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Swaneng: Steady growth, local development, and conflict

In this forth part series on Swaneng,writer TOM HOLZINGER looks at the rapid growth of both the central and the education sector in the region
By Tom Holzinger Fri 20 Dec 2013, 14:16 pm (GMT +2)
Mmegi Online :: Swaneng: Steady growth, local development, and conflict

Before Swaneng, Bechuanaland had only six secondary schools, and four of them offered only the Junior Certificate syllabus. All were run by either tribal councils or missions. Only one of these schools, Moeng College, was in the Central District. Thus the opening of Swaneng Hill School in February 1963 filled a huge need.

“The British had largely neglected education in Bechuanaland. The population in 1963 was half a million, with 100,000 children of school-going age but only half of them attending primary school. There were 1,000 primary school teachers, half of them without qualification above primary level. Fewer than 3,000 pupils per year finished Standard 4 and only 700 completed all six years of primary school. The total enrolment in all secondary schools was 600 students.”1

In 1963, with independence now on the agenda, the colonial government began a slow build-up in education.

A few months after Swaneng, the Serowe Teacher Training College opened its doors. Otsogile Pitso’s older brother Masego was one of its first students. It, however, was built to the colonial model and offered a colonial syllabus until it too was overtaken by waves of educational reform sparked by Swaneng and Independence.

Patrick van Rensburg proved to be brilliant at mobilising resources, both locally and abroad. Swaneng School expanded so rapidly that by 1966 its 220 students comprised 20 percent of  all secondary students in the new Botswana. This was done by combining overseas donations and volunteer staff, voluntary building work, an annual grant from the Tribal Council, and grants-in-aid from the new government in Gaberones. The latter assistance, however, did not come without struggle, as we shall see below.


The Swaneng Co-op

As we have seen, the Swaneng Co-operative Society opened its first shop behind the Serowe Hotel in July 1964 (or October, depending on one’s source), a triumph for its tireless organisers. Three other strong personalities came into the Swaneng orbit at that time: Bofakae Masuga, Joel Pelotona and Bessie Head. Bofakae was an older student and deputy head boy with major responsibilities, later becoming a founder of the BEC. Joel was a multi-talented neighbour and primary school teacher who later co-founded the Boiteko project. Bessie was a South African refugee and primary teacher who would later become famous as a novelist and historian of Serowe.


The Swaneng Dam

From the beginning Patrick showed great foresight in emphasising erosion control, dams, and tree-planting. (Much later he helped introduce Permaculture). As an early staffer observed: “The students laid contour ridges of stones on the hillside to collect silt, and built small dams in the dongas to control the rapid erosion caused by over-grazing and tree-cutting for firewood.”2 (The current author is happy to live, in 2013, on land that was once just a maze of dongas and was gradually filled in by Swaneng).At the end of 1964 the School decided to repair the old Swaneng dam that lay below the school farm and had been built by a mophato years before. It proved to be anything but simple.

In early 1965, “Earth was dug from the bed of the dam with picks, shovels and wheelbarrows and piled onto the wall. We studied manuals on small earth dams and did our best to construct the dam accordingly.

My part of the job was to design and install the pipe through the wall, which had to have a concrete ‘collar’ partway through.”3 Seretse Khama was photographed wielding a pick. His children Jackie and Ian rode up on a horse to watch. During the first school holiday, workcampers arrived from Moeng to help. “They came with tents and good food,” Joseph Mosedame recalls, “even goat meat. We Swaneng students just had our usual phaleche and beans. But we didn’t feel bad, rather we felt proud.”

The wall was finished in time for a heavy late rain that filled the dam. Swaneng went to bed happy only to find the dam washed away the next morning. The pipe through the wall had been the weakness.

The government sent a bulldozer to raise the wall far higher, but it ran out of money and spares. At the same time 1965 was the most disastrous year so far in the long drought. Van Rensburg employed 30 or 40 local people to work with wheelbarrows until he too ran out of money. Finally, school volunteers returned to finish the job: “Our students and staff were joined in the dam-building effort by volunteers from the Serowe Teachers Training College, and a hundred young people and their teachers gathered each weekend at the dam site in high spirits — with laughter, song and dance as they dug and carried the earth, spreading and compacting it on the wall.”4


A decisive year

1965 was a year of far-reaching changes. In February, the conservative Rasebolai Kgamane retired as Tribal Authority in Serowe and was replaced by the modernising Leapeetswe Khama. In March, Patrick and Seretse Khama persuaded the kgotla to support the launch of a Builders’ Brigade. Days later Seretse won the first parliamentary elections and disappeared overnight to Gaberones.

