Harold Strachan: An obituary

RW Johnson on the life and times of the activist, artist, prisoner, and Noseweek columnist

Harold Strachan obituary

Jock Strachan was one of the most remarkable figures in recent South African history: a bomber and fighter pilot, art teacher, painter, explosives expert and guerrilla, fisherman, picture restorer, cartoonist, novelist, humourist and ultra-marathon runner.

He is perhaps best remembered, however, for his dramatic exposé of the appalling jail conditions in which political prisoners were held under apartheid, which caused a storm, including a debate at the UN, and led to improvements for Nelson Mandela and others.

In 1960, when the South African government declared a state of emergency, Strachan and his second wife, Maggie, followed the tide of Africans who streamed out of the Cato Manor area of Durban to demand the release of their political leaders. The security forces used Saracen armoured vehicles to try to block their advance. When this did not work, the shooting began.

In Syringa Avenue, Strachan saw a young African, hurrying home from market with a packet of apples, shot dead; today Strachan’s painting of the scene holds pride of place in Durban Art Gallery. When the police warned that they would shoot the crowd if it did not disperse, the Strachans, gambling that they would not shoot white people, stood in front of the guns to the fury of the police, who judged the situation too explosive to manhandle them away.

Realising that the police would not take being thwarted lightly, the couple fled to Swaziland, then home to many other refugees from the South African left. It was a turning point for Strachan, who could not abide the white communists from Johannesburg who ruled the roost. “They set up a politburo right away, began arrogating power to themselves and disciplining others. They were clearly just compensating for deficiencies in their own personalities” was Strachan’s verdict.

He and Maggie decided to slip back into South Africa and go to Port Elizabeth, well known as the African National Congress’s best organised bastion. “That was the volcano,” he recalled. “Everyone knew that Govan Mbeki and Raymond Mhlaba [the local ANC leaders] ran one hell of a show. We were keen to work with them, but not with the Jo’burg lot.” Strachan began to play a key role in putting out the underground newspaper New Age.

In 1962 came the ANC’s decision to set up a guerrilla wing, Umkhonto we Sizwe, known as the MK. To his amusement Strachan was asked, on the basis of his wartime experience as a pilot in the South African Air Force (SAAF), to become the movement’s explosives expert, inventing and designing bombs. “We didn’t make our own bombs in the air force, man, we bought them from a bomb factory,” he recalled with a laugh.

He began reading school chemistry books and with the help of a black photographer friend, Joseph Jack, who was selected on account of his knowledge of photographic chemicals, began work. “So we go off and drink a certain amount of booze and have faith like anything and set-to with the chemicals,” Strachan said. Finally a demonstration was held on Schoonmaker’s Kop, a deserted beach, where they blew a lavatory sky-high, drawing the comment from one senior cadre: “Comrade, if we’re going to conquer all South Africa one shithouse at a time we’ll all be in the grave before liberation.”

Joe Slovo, later to be the leader of the South African Communist Party (SACP), was impressed, shouting slogans and giving the clenched fist salute as the remnants fell into the sea, but Strachan and Jack did not trust him. “The agreement was no killing, but it was clear even then that Slovo was a man utterly without compassion or scruple. If we’d given him that, there’d soon have been killings, so we just gave him the formula for the incendiary bomb instead,” explained Strachan. “Later on, Slovo authorised all sorts of murderous atrocities, bombs in supermarkets and such like, and it was clear we’d done the right thing.”

None of which counted in Strachan’s favour when the bombs began to go off and he became the first MK activist to be detained. He was sentenced to six years’ imprisonment, with three years suspended. He served 11 months of his sentence in solitary confinement at Pretoria Central Prison, where all his teeth were removed.

On his release Strachan was accosted by Benjamin Pogrund, a journalist from the Rand Daily Mail, who wanted him to tell the truth about jail conditions. Strachan’s lawyer warned that this was a risky enterprise because the prison authorities would claim he was defaming them.

Strachan went ahead with the interview, hiding in a game reserve so that the police could not serve him with a writ to withhold publication. Several articles were published, to the fury of the authorities. The police pounced and Strachan was sent back to jail for a second term, this time two and half years (reduced by one year on appeal) — and some serious vengeance from the authorities.

Strachan refused to bear grudges and always insisted that he had been lucky in life. However, the apartheid regime was certainly not above bearing a grudge and for more than a decade Strachan was placed under house arrest and prevented from gaining employment. Twice bands of armed men tried to kill him; the bullet holes could be seen in his old wood-and-iron house in Chapel Street, Durban. Unable to get a job, he taught himself to restore paintings and, thus self-employed, became a much sought-after picture restorer.

He found solace in his expertise as a fisherman, spending long illicit hours with Indian fishermen friends (he was forbidden to attend a meeting of three or more people). He liked to make his own fishing rods and tackle, just as he was an expert motorbike mechanic and had an immense knowledge of guns.

Meanwhile, although still a hero to the liberation movement, Strachan became alienated by its ruthlessness and authoritarianism — opinions he did not bother to hide, even though they were often dressed up in hilarious stories. Increasingly, he was treated with embarrassment and as a non- person. Nonetheless, when the ANC held its first conference back in South Africa, in Durban in 1992, Mbeki, the veteran of many years on Robben Island and second only to Mandela in the liberation movement, sought Strachan out and they fell on one another’s shoulders like long lost brothers.

