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Portrait of a legend

Phillip Segola
Patrick van Rensburg (L) holding his portrait
Producing a portrait of any person is not an easy task. It is strange that when I undertook to produce the portrait of Patrick van Rensburg to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the founding of Swaneng Hill School, I thought it would be easy, because I thought I knew him.

To some extent I was right. After all, I’d been at Swaneng Hill School from 1964 to 1969. I had also taken the assignment because I had been first to sit for the Cambridge School Certificate ‘O’ Level art examination in Botswana.

It was an important task and an opportunity of honour. Artists often shy away from portraiture and find it restrictive with little room for the very license we thrive on. I thought of an abstract van Rensburg. I decided that wouldn’t be fair. It has to be a product all of us should have opportunity to comment on and not be shunted into a corner in which they would not be able to comment on it.

I felt very confident because of this and the sort of person I had experienced at Swaneng and whose ideology I had not only experienced it in action but had also embraced and accepted as a standard in my life. The strange aspect of this experience was that  in those years I had just come from South Africa to study and live in Botswana. And South Africa had clear lines of demarcation in racial terms.

As a student, I found him easy to live with and was not aggressive but had authority. The majority of staff members were from abroad and a few South African exiles. Many of my fellow students who were at Swaneng at the time have stated that  it had been the single life changing experience in their lives.

Although I was still quite young, I saw something positive and felt very good about being at Swaneng with other students and teachers from the United Kingdom and the United States. Students at Swaneng learnt among many other skills the ability to build our classrooms if we needed more space.

The portrait of van Rensburg bears the title “PvR”. That is  how his staff referred to him. He was known as “Maraisberg” in Serowe. It was created from a photograph I had taken from Monty Kgosi who

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was also a student at Swaneng. Monty was interested in photography and carried around those cheap old-fashioned cameras. He took pictures of many of us with our girlfriends. I cannot remember how I got it from him.

The realisation then hit me that the assignment I had taken was huge. I was to produce a portrait of “Pat” as I first met him, grew up under him and later got to interact with him in Gaborone.

I produced a charcoal drawing of Pat. I chose to produce a charcoal drawing because it’s my medium. So I was very comfortable when I drew it. It could not be a colour drawing because the picture was black and white and it would have taken me much longer.

 I had presented him as an engaging individual who thrived on ideas, tough he looked a bit boisterous though, like someone who knows what needs to be done. My impression of this image of him was re-inforced by the staff members he had assembled at Swaneng. At a time when uniforms were the order of the day in Botswana and indeed the whole of southern Africa, we wore what we wanted, built our own classrooms and importantly, challenged our teachers.

Van Rensburg is now 84-years-old. He would have been in his mid-40’s when the picture was taken. I have now another picture of him. In terms of the image I have created he is not that different. I see him with “older eyes”, but I still know him. He looks like someone who has not accomplished what he really needed.

When you sit down and talk with him, it’s like he has an impatience that stems from thinking that you will not understand what he really wants to get across to you. He is not the same person that I drew. At the time, the plan was still unfolding. One wonders how things would have turned out if his ideas for education with production had been embraced and put to use.



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