A personal memoir of Patrick van Rensburg

Van Rensburg
Van Rensburg


I found him with a pick in his hand. Pat was in hurry to finish the foundation trenches for a new science lab. He swung the pick furiously at the red soil and soft rock below him. “Rome wasn’t built in a day,” he panted, “but of course I wasn’t the foreman on that job.”

Pat was physically big and radiated charisma. He was driven by both long-term vision and here-and-now compassion. Lord how he worked! Students, brigade trainees, and volunteer staff — like myself — easily accepted his leadership.

In good times Pat was jovial, teasing, patient, compassionate, and confident in his vision and his abilities. He enjoyed his considerable charm. What set him apart was his vision and the fanatically hard work with which he pursued it.

If he trusted you, he would banter endlessly. Pat could repeat the same joke a dozen times, laughing every time. He loved to mock politicians. “Gentlemen,” he would say, “these are my principles. If you don’t like them, I have others.”

If he trusted you, he might show his vulnerability. But few people ever guessed the hardships that he had had to overcome. He rarely talked about them. Most people saw only his strength, endurance, and fierce will.

The Swaneng years demanded strength. Pat was the strong one who dealt with crises: bank overdrafts, brigade and student strikes, broken boreholes, thefts and assaults, a hostile Ministry of Education.

The school lorry, loaded with students going to Palapye station, slid into the Lotsane river in flood. Thankfully everyone survived. The lorry itself died soon thereafter. A drunken volunteer drove it off the road late at night, and the cab completely separated from the body. The volunteer teacher walked away. Pat didn’t fire him.

A student who stabbed his classmate was not so lucky. Pat would have allowed him to stay, but the more experienced vice-principal insisted that he be expelled. In a few years Pat too became tougher, as his economic and political vision evolved. Ultimately economics and politics became central to his educational philosophy.

He was not without personal weaknesses. Sometimes he allowed a minor criticism to upset him greatly. More than once he needlessly insulted officials in Gaborone. In his prime years he was a womaniser, occasionally a reckless one. If he was being criticised, he wanted his friends to take his side without reservation. But by any reckoning, his virtues enormously outweighed his faults.

The boy is father to the man

Pat came from a broken family and was raised by his grandmother in Durban. He spoke English at home and used his grandmother’s married name, Lagesse, until he was 17. It was a severe Catholic upbringing. His grandmother tried to beat the mischief out of him. The priest, trying to prevent early sex, warned Pat, “Don’t touch it my boy, don’t touch it!” (Pat retold this story till the end of his life). And like all kids of his time and place, he learned the racism of his English tribe: against Africans, Indians, Jews, and Afrikaners.

After his grandmother died, his family had just enough money to send him to a good boarding school for secondary education. Pat showed promise but dropped out after two years. He wanted to work. At age 17 he was accepted into the civil service as a court clerk in Pietermaritzburg.

For the first time he had to show his birth certificate. “I learned that I was van Rensburg,” he wrote later, “and I felt that something had been withheld from me.” Suddenly he saw the Afrikaner people and their history in a new light.

His life took off in other ways. One of his superiors recognised his abilities and urged him to continue his education. Pat enrolled in UNISA and took an arts degree by correspondence. Years later he would recall how this thinking expanded under the power of great literature and an insightful tutor. “I think it was then that I really learned compassion,” he wrote. He began to question, quietly, the basis of racism.

With his degree almost complete, Pat applied for the Foreign Service. He received a full training in Pretoria. His first overseas post, in 1956, was to the Belgian colony of the Congo. Just 24 years old, he finally met black Africa — without apartheid, and with strong black nationalism. In a dizzying rush, brilliantly described in his 1962 book Guilty Land, Patrick knew that apartheid was upside-down and could not last.


Man on the run

Back home in South Africa, Pat began a new life as a renegade. He became friends with anti-apartheid activists of all colours, and he joined the Liberal Party as one of its organisers. He was spied upon and arrested numerous times. Wishing to see Europe and gain a broader perspective, he left this task and travelled to the UK.
In England he met a South African friend, Tennyson Makiwane, who had started a campaign to boycott South African goods. He joined this Boycott Campaign as a high-profile activist, infuriating the government back home. In 1960 he returned to South Africa via the Congo and Bulawayo. By luck or fate, the Sharpeville Massacre had occurred three days before. Pat’s friends told him to go at once to the Swaziland Protectorate before he was arrested.