“You know, Govan, we were quite brave,” Strachan said. “My God,” said Mbeki. “We were f***ing brave, we really were.” Both men wept.

Robert Harold Lundie Strachan, sometimes known by the nom de guerre Jock Lundie, was born in Durban in 1925, the son of a Scottish metalworker from the Clyde shipyards who had emigrated to South Africa in 1902. When he was three his mother, a teacher from an Afrikaner family, ran off with another Scotsman, Jimmy Brown, a former professional footballer who had been gassed in the First World War and invalided to Pretoria.

Strachan greatly preferred Jimmy, who died four years later. “My father was a professional coward,” he would say with a grin. “He got off both world wars on account of his weak heart, retired on grounds of ill health and then just sat round and suspected people for over 30 years. When he died aged 96 they more or less had to jump on his heart to stop it beating.”

Educated at Maritzburg College, in Pietermaritzburg, Strachan never got over the school’s brutal athleticism and racism, which, he believed, was inspired by the need to produce a white master race. He told how the school was decked with mementoes of the 1879 Anglo-Zulu war. He left to join the SAAF, later recalling his first solo flight in a Tiger Moth at the age of 18 under an instructor called Bertie: “ ‘You drive this aeroplane like a shitcart,’ says Bertie. ‘I’m getting out. Taxi back to the fence here.’ At the fence I stop and he dumps his parachute pack on the grass, plants his fat bum upon it and lights a fag. I sit there in the Tiger and look at him. He waves me away soundlessly, telling me to voetsak. Which I do.” Before long he was flying solo, “and elegantly she sails up to a thousand feet as if she has just risen from the hand of Noah”.

Although too young to see active service, Strachan’s passion for aviation was lifelong. During his solitary confinement he spent hours every day devising how he would build an exact replica of a Tiger Moth, spar by spar, and when he got out he did just that. Although he had a romantic attraction to aircraft of the Second World War, his fascination with technology was such that he would spend much time in reading the latest developments in science and aviation and would sometimes startle those who knew him only as an old man by explaining in detail exactly how the latest laser-guided weapons worked.

His even greater love was painting and after the war he took a fine arts degree, then spent several years in London at Camberwell College of Arts, earning his keep as a manual labourer. He found the company of trade unionists highly congenial. “They were all like Peter Sellers as Fred Kite, a laugh a minute,” he said. In 1950 he married Jean Middleton, a teacher who was later jailed after allowing Nelson Mandela to use her flat.

On their return to South Africa he lectured in art and they both became founder members of the Liberal Party and, unusually, also members of the pro-communist Congress of Democrats. “People like Alan Paton [one of the founders of the Liberal Party] were high-minded and sanctimonious, but it was quite clear that you had to join the communists if you actually wanted to do something,” he said.

Before that Strachan had become a keen marathon runner and a participant in the Durban-Pietermaritzburg Comrades Marathon, one of the world’s toughest road races, undertaken by many thousands of runners over a hilly, 54-mile course. He ran for most of his life and once placed as high as sixth in the Comrades.

His marriage to Middleton turned out to be shortlived and in 1959 he married Maggie von Lier, his former student, who became an art teacher. They were long estranged and he is survived by their daughter, Susie, and their son, Joe. He also had another son, who was born in France; to Strachan’s sorrow he was never able to discover either his name or his whereabouts.

When universal suffrage arrived in 1994 Strachan voted for the liberal Democratic Party, not the ANC, which he came to loathe. In his seventies he took up writing with Way Up, Way Out (1998), a novelised autobiography that is sad, haunting and funny. To his indignation, the publishers cut a third of the manuscript because of its political incorrectness. A second volume, Make a Skyf, Man!, was published in 2004. Since 1999 he had written a column for Noseweek, a monthly satirical magazine.

Strachan, usually near-penniless, was endlessly generous and gave away much of what he had. He was seldom happier than in his later years in a tiny one-room flat overlooking Durban, from where he would often go on 20-mile walks, always finding out fresh things about the city he knew so well. The flat, which he occupied until moving into a care home in September, was stuffed with the latest internet technology, pictures of grandchildren and friends, aircraft and early flying boats.

His friends regretted that he did not paint more, for it was his greatest talent. He hated the art world, but loved paintings and could talk for hours about exactly how this or that painter had worked — a particular favourite was Jackson Pollock. Yet he saw painting as something that had to dominate one’s every thought and waking hour, while his pursuits were multitudinous: walking on the beach at Trafalgar, Mozart, Mahler, the Goon Show, Arthur Daley and everything in between.

Although a fluent Zulu and Afrikaans-speaker, he was emphatically proud of his European cultural heritage. A man for all seasons, Strachan always saw himself as of no particular significance.

Harold Strachan, author, artist and political activist, was born on December 1, 1925. He died from complications of liver disease on February 7, 2020, aged 94

This is an edited version of an article that first appeared in The Times of London.