 In April and May, the British administration tried to persuade the new Cabinet to build a government secondary school in Serowe, thus cutting off Swaneng and perhaps killing it.

Pat and Liz’s response, detailed below, marks a turning point — and a break in this series of articles. We’ll look at the high tide of brigade development, roughly 1965-1975, early next year.


Conservatives were always quick to accuse Swaneng of two things: communism and sex. Was there fire beneath the smoke?

Despite the suspicions of many security services, the author is happy to confirm that there were no communists at Swaneng during its formative years. Radicals and socialists, yes. Some friends of Patrick’s from the SA Liberal Party at one point split away to form the Armed Resistance Movement — and blew up several facilities inside South Africa. Curiously, it seems that Pat himself was never under suspicion, even though several of the conspirators passed through Swaneng as they escaped northward.

The most bizarre incident was that of the South African guerrillas being trained at Swaneng — and it was partly Pat’s fault. In September 1963 he allowed Grenada Television UK to film the school, thinking it would be good publicity.  Then the television men asked to shoot a “mock-up” of guerrillas in training, and Pat naively agreed to help. He asked the cook, Gaotulwe, to look for some men with guns and a blaster with dynamite. They went to work just east of the School.

The next day they made a great show — armed men crawled through fences and crouched in a donga as huge explosions of earth filled the air behind them. A month later, to Pat’s horror, this picture was on the cover of Drum. Terrified, he bought all the copies in Serowe and burned them, only to find that the Observer newspaper in the UK had printed the photo too. Weeks went by and Pat held his breath, but the authorities remained quiet. It was a close escape.

Pat’s political naiveté — a recurring part of the Swaneng story — surfaced again a few months later. Realising that Zambia would become independent several years before Botswana, and having several contacts in Kenneth Kuanda’s circle, he went to Lusaka to argue for a union between the two countries. This initiative came to nothing, as most people expected, and Pat missed the birth of his first son while away.


Sex was a different saga. Sexual liberty soon became an interesting sub-current at Swaneng, among staff, students, and trainees alike. Patrick was generally easy-going and tolerated far more than his peers in other institutions.

Pat knew that his older students were bound to be sexually active, and they were. He argued for co-education and won, but did not immediately win the right to readmit girls who had left the school while pregnant. (The prominent conservative, Peto Sekgoma, was on the Swaneng Board. He did not change his mind on this issue until one his own daughters fell pregnant). The first girls’ and boys’ dormitories were built close to one another. On later expansion the new boys’ hostels were built much further away.

Note that at Serowe’s new TTC, the old rules still held. The TTC Principal and his wife returned home early one night, in time to see a Peace Corps volunteer jump out a back window. Inside, they found their maid half-naked. There was no mercy for the volunteer, who was immediately sent home, or for the maid, who was fired.

As at the TTC, Swaneng’s most spectacular sex scandals involved its staff. Since these generally occurred a little later in its history, the author has saved some of them for a later instalment.


Self-reliance and democracy

There was a Board of Governors, partly elected by parents, partly appointed by government and Tribal Authority. Although it generally followed Pat’s initiatives, it was more conservative than the Principal on social questions, particularly contact between boys and girls.

The students had a Student Council that organised many aspects of student life: sports fixtures, voluntary work on buildings and gardens, food buying, cooking rota for breakfast and supper in the new dormitories, and regular cleaning. Otsogile Pitso and Joseph Mosedame recall that among the older forms this was a source of great pride. They did much on their own, and they passed along this spirit to the younger forms as they grew up in the Swaneng culture.

(When this system did break down, some years later, it was not because of internal problems but rather because of changes imposed from outside).

Food, despite its plainness, was not a problem in Swaneng’s early years: “All pupils receive a lunch from the school. It consists of maize meal and a variation each day of beans, protein soup and (once a week) goat meat. This lunch costs each pupil R3 (£1-10s) a year. Lodgers in the dormitories cook their own breakfast and supper; they form teams of eight and each cooks on a rota basis for the team.”5 [PvR 1965]


The volunteer teacher experience

Staff meetings were the most decisive and contested forum at Swaneng. Here Patrick, and later Patrick and Sheila Bagnall together, had to carry along their most decisive asset — well-educated and articulate young Westerners with huge workloads who sustained a great number of projects large and small. This often involved heated debates. And it was not a real democracy in that Patrick could, if he wished, simply impose his decisions — but he did this infrequently. Rarely, volunteers were dismissed and sent home. The first was an inexperienced farm manager who allowed animals to die. Another was an abusive, violent man who stripped his wife naked and paraded her through the schoolyard. And sometimes volunteers simply resigned: illness or exhaustion, and in one case, because he had made a local girl pregnant.