He spent five months in Swaziland before his chance came. “[Friends] secretly arranged flights to Bechuanaland for 50 refugees, myself included,” he later wrote. “We landed in Serowe. I stayed with the Agricultural Advisor, who described to me the unpredictability of the climate in this semi-desert land ... All 50 refugees were invited to a meeting with Seretse Khama, who told us that the political situation in Bechuanaland was very different from that of South Africa.” Then, with the others, he continued to Francistown and London to put together a life plan.

In London he accomplished three things in a remarkably short time. He wrote a powerful book about apartheid, Guilty Land. He met his future wife, a lovely Welsh lass named Elizabeth Griffin. And together they decided to travel to Africa and, if possible, start a school in Bechuanaland. The outcome is well known: Swaneng Hill School opened in Serowe in February 1963 and quickly became a magnet for educational and economic development.

Evolution of an educationalist

From the beginning Pat was perplexed by the problem that so few students could find places in the country’s few secondary schools. At first he simply went all-out to expand his own school as fast as he could. But quite quickly he realised that the quality of secondary education was just as important as its quantity.

From the outset Swaneng students did practical tasks: building, cooking, cleaning, gardening. For a school with no money it was a necessity. But Pat quickly realised that physical work was also an important part of a student’s overall education. It taught self-reliance and non-elitism. Specialist skills like woodworking would soon benefit the community as a whole. And practical work would help shape the discussion about economic development.

Oh, the discussions! It was a shock to me to see how much time students and staff spent in discussions about priorities, practical work, and Botswana’s future. Pat maintained a regular program of workshops and seminars on these topics. His own thinking deepened. Now, he realised, the school had not only educational problems but also a problem of capitalism and of consumption. He didn’t like either one.

Pat employed a sly humour. Once, he came across a rich trader’s lorry stuck in the mud. “Ah,” he said, “it’s good that the capitalists should also feel pain.” He joked about selling out to the rich. “Yes,” he said, “I too have a price. It’s 300 million pounds.”

After the daily strain, Patrick loved a party where he could drink and relax. On one outrageous occasion, after the women had left, we men got into some mischief. The American Embassy had sent a big pile of paperback propaganda. (The president’s daughter, Lynda Byrd Johnson, was praised as “the Queen of the Washington dog show.” We laughed until we cried). We used these books to build two forts that fought each other. We hurled books and pieces of books till the booze finally killed us. Poor Patrick had to apologise to the Americans afterwards.

Boipuso came when the school was in its fourth year. Otsogile Pitso led a group of students to the top of RraSwaneng Hill and prepared a huge bonfire. People saw it in many parts of the village. Suddenly, like that fire, everything felt possible. My friend Ketshabe loved to say, “I’m a free man in a free country,” and many said the same.

With Boipuso every secondary school student could see a prosperous future in Gaborone if he or she wanted it. On the other hand most of the country’s young people would remain in the villages with few prospects for modern employment. This reality weighed more and more on Pat’s mind. He diversified the school’s curriculum to include more technical subjects, pushed for Development Studies, and insisted that all students work several hours per week on the school construction sites.

A few years later he wrote: “Not having any special experience of education or qualifications as an educator, it was simply a recognition that education, as I saw it then, was a necessary tool of development. The Bechuanaland of those days had six secondary schools and something like 15% of those who left primary school went on to secondary school. For the rest there was nothing to do. So it did seem then that what one ought to do, if possible, was to try to create in those people, who were fortunate enough to get an education, a sense of responsibility for the development of the society as a whole, and we tried to introduce measures into our secondary schools to achieve this.”


The decisive turn

In mid-1970 Patrick thought that some of the Form 5s were deliberately avoiding the practical work. This became an obsession, till he finally made a controversial denunciation of them. In great remorse he resigned as Principal and took a restorative holiday in the Chobe. When he returned, he had a new long-term plan, one that revolved around combining all formal education with practical work.

The brigades, which had seen a big expansion in 1967, expanded again. He had high hopes for Boiteko, a community multipurpose production unit in Serowe, and for a producers’ coop in the smaller villages to the north. At the same time, though, the country’s economy was shifting dramatically from agriculture to mining. Wages rose everywhere, and people’s expectations rose with them. Pat’s projects, doing their best to keep up, fell into debt.

