Adhikari felt compelled to document Cressy’s life because of his own experience as a student of Harold Cressy High School from 1967 to 1971. There he says he learned not only the value of education, but also the passion of teachers for what they teach and who they teach for.
In light of apartheid legislation, Adhikari recalls classmates commuting from the suburbs to the school on Roeland Street because of the ideologies instilled by Cressy’s legacy. Adhikari eventually mentioned his own experience of displacement when apartheid forced his family to move to the Cape Flats because of their Indian heritage—he too made the commute.
“The school has a political history because Cressy was a founder of the Teachers’ League of South Africa and supported a political movement against segregated education,” Adhikari explained. “That tradition was carried through by the teachers who taught me.”
Cressy’s biography tells of his priority of organizing coloured teachers, hoping to advance the community as a whole and bring equal education to its pupils. His efforts came at time when discrimination threatened equal opportunities for students and teachers, and segregation sought to educate black students for a life of insubordination.
The teachers’ league adopted the motto ‘Let us life for our children.’ For Adhikari, those words embodied Harold Cressy’s spirit at his high school when he felt education was once again threatened by oppressive forces.
“The motto adopted… that was the rallying inspiration – it’s not just nice rhetoric,” said Adhikari. “The priority is not the job, not the school, but the children.”
Professor Adhikari has spent the greater part of his career researching coloured identities, and almost as long inquiring into Cressy’s life. When he first wrote Cressy’s biography 20 years ago, Adhikari faced his own current getting it published under apartheid legislation.
The first edition was to celebrate the high school’s 40th anniversary. A perceived anti-apartheid message in the book’s content, and a lack of resources, stunted its official publication.
Nonetheless, enough copies were printed and distributed to each student at the high school. Now with 20 years of research behind the second edition the book includes several more images given to Adhikari by Cressy’s family and includes academic exercises for students to engage with.
Adhikari hopes the new edition will find its way into the schools syllabus, as did the last version, so students attending the Harold Cressy High can know more about the man for which the school is named after.
“I wrote it with the intention of it being part of the school syllabus,” Adhikari said. “It’s written in an accessible style and an academic style.”
Acknowledging the purpose of the book and Cressy’s greater dedication to accessible education, UCT Press presented the book to publishers Juta and Company to be incorporated into their social responsibility project.
Juta printed 1,000 free copies to be sold at a price of R100, with all proceeds going to the Harold Cressy Bursary Fund that aids in bringing education to underprivileged students in South Africa.
“It’s an inspiring story so perfect for their purpose in social responsibility,” Adhikari said in admiration for Juta’s project.
Written by Lauren Foliart
Published by Weekend Argus in Cape Town, South Africa.