Ronald Harrison was born on the 18 March 1940 in the suburb of Athlone, Cape Town, but lived the first four years of his life in Kimberley. After returning to Cape Town, Ronald described his childhood as ‘nomadic’ – his family often moved from place to place and he lived in many different Cape Town communities, including District Six, Ottery and Salt River. Despite Ronald excelling at art and being a top-grade student in primary and high school, he could not pursue Fine Art as a profession due to being raced as ‘coloured’, which prohibited him this opportunity. His family could also not afford a privileged education. Ronald often lamented the way in which the absurdity of apartheid racialised identities entered his intimate family life and tore his family apart. As a young adult, he wound up earning a meagre living working in a factory, despite his artistic talents, intelligence and political astuteness.
Ronald was committed to his Christian values and to the struggle against apartheid. It made sense that he revered Chief Luthuli who represented for him the embodiment of a noble cause, both Christian and liberatory. Frustrated with oppressive state violence, angered by the 1960 Sharpeville massacre, the unfair restriction on his personal growth, and on Luthuli’s banning orders, Ronald began to find his voice and political expression through critical art. The Black Christ painting is his most renowned work, for which he endured serial torture at the hands of the apartheid security police, leaving him to live with life-long physical and psychological scars. The Black Christ painting is housed at the Iziko South African National Gallery in Cape Town.
After acquiring international recognition for creating the Black Christ painting and transcending what he called ‘the stigma of being considered a second class citizen’ he was offered a scholarship to study Fine Art in America. But the apartheid government would only grant him an exit permit. Having also been threatened with his life and that of his family, he declined the offer and abstained from exhibiting his work in public, but there are literally hundreds of homes in Cape Town decorated with his art. Ronald Harrison was an artist of the people and for the people and generously gifted his talent to his community.
With the advent of democracy, Ronald was offered a prestigious position in the office of the provincial government. True to his character, he responded by saying his role as an artist was to hold power accountable and not to hold power per se. In 2005 Ronald was one of the recipients of a prestigious Arts and Culture Award in the category of Visual Arts, granted by the Western Cape provincial government, along with other notable stalwarts of the arts. He resumed serious work in 2006, when he painted a series of paintings dedicated to Chief Albert Luthuli. These paintings were in exhibition at the Nelson Mandela Foundation for a number of years after finding its resting place at the Luthuli Museum in Groutville, KwaDukuza. In the same year he wrote his memoirs, which is a heartfelt account of some of the most significant experiences in his life. His book, The Black Christ: My Journey to Freedom, is available from New Africa Books. In 2008 Ronald was once again honoured and acknowledged by the Western Cape provisional government for his contribution to the liberation struggle when he received an Order of the Disa award for services rendered to his country.
Ronald Harrison had a special strength, one that speaks against the silences of what many anti-apartheid activists still conceal to protect themselves from the shame and disgrace they endured for challenging the apartheid regime. Ronald never married and fathered children of his own, but he was the quintessential family man. It’s speculated that what had happened during his interrogations may have affected him so much that he passed up the opportunity to marry and become a parent, though he was the proverbial father to many young men and women. Ronald Harrison passed away of a heart attack at the age of 71 on the 28th June 2011, after beating cancer, which is believed to have emanated from the injuries he suffered at the hands of the apartheid security police. He was honoured with a requiem funeral service at St. Luke Anglican Church in Salt River. His funeral was attended by hundreds of friends, family and those who venerate him. Some of the noteworthy guests at his funeral were Cape Town Major Patria de Lille, Dr. Albertina Luthuli and Archbishop Njongonkulu Ndungane, amongst many.