In 1978 finances hit rock-bottom. Technical staff insisted on higher wages. Pat’s alliance with the Botswana National Front turned sour, and he was met with political suspicion from all sides. With the help of several major foundations in Europe, he put together an exit plan. He raised money to pay off past debts and announced his departure. In 1979 he left Serowe to promote his ideas internationally. He did not live in Serowe again until his final years.


Education with Production

Pat’s vehicle for educational reform was FEP, the Foundation for Education with Production. In 1980 he took his ideas to newly independent Zimbabwe and enjoyed initial success. It was a disappointment when the new education ministry slowly settled into the traditional pattern. Individual projects, though, continued for some years and transformed a number of lives.

The Dag Hammarskjold Foundation in Sweden decided to promote a “third way” of economic development — neither capitalism nor the state communism of the USSR. Patrick was hired to lead seminars with third-world leaders, for which he often wrote discussion papers.

Thus he travelled to many countries and had an impact on policy-making from Lesotho and Jamaica to China and Cuba. He told me on several occasions what a great man King Moshoeshoe II of Lesotho had been, before his car was forced over a cliff by quarrelling politicians.

To communicate and discuss widely his educational ideas, FEP started its own Journal. I was later amazed to discover that Pat edited and published 23 issues between 1982 and 1996. Later in the 1980s, together with a dedicated group of young journalists, he launched Mmegi, soon to become the country’s largest publishing house.

For years he wrote an excellent weekly column, “Question Time”. He talked about every kind of issue. One week it might be elephants in the Chobe, another week the need for reform in conservative Islam. Notably, he always upheld the cause of the CKGR Basarwa in their long years of struggle with the government.

During the 1980s he met his second long-term partner, the Canadian development worker Rosemary Forbes. Since I had settled in Canada in 1983, Pat and I were soon able to see each other on his occasional trips. I noticed that he always brought work with him. At that time he also suffered from tinnitus, or ringing in his ears, so that he slept poorly. He was a troublesome houseguest, but a stimulating one.

In 1990 his life took one more turn. After 30 years in exile, Pat was able to return to his native South Africa.

He set up an office of FEP in Johannesburg, launched an urban builders’ brigade, and tried to interest his old anti-apartheid comrades in a new kind of education. During the transition it looked possible. Pat gave well-received lectures, including at the University of Cape Town. But in the end the new Ministry of Education, as in Zimbabwe, decided on smaller reforms.

I visited him in Joburg in 2001. Rebuffed by the national Ministry, he now faced obstacles from the Johannesburg city bureaucracy for land, building permits, inspections, taxes, and licenses. Local thieves had targeted his house. He was a man under siege, in a state of near-constant confrontation. I was relieved when decided to return to Gaborone a few years later.


Despite his formal role as an educator, Patrick often became involved in political matters. In my experience he was superb at the individual level, but not so good at understanding groups, factions, and political parties.

Local alliances came easily to him. Very early he asked prominent Serowe elder Peto Sekgoma to join the first Board of Governors of the school. He learned to drink with Lenyeletse Seretse and to party with the brothers Leapeetswe and Sekgoma Khama. K.K. Baruti and Mothusi Seretse helped him form the consumer co‑operative. And by far the most important friendship was with Seretse Khama, who first convinced the Serowe kgotla to back the Swaneng projects. Against the odds, a conservative kgotla became a consistent source of support.

Sometimes I observed Pat’s magic at close range. Once, on a brief trip to the south, Patrick and I dropped into Sandy Grant’s house in central Gaborone. The very young Molepolole MP, Daniel Kwelegobe, walked in just behind us. After small-talk, Kwelegobe asked, very forthrightly, why was there tension between Pat and the Ministry? Patrick did not reply directly. Instead, he led Kwelegobe out into the garden, where he pointed out the local trees, shrubs, and grasses. “These are our local resources,” he said, “we can make many products for ourselves, using our own raw materials.” Kwelegobe appeared to be swept away by the flow of innovative ideas.

The real answer to DK’s question, I think, was the clash between Minister BC Thema’s deep conservatism and his traditionalist civil servants versus Pat’s progressive ideas. The old British civil servants, for example, thought Pat was a communist. They wanted to build a government secondary school in Serowe and deny public money to Swaneng. Pat wrote one of the finest letters of his life to the government, suggesting that he would have to leave Bechuanaland altogether. It worked, and Swaneng was accepted as Serowe’s official school.