The great majority of volunteers, however, found their work totally fulfilling: “My teaching rested on my previous experience as an unqualified teacher in north London, on a split site where 40 percent of pupils didn’t have good English, as recent immigrants, and they were not keen to learn.

At Swaneng I faced the unpacking boxes of books and chemistry equipment and students of all sizes and ages arriving, keen to help and learn.”6


School curriculum

As we have seen, Swaneng immediately introduced practical subjects into its curriculum. To explain his philosophy, Patrick soon began teaching civics and development. Within a few years this became a full-fledged syllabus in Development Studies. A later article will examine the history of this syllabus, together with an associated program in community development, the Village Developers’ Course

In this regard three more important persons now appear: George Matiza from Southern Rhodesia who joined the Swaneng 4th form and displayed remarkable leadership almost at once; Daniel Jankie from the remote west of the Ngwaketse, who later helped build Botswana’s brigades with unflagging dedication; and Nancy Moatlhodi and her six children from South Africa. Nancy adapted to Serowe and Swaneng very quickly, becoming the first Matron and later leading a women’s self-help group.


The Night School

In early 1965 the Tribal Authority asked for a Night School. Patrick asked his staff if they would be willing to work extra hours some nights, and they agreed.

“The Night School began almost immediately with 25 students attending every week night for two hours. They were to study a number of subjects over four years up to Junior Certificate level. Staff would cover the teaching on a rota basis. This called for long, exhausting weekdays for some of our staff, but the eager dedication of the evening students made it worthwhile.”7

Joseph Mosedame points out that the best Night School students were soon accepted into Swaneng for regular studies — including, notably, a future Minister of Education, Pelonomi Venson-Moitoi.


Builders’ Brigade

In March 1965, under Leapeetswe Khama’s new leadership, the Serowe kgotla agreed to support the launch of a Builders’ Brigade. It marked Seretse Khama’s final intervention with the Ngwato leadership on behalf of Swaneng.

A “brigade model” was quickly developed: Cost-covering production together with academic instruction from Swaneng staff. Its costs were sufficiently low that many other brigades were able to start soon thereafter.

Todd Kuhlmann was the Builders’ brigade first manager. He had 30 young men, among them Elija Makgoeng, future brigade instructor, manager, and eventually an assistant kgosi. First they built their own classroom, then a church in Palapye, then a house near Pilikwe. This was a decisive step in history of the Swaneng project, as will emerge in future articles.

(In those days raw trainees needed careful supervision. The author recalls a group of fresh youths building the wall of a rondavel. Their instructor had been called away. In his absence they had laid 4 or 5 courses of bricks without making a door!)


Swaneng’s effect on Serowe

As the school and associated projects expanded rapidly, it had a marked effect on the Serowe economy. By the time this part of the story ends in mid-1965, Swaneng was the second-largest employer in Serowe, second only to central and local government combined.

It also generated secondary industries such as building materials: “Sand came from river-beds, often far away in the bush. Stone for concrete came from a local contractor who operated a stone-crusher breaking up larger stones from a nearby hillside.” [Kibblewhite]

Bricks were bought locally, and at one time made at Swaneng itself. “The bricks were formed by hand in wooden moulds, and burned in ‘clamps’ — carefully constructed piles of many thousands of ‘green’ bricks with tunnels into which firewood was packed. Coal was spread between the layers of bricks to carry the burn up through the pile. Lorries were sent to the railway at Palapye to collect the coal from alongside the line, where it fell from passing trains.”8 [Kibblewhite]


South African connection

Patrick’s mind was never far from the regional politics of southern Africa. He had admitted a number of refugee and expatriate students and would admit many more. Members of staff and fellow refugees had many connections to the liberation movements in the region.

There was an ongoing conflict between this wider interest and local interests in Serowe. And of course the white minority regimes hated Swaneng and all it stood for. The British administration generally distrusted him as well, a distrust that ran both ways.

