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Patrick Van Rensburg (1931-2017) by Jeff Ramsay

Van Rensburg
The late Patrick van Rensburg was one of the founders of modern Botswana, a hero in the struggle against Apartheid, and through the work of his Foundation for Education with Production (FEP) internationally as well as domestically recognised pioneer of alternative education systems

Locally he was a principal founder of the Brigades movement in the Central District, which among other things gave rise to various rural production units and cooperatives, three secondary schools and the Mmegi newspaper.

During his long and distinguished career, Van Rensburg touched the lives of countless individuals in our country and region, including this author, in a positive, life changing way. One expects that there will be many tributes in the coming days.

Fortunately a substantial biography of his life was already progressed before his death earlier this week, which should enhance our collective remembrance of a fallen giant among men.

While the fact that Van Rensburg came to Botswana as a South African exile is generally well known, what is perhaps more obscure at least to younger generations is the circumstances that brought him here. From an early age issues of his own identity in a divided and unjust society surrounded him.

Patrick van Rensburg was born in Durban in December 1931.

His parents separated when he was young and he was raised by his grandmother. She was an Afrikaner woman who was married to Lagesse, a Frenchman from Mauritius.

His grandmother had survived incarceration in a British concentration camp during the Anglo-Boer War. She subsequently accepted the Roman Catholic faith of her husband, resulting in young Patrick being brought up as a Catholic and speaking English in the home, while using the Lagesse surname. In the above context, he would later maintain that it was only in his later teen years that it dawned upon him that he was an Afrikaner.

After his studies, he joined the civil service and started to appreciate the ambiguous historic role of Afrikaner resistance and collaboration with the forces of British imperialism. 

But, unlike most of his peers his sense of injustice soon evolved beyond his own ethnicity to take in the wider repressive role played by global capitalism in the form of racial imperialism in subjugating Southern African society as a whole.

As a rising diplomat, he was serving as the South African Vice-Consul in Leopoldville (now Kinshasa), in the then Belgian Congo when, in May of 1957 he broke ranks by resigning from the civil service in protest against the Apartheid policies of his Government. At the time, his Afrikaans surname added to the news value of his break.

Back home Van Rensburg joined the Liberal Party of South Africa, then the leading political organisation besides the Communists organising white opposition to Apartheid.

In September 1958, he became the party’s organising secretary in Transvaal. Thereafter, he was in the forefront with individuals like Patrick Duncan, in driving the party into an increasingly militant direction, culminating in its banning and the ultimate participation by many of its members in the emerging armed struggle. Initially, Van Rensburg focused on trying to turn young Afrikaners away from Apartheid. When in 1957 the ANC leader, Albert Luthuli was banned for five years under the Suppression of Communism Act, he spearheaded a protest meeting at the steps of Johannesburg Library.

Thereafter, he frequently joined hands with ANC leaders such as Robert Resha in trying to organise Afrikaner students.

Van Rensburg moved to Britain in mid-1959 and became the “first director” of the campaign to boycott South African goods in Britain and the Netherlands, which preceded the Anti-Apartheid Movement.

The first edition of Boycott News carried the headline ‘A Direct Appeal from South Africa’. In November 1959, Patrick van Rensburg had written to Chief Luthuli asking him to send a statement calling ‘freshly and clearly’ for a boycott.

The Liberal Party had been split on the issue, but in November the Party’s National Committee passed a resolution approving the boycott ‘both here and overseas, as a legitimate political weapon’. So,

the message carried in Boycott News was signed jointly by Chief Lutuli and Dr G. M. Naicker, presidents of the African and Indian Congresses and by Peter Brown, National Chairman of South Africa’s Liberal Party.

It said that an economic boycott was one way in which the world at large could ‘bring home to the South African authorities that they must either mend their ways or suffer for them’. He called for boycotts early January 1960.

There was popular outrage directed at Van Rensburg back in South Africa amongst Afrikaners, Die Vaderland newspaper labelled him a ‘slangmens’ or ‘snake-person’. The Liberal Party back in South Africa were thrown in turmoil not knowing whether to support Van Rensburg’s call for boycott or not. Patrick wrote in November 1959 to Chief Luthuli asking him to send a statement calling ‘freshly and clearly’ for a boycott.

Returning to South Africa his passport was confiscated and after the Sharpeville shootings he was forced to flee the country. On March 30, 1960 he fled South Africa and found political asylum in Swaziland. From there, he went to Bechuanaland and the Ghanaian government flew him in September 1960 to Accra.

Thereafter, he stayed briefly in Britain, where he wrote and published his bestselling indictment of the Apartheid system “Guilty Land.” Van Rensburg took up permanent residence in the then Bechuanaland Protectorate in 1962.

He formally became a Botswana citizen in 1973.

In Botswana, he founded the Swaneng Hill School near Serowe, and following its success, Shashe and Madiba schools in association with the Botswana government, as well as the Swaneng Consumers Cooperative and Brigades Movement.

His experience with the schools and Brigades through the 1970s led to his establishment of the FEP in 1980.

Van Rensburg’s education approach conceived schools as a centre of development as well as learning.

The curriculum included practical subjects like agriculture, building, carpentry, metalwork, technical drawing and typing.

New academic subject matter was introduced in Development Studies, and all students were encouraged to apply the knowledge and skills they were acquiring in socially useful productive work.

In an effort to bring schools within the reach of ordinary people, costs were lowered by the Brigades, which were self-help education and training organisations producing goods and services both for themselves and for public sale to help finance teaching and training.

In building on these early experiences, FEP sought to create a new blend of theory and practice in education, to be spread internationally.

The Foundation devised and held workshops on various aspects of the concept and practice of education with production.

It organised conferences - mainly in Southern Africa but also as far afield as the Caribbean - that involved Ministries of Education, liberation movements, non-governmental organisations, teachers’ institutions and the ‘world of work’.

FEP publishes a journal and occasional papers and has engaged in and promoted research.

The Foundation further succeeded in identifying appropriate production and socially useful activities to create an expanded body of curriculum in such subjects as Cultural Studies, Development Studies, Environmental and Social Studies, Language in Use, Applied Mathematics and Applied Science and Technology. Arrangements to examine these subjects were concluded with reputable certification institutions, while FEP also published text books and trained teachers in the subjects offered.

In 1984, Van Rensburg revived Mmegi, which had initially been a Brigades’ publication in Serowe, as an independent national weekly, later daily newspaper.

After 1990, he was finally able to return to South Africa, where he was active in propagating the concept and practice of education with production.

As one of Botswana’s elder statesmen, in his later years, Van Rensburg continued to remain active in local politics and society refining and advocating his models for educational and socio-economic reform. A luta continua!May his soul rest in peace.




Flogging a dead horse

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