It was on a Tuesday evening when I received a text message from Methaetsile Leepile that Patrick van Rensburg had died. Although I knew that Pat had been sick, and Mothusi (his son) had told me earlier in the year that the ‘Old Man’s’ health was on a downward slope, I was naturally taken aback.
As I pondered over the bad news I immediately had a flashback of many good moments I had with Pat over a span of the 28 years I have known him. I remembered Pat the teacher, writer, idealist and philosopher king. It was one of those moments when one goes through mixed emotions of pain, hope and despair, and cannot help but curse death.Among other things, Pat was fond of the arts.
In my deep thoughts I was reminded of the 19th century German composer, Gustav Mahler’s piece, Resurrection, which was his second symphony. In that piece Mahler grapples with the mystifying phenomenon called death. The second movement of the symphony represents a view of life as a meaningless activity. And the fourth movement is a wish for release from life without meaning.
Needless to say that Mahler was so afraid of death that he could not assign his Ninth Symphony the number “nine” because other composers before him, like Bruckner, Beethoven, Dvorak and Schubert died after they wrote their ninth symphonies. But alas, Mahler could not cheat death. He died in the middle of writing his tenth symphony at the age of 50!
Of course Pat was not afraid of death. Like the English writer, William Shakespeare, Pat believed that “a coward dies a thousand times before his death”. He had taken so many risks in his lifetime that he could have died when he was much younger. Anyone who was on the forefront of the fight against apartheid, like Pat, was prepared to pay the ultimate price, death. In fact, Pat was aware that when the South African Defence Force (SADF) raided Gaborone on June 14, 1985 his name was written on one of the bullets that rained on the city that fateful night. And dying for the liberation of humanity, and social justice, was a sacrifice that Pat was prepared to make.
It is perhaps an understatement to say Pat was selfless. His achievements as an educationist and development practitioner are well documented. He started projects and handed them over to others to run with them.
He did not have a ‘founder’s syndrome’, which oftentimes leads to people overstaying their welcome in projects that they initiated, and can be counterproductive.
As a civic activist, Pat understood that the projects that he started were not his, they were for the community. They were to be run by the community who were conscious of their own societal needs. It was never about him.
In the era of Twitter, Facebook and Instagram, where ‘profiles’ and ‘selfies’ are the order of the day, people have ‘followers’ and ‘likes’. It is a world of excessive individualism and self-adoration in which everyone seeks attention.
Patrick van Rensburg was not interested in having ‘followers’. He did not even see himself as a leader. He never sought fame.
Pat believed in the collective wisdom of the community. He wanted to make a difference in people’s lives and this was manifest in the form of life skills that he imparted to others, as well as the institutions he created. Pat empowered generations of Batswana in a way that is unparalleled by any single individual in this country.
Pat was happy to be known as an educator and civil society activist, and no more. What a breath of fresh air in a world where children who are wet behind the ears call themselves legends and brands! Even
He always said the only reason he received such recognition was because of the work done by those around him, the community.
Of course it pained Pat that the government of the day did not support his projects. What irked him even more was the thought that government could even have been working against him. Not that Pat expected any financial assistance from government. At the very least he expected them to play a facilitative role by giving him space to expand the scope of his projects.
This brings me to a matter that is usually raised when Patrick van Rensburg is a subject of discussion, namely, his political party loyalty. The Pat I knew was not loyal to any political party. Pat was loyal to his ideas, especially as they pertain to education and development. He was also loyal to the principles that underpinned such ideals, not to a party or a human being.
The reason why Pat flirted with the opposition, in particular the Botswana National Front (BNF), in the early 1990s, was because he believed that a BNF government would adopt his education model and development strategy, which in his view, would be the remedy to the triple challenges of poverty, unemployment and inequality in Botswana. This is why following the 1998 Palapye debacle, when it became clear that the BNF was headed for a split, Pat withdrew from party politics and concentrated on his work.
He did the same with the African National Congress (ANC) in South Africa. When the ANC was unbanned and returned from exile in the early 1990s, Pat was co-opted by the party into one of their education committees.
At the same time he was lecturing at two universities in South Africa, the University of Cape Town and the University of the Western Cape.
Pat used to say that was one of the highlights of his life as an educator because he was given space to propagate his ideas on education and production. But Pat was very clear, as soon as he felt that his contribution was no longer appreciated in that country he returned to Botswana.
In particular, Pat gave up on the ANC the day the South African government abandoned the Reconstruction and Development Programme (RDP) to adopt the neo-liberal Growth, Employment and Redistribution (GEAR) policy in 1996. In his view it was a betrayal of the National Democratic Revolution. So yes, Pat was a political animal, but he would not pledge blind loyalty to any party.
Talking about loyalty, perhaps I should, as I did in the opening of this eulogy, invoke another composer’s work of art, in conclusion. In 1803 Ludwig van Beethoven composed his Third Symphony called Eroica (or Heroica).
Incidentally, like Mahler’s Resurrection, the first movement of Eroica represents a funeral march. The symphony was inspired by the ideals of the French Revolution and dedicated to its hero, who seemed to be the great liberator of the people, Napoleon Bonaparte.
However, in 1804 Beethoven withdrew his dedication of his Third Symphony to Napoleon, because he had proclaimed himself the Emperor of France. So, Beethoven’s loyalty was not to Napoleon as a person, but to the ideals that he represented at the time of the Revolution.
To the extent that Beethoven was loyal to an ideal, so was Patrick van Rensburg!