In the summer of 2003, I was looking for ideas for articles to include in a Reader’s Digest Christmas magazine when a friend said: ‘Why don’t you write about The Black Christ?’
Sad to say, I didn’t know who or what he was talking about (so much for my belief that I was an expert on South African history). But having been caught out so emphatically, I took off to where most ignorant people in search of superficial knowledge go – the Worldwide Web.
What followed was a fascinating armchair journey between South Africa and Europe – and, initially, an Internet introduction to an artist (and fellow Capetonian) called Ronald Harrison.
The story of The Black Christ has been well documented over the past week or so, following the death of Harrison. But in 2003, when I wrote about The Christ, many Reader’s Digest readers were intrigued (and let it be said, shocked in a racist/religious way) that a 22-year-old artist would have chosen to oppose apartheid by painting a crucifixion scene – featuring Chief Albert Luthuli as the Christ figure, and Hendrik Verwoerd and John Vorster as Roman Soldiers.
Harrison, remember, completed his painting in 1962, during the high noon of apartheid.
For me, the next chapter in this story came early in 2004, when I received a message from Reader’s Digest reception; ‘There’s someone to see you. He says his name is Ronnie Harrison.’
I dropped everything and hurried downstairs to meet the man.
Harrison was everything I did not expect him to be.
Shy, quietly-spoken and humble, he thanked me for writing the article that appeared in Reader’s Digest Christmas. But the reason he’d come to see me, he said, was to ask my advice about writing a book about The Black Christ.
‘Oops,’ I thought….
As head of books for the Southern African operation of Reader’s Digest, I received at least a dozen approaches every week from people who were convinced that they had written – or were about to write – the great South African novel, cookbook, or travel guide.
My response had always been the same – an instruction to my secretary to post a standard three-sentence letter of rejection (together with a brochure of books, music, towels and steak knives) to the aspirant authors.
Would I be required to do the same to Ronnie? I wondered.
I started to explain about the type of books that Reader’s Digest published. But he quickly cut me short: ‘I’m not asking Reader’s Digest to publish my book,’ he stressed. All I want is advice from you….
Over the next few weeks, he was a frequent visitor to my office. We spent many hours together – just talking.
In thinking about it later, I realized that talking was what Ronnie Harrison really wanted to do. He needed to get some painful matters off his chest.
Ronnie needed to talk about his life … about how apartheid had affected his family … about his deep admiration for Chief Luthuli … about what had motivated him to paint The Black Christ … about how the painting had to be smuggled out of the country … about how he had been detained and tortured by the South African Security Police … about his search for The Black Christ after the fall of apartheid … about finding it … about his plans for it.
He needed someone to listen to his story. I was humbled that he had chosen me.
Shortly after our first meeting, he brought me 10 pages or so of his book to read and then to comment on. He’d set it in 10 point Times Roman bold type, single spacing – and he’d printed it on what seemed like a dot-matrix printer. I helped him with the technical stuff – but I stressed that his story was his to tell, and that he should do this in the way he felt most comfortable with.
I warned him, probably for the 10th time, about how difficult it was to publish a book, but he just smiled. I don’t think he ever doubted that his book would see the light of day.
I left the Reader’s Digest soon after – and lost touch with Ronnie. But, in 2006, out of the blue, I received an invitation to attend the launch of The Black Christ – a Journey to Freedom. It was an auspicious occasion, which appropriately for him, was held in the National Art Gallery. To my surprise, he thanked me for my help – during his speech at the launch, and in the book itself.
The next time I saw Ronnie was about a year ago in the City centre. ‘I’ve got another fight on my hands,’ he half whispered to me. ‘I’ve got cancer.’ He didn’t need to tell me. I could see. He’d lost a lot of weight – and he had the pallor that I had seen in so many other cancer patients.
To me, Ronnie Harrison was, and will always be, a true South African hero.
I believe that at this point in our country’s history, we should remember those who stood up to be counted, who sacrificed so much – and asked for nothing in return. Many of them paid the ultimate price for their bravery.
There are lessons here for the many Benny Bigmouths who have laid claim to that struggle, which today has taken on many different forms.
If we are to ensure that our evil past is never repeated – and remember the past can come back to haunt us from any direction – it is imperative that all of us acknowledge, learn from, and emulate the principled opposition to human rights abuses and corruption (both past and present) by people such as Chief Albert Luthuli, Kader Asmal, Walter Sisulu, Albertina Sisulu, and a long list of forgotten heroes – like Ronnie Harrison.
But will we … can we … do we want to?