On the ground, there was frequently a sense of tension between South African-born students and others, occasionally even flaring into violence. The author can remember Otsogile Pitso, George Matiza, and Joseph Mosedame holding long discussions with other students, always preaching tolerance and multinationalism.

“We were proud to have students from many countries,” Joseph says today. “It was part of being at Swaneng. But it wasn’t always easy to hold the students together. The South Africans had to be encouraged to fully join in.” He might have added that he himself was born in South Africa with a Motswana father!

A difficult relationship with authorities

In March 1965 Seretse Khama’s BDP won 28 of 31 seats in the first Parliament. In Pat’s words: “Leapeetswe Khama threw a party the night the results were known, to which all the Swaneng staff were invited. Seretse was, as could be expected, in buoyant mood. I was quite surprised that Seretse should draw me aside to tell me that he would be leaving Serowe the next day for the new capital of Gaborones and that he wanted me as his adviser. He would send a plane to fetch me. In fact Seretse sent no plane for me, nor did he seek my advice. I hadn’t for a moment expected him to do either, but I wondered why he said he would.”9

Only a month later Seretse’s ambivalence became clear. Patrick learned via the District Commissioner in Serowe that the Education Department, still in Mafeking, had urged the new Cabinet to build a new and expensive secondary school in Serowe, thus undercutting Swaneng.

Patrick van Rensburg and the DC Eustace Clark decided on a counter plan — to propose that government use its money to develop Swaneng instead. In return, Swaneng would somewhat integrate itself into the emerging system of government secondary schools. The 11-page proposal was written with late-night drama:“On the night of Sunday the 25th, 1965, Liz and I were working feverishly in the common room to finish the application for Eustace Clark. She typed as I wrote furiously. Various staff members came and went.

Tholo Molefhe, who was abusively drunk, kept coming in with Neo Raditladi, a nursing sister whom Liz and I had met in Arusha in 1962. She was abusively racist then, and again so that night, in support of Tholo.

“Liz and I kept going despite the tumult. Tholo was then staying in Serowe and David Wyld, who had access to an old Bedford van, offered to take him and Neo home. When David stopped to let his passengers out, Tholo suddenly pulled a knife from a pocket, stabbed David in the neck, and fled into the dark. The young volunteer drove himself the short distance to the hospital where he received urgent attention.”10 What were the contents of their proposal? Following many budget projections, Pat reached the emotional possibility that his school would be orphaned by government:

“If the Government builds another secondary school in Serowe at a cost of R340,000, without making a substantial grant to Swaneng Hill School, the snub that this would imply, would be interpreted as Government disfavour with Swaneng Hill School. Swaneng Hill School has come into being as a result of self-help through voluntary labour, and generally through the co-operative efforts of many people — volunteer teachers, donors of money from abroad, and pupils and their parents here in Bechuanaland. It is difficult enough to inculcate in people the idea of self-help through voluntary labour, and yet what has been achieved at Swaneng Hill School in this direction could well be destroyed.  The pupils of Swaneng Hill School who have built their own laboratory, and who are building their own workshop, who made their own sportsfield and dug the foundation ditches of some of the classrooms, who helped to rebuild the old dam will be dismayed to find no reward and no incentive for their work and to see the Government building another school instead.”11 Pat’s plea fell on receptive ears in the new Cabinet. Government decided to support Swaneng and abandon plans for a second secondary school in Serowe. (The money, however, was slow in coming). This author believes that a gentle intervention from Seretse Khama probably sealed the matter in Swaneng’s favour.


A summary word

How can we explain the explosion of energy in Serowe in the middle 1960s? Bessie Head, who lived through it, argues that it was a historical moment, a “tide in the affairs of men”:

The project started at a time of change from Colonial rule to independence when there was a gap of uncertainty about the future. Often at such times one gets the impression that many minds suddenly come together to think out what that future should be. This period is often temporary and intense, with a sudden explosion of life and creative activity.12


* Elizabeth and Pat van Rensburg

* Martin Kibblewhite, personal memoir,

* ibid

* Elizabeth and Pat van Rensburg

* Patrick van Rensburg 1965. Memo to Government on future of Swaneng School.

* Peter Roberts, personal memoir.

* Elizabeth and Pat van Rensburg

* Martin Kibblewhite, personal memoir,

* Patrick van Rensburg, unpublished memoirs.

* ibid

* Patrick van Rensburg 1965. Memo to Government on future of Swaneng School.

* Bessie Head. Serowe: Village of the Rain Wind.

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