If Pat struggled with the Ministry, he enjoyed brilliant success with aid organisations. He successfully applied for and received unprecedented sums of money from organisations in the UK, Scandinavia, Holland, Canada, and the US. Uniquely, he sometimes argued for and won changes in these organisations’ own development policies. The Dag Hammarskjold Foundation in Sweden, for instance, promoted an “alternative” model of development after discussions with Pat — and a little later they hired him directly to lead their seminars.

Part of Pat’s problem with the government was his rejection of capitalism. It was inevitable that certain ministers would always see him as a threat. Sir Keitumile Masire was a good friend to Swaneng for a long time. But when he and Pat served together on the Rural Development Council in the late 1970s, they clashed and Pat resigned. “I soon found that Vice-President Masire’s main, if not only, goal for rural development was to set up fenced ranches for cattle owners,” Pat wrote later.

Another part of the problem was Pat’s imprudent alliance with Kenneth Koma of the BNF. I knew both men at close range and realised, with a sinking feeling, that Koma was not trustworthy. Pat, though, maintained confidence in him for a long time. In the end, after the violent BNF congress of 1998, Koma spread personal lies about Pat, and Patrick withdrew from party politics.

There is a final irony. In the early 1960s, as Swaneng was being built, Seretse Khama’s young son Ian occasionally visited the new school that was at the opposite end of the village. (After the 1965 elections the Khama family moved to Gaborone).

Several decades later, after General Ian Khama’s resignation from the military and entry into politics, Patrick told friends that Khama had promised to appoint him as Minister of Education. I doubted the story very much. At any rate, after April 2008 passed without any appointment, Pat was quick to use his sharp humour. “It’s just a government of seven soldiers,” he told me over the phone, “a government of seven soldiers.”



Pat thought about “replicability”. Could the Swaneng methods be successfully used elsewhere? Could they help solve the problems of rural development and employment in newly independent Botswana? In a fateful series of pamphlets and plans Patrick argued “yes”, Swaneng could be a model for other villages and towns.

No one, I think, could have predicted the response. Local leaders in every district and major village in Botswana wanted similar development projects. Major external aid agencies, frustrated by corruption in other developing countries, were eager to support Botswana’s honest efforts.

Within a very few years, an explosion of brigades, workshops, and training centres took place throughout the land. Although the government of Botswana encouraged these efforts, it did not have the resources to give them much budgetary support. Later, when mining revenues became plentiful, government ministers were unsure that these rural facilities would remain relevant.

Nonetheless, the brigades made a strong positive mark on Botswana. The skills learned in brigades built the towns of Orapa and Jwaneng and improved agricultural practices. If other areas of production have been less successful, their weakness is due to an economic policy of encouraging cheap imports from Asia rather than any fault here at home.

In education, Patrick’s legacy is less clear, and “the wheel is still in spin.” Most secondary schools offer practical subjects, and a few organise community work for their students. Development Studies remains as an optional subject. A national youth service, Tirelo Sechaba, existed for several years and might be revived.

In many quarters there is discontent with current educational practices, and this may cause Patrick’s star to rise again. Most notably, in 2014 the then-Minister of Education, Pelonomi Venson-Moitoi, honoured Patrick at a huge anniversary celebration of Swaneng. She pledged at that time to bring back the most relevant of his educational policies.

Of his immediate family, he is survived by both Liz van Rensburg and Rosemary Forbes, and also by Liz’s two sons Thomas Masego and Mothusi Joseph and Rosemary’s daughter Joanna Boitumelo. There are three grandchildren.

Finally, in my view, Patrick’s greatest legacy remains the village development trusts who work within their local communities. Beginning with the first Serowe Youth Development Association, such trusts have spread everywhere in Botswana. They especially allow elders, teachers, and retired civil servants to bring their ingenuity and wisdom to bear on local problems and find local solutions.

In this author’s experience of other African countries, Botswana enjoys by far the strongest network of such trusts. If we as a country have done well, it is partly due to citizen service of this kind, first pioneered by its brilliant adopted son, Patrick van Rensburg.

Editor's Comment
What about employees in private sector?

How can this be achieved when there already is little care about the working conditions of those within the private sector employ?For a long time, private sector employees have been neglected by their employers, not because they cannot do better to care for them, but because they take advantage of government's laxity when it comes to protecting and advocating for public sector employees, giving the cue to employers within the private sector...

Have a Story? Send Us a tip
arrow up