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Patrick van Rensburg – The Passing of a Colossus

SANDY GRANT
When being briefed before coming to Mochudi, I was told about a new ‘do it yourself’ secondary school that was being started by Patrick in Serowe. Coming off the mail train at Pilane in December 1963 at past midnight, I was picked up by Ish Matlhaku and driven through a pitch black Mochudi to Kgosi Linchwe’s bachelor home where a party was on the go - light, music, smoke.

And there was Patrick himself- presumably to try and secure Linchwe’s support - an Afrikaner renegade and author of a recent London published Penguin Special, Guilty Land, which marked the start of his career as a prolific writer.

The book may also have marked the beginning of the world wide anti-apartheid movement. Thereafter I visited Swaneng fairly regularly because this was where everything was happening. Swaneng initially gained the government’s support but perhaps convinced that Patrick was bringing into this country a new form of Bantu education from South Africa, it veered away from TigerKloof and Swaneng and eventually settled on its preferred model, Maru-a-Pula.

Swaneng of course was replicable – hence Shashe and Madiba – whilst MaP was always a one-off. To get a handle on this achievement, we need to note that in all the years since Moffat and Livingstone, and in the 81 years of the Protectorate Administration, the two, between them managed to establish only two secondary schools, Moeding College and Gaborone Secondary, and both at the very last minute. There followed a string of new initiatives, a coop which was for long believed to be the country’s first. That honour, as we now know, belongs to the dairy coop established in Lobatse in 1909.

And then came Mmegi, the forerunner of the first of the Gaborone-based newspapers. The constant need for Pat was replicability because his vision and his quest was to open up for the young new and previously unknown opportunities. Eventually disillusioned by his first model, the school, he created the Serowe Brigades Development Trust which not only grew to an astonishing size, but encompassed a huge range of productive activities. Despite being poorly capitalised the Farmers Brigade, for instance was able to provide Serowe with milk, yoghurt and cheese. For the sake of contrast, it is worth noting that despite the millions available to it, Milk Africa is yet to provide Lobatse with anything. It is also worth noting that the entire countrywide Brigade movement as it became, was established without, I believe, a single pula from diamonds on which probably all major projects have subsequently depended. This astonishing achievement was made possible by the support he gained from many aid agencies of the western world

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and locally, and remarkably from the Christian Council, as a result of his rare ability to communicate both in speech and via the written word.

He wrote copiously about his vision and about the way that this could be implemented with the result that he was enabled to push forward beyond this country’s borders into Zimbabwe and South Africa. A routine listing of his achievements can do little to help those today who did not know him and may find it difficult to grasp the sum total of this truly extraordinary man.  Nor is it now possible today to capture something of the sense of excitement of the period, let us say from 1965 to 1980, the awareness that this was a crusading mission with immense achievements already to its credit. It was a time of hope. But, of course, it all had to come to an end. Pat became disillusioned with the Government and the Government with him.

He turned from the BDP to the BNF, which merely increased the Government’s distrust and outright antagonism and in Serowe in particular, it all became very messy. Today it’s as if his tidal wave had never occurred.  If the Brigades still survive, we now never hear of them. When he finally left Serowe and settled in Gaborone, he contributed regularly to Mmegi. Unsurprisingly, he was the last person to review successive national development plans in the local press.

Who else could do it? Fifty years ago, Pat argued that the system of formal education on offer was hopelessly inappropriate. He came up with an alternative. Now, 40 years later, and the very same systems to which the Government has for so clung are once again being criticised, even by itself, as inappropriate and inadequate. Perhaps we need a new Patrick, but it’s probable that a far more sophisticated bureaucracy than existed then would have no difficulty in strangling any significant new initiative at birth.

The prospect of change is always unsettling and is invariably resisted. Unorthodoxy is always to be distrusted. So what do we do with this man now that he has passed on? Put him on a postage stamp or give him a statue? He would be the first to enjoy the irony.



Etcetera II

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