When I got the news of the passing away of Cde Patrick Van Rensburg, the vexation was, “is this the end of the life of a man who did so much for his country but was not properly and openly acknowledged”? Reprehensible, I answered. Communication with the self!
But the reality is that this man belongs to the roll of honour. I had gotten an SMS from one of my mentors, Rre Metlhaetsile Leepile in the evening when I was about to retire. I recalled that when I got the news of the late Cde Same Bathobakae, it was almost at the same time. News of the passing away of such great people set you to think and sleep disappears. But sleep being so powerful and unrelenting will eventually sweep its way in. I met mogolle Methaetsile Leepile when he was the Editor of Mmegi wa Dikgang. Cde Patrick Van Rensburg had taken Leepile from a job that had a reliable income as a teacher and gave him an opportunity to later become a guru in media issues.
Mmegi wa Dikgang had started as a school newsletter at Swaneng Hill School. In 1984 it started operating as a national newspaper and was now based in Gaborone. It was struggling and was still trying to find its footing as a commercial enterprise. There was competition from The Guardian (founded by William Jones), The GAZETTE (founded by Al Osman, who now owns the largest private radio station in Malawi), The Examiner (founded by Brian Egner). The founders of all these publications were foreigners. My liking for writing was still very strong as I had just come out of Secondary School where another mentor and english teacher who had just completed his degree, Richard Tabulawa had pushed me to like writing. Together with other students at Swaneng Hill School like Steven Sedie, we set up a magazine called “The Mirror”.
I was full of energy, the energy to write was so abundant and had to be channeled somewhere. Mmegi wa Dikgang provided me with the channel for my energy. It was attractive to me because its focus was more on community development and people centred issues. Its adverts- news ratio was biased in favour of news, something that attracted ardent readers and writers. The founder of this paper was none other than Cde Patrick Van Rensburg. Around this time, I was not close to the man but had heard a lot about him and interacted with his traces.
Swaneng Hill School where I did my O’ Levels, after I had moved from Selebi Phikwe Secondary where I had just completed my junior certificate, and Mmegi wa Dikgang were his products. Another great, Titus Mbuya took over from Leepile who had now moved to Windhoek as the founding CEO of SAMDEF. They provided me with a platform to horn my skills in not only writing, but also advertising and circulation. Of course I will see Cde Van Rensburg from a distance while at the Mmegi wa Dikgang offices to collect my dues as a stringer, advertising agent and a distributor of the paper in the north. An empire was now being built.
Around this time, Mmegi wa Dikgang was growing rapidly and it became the largest private paper in the country. It continued to flourish and bought the Botswana Guardian group which had the Botswana Guardian and The Midweek Sun as its titles. Jones had set up the Midweek Sun to counter The Botswana Gazette, which was also a mid-week publication.
Later in life, when I was now running my own publication, which I later sold, I was invited to a workshop organised by the then nascent Media Studies Department at the University of Botswana (UB) to present a paper on, “The effects of Advertising on Editorial Independence”. I met Mma Venson, the current Minister of Foreign Affairs who was also there to make a presentation on a different topic. She, I learned, also happened to be a product of this Institution called Mmegi wa Dikgang which later mothed to just MMEGI, a title it retains to date. Bishy Mmusi and the late Moses Lekaukau, men who need no introduction to Botswana Society had an association with Mmegi wa Dikgang through its production in Serowe. Many more notables have gone through this Mmegi growth trajectory.
Directly and indirectly Cde Patrick Van Rensburg gave a lot of people an opportunity to blossom in their talents. He was a selfless man who some labelled a “dangerous communist” whose ideas should be nipped in the bud. His ideas were hounded and killed by the ruling party. While at Swaneng, some fellow students will bemoan the collapse of the Brigades which offered skills in areas like mechanics, printing, welding and fabrication, textile, carpentry, building and construction, fitting and turning etc. He wanted to give life opportunities to young Batswana who were not gifted in the academic field.
I only managed to get close to Cde Patrick Van Rensburg in the build up to the Botswana National Front (BNF) Ledumang Elective Congress where he was deployed as the Public Education Secretary in the Central Committee. I later met his son, Mothusi who I am sure made Cde Pat a proud father. A liberated, down to earth soul with no airs like his father.
Cde Van Rensburg would later leave the BNF and become a member of the Botswana Congress Party (BCP), albeit briefly. He was very unhappy with Cde Kenneth Koma who had accused him of carrying a gun at the watershed BNF Palapye Conference
I remember one sojourn to his house with my friend, Lucas Taolo, a former BNF Member who also left for the BCP. I always remember the delicious pasta and beef we had at Pat’s Flat in Segogwane Way one evening. After excusing himself and going to the kitchen we “caucused” and agreed that we would decline food if offered by Cde Pat because we had just grate-crushed our way into his flat. He was not expecting us for dinner, we rightly reasoned. When he offered, we initially declined. He insisted, but I guess we needed less persuasion as the aroma was so tantalizing. We just couldn’t resist and only remembered our earlier resolution, well after we had finished eating. I enjoyed the meal and I am sure Cde Pat or whoever did the dishes afterwards didn’t struggle. By the time we finished eating, the plates were almost clean. I regret I did not ask for the recipe.
Cde Pat together with other comrades from the BNF,ANC, ZANU (PF), Chartist Movement (among its members was Richard Whitting, a British Socialist), had a study group which mainly focused on general liberation literature. Cde Pat’s ideas of Education for Liberation connected greatly with the BNF’s 1969 Manifesto which insisted on Education with Production. Swaneng Hill School when it was founded was not emphatic on Education with Production but Education for Liberation, much like the French Commune.
It emphasizes the involvement of everybody, be it students, teachers, general workers etc in the school system and all decision making processes and that decisions should be arrived at democratically. He agreed with Paulo Freire who came up with a writing entitled, Pedagogy of the Oppressed. That participation or practical work as opposed to theory raises consciousness. Where there are failures in the system, all will own up. He adopted the BNF ideas of Education with Production and introduced the Brigades. Differences, though not major, emerged between him and some in the BNF. They revolved around strategy and tactics.
Of course these were comradely and democratic engagements. Some said that the Brigades should only be introduced when the BNF is in power as the environment was hostile and that the BDP should not benefit from our ideas. Cde Pat felt that there was need to be practical rather than postulate. On the question of external funding for these projects, the argument was that funding will not come without any strings attached.
Cde Pat felt that there was need to be practical rather than postulate. He proceeded with building the Brigades in Serowe, Mahalapye, Tutume and Shashe under a very inimical atmosphere. In the Brigades he worked closely with Cde Mareledi Giddie, Cde Conference Lekoma, Cde James Olesitse, Cde Reggy Kooe, Cde Tota Bodulala, Cde Scara Mogopa, Cde Harry Mello, Cde Segale Makgale, Cde Lebelonyana of Lesotho Congress Party, Cde George Matisa of ZANU(PF) and others.
The participation of these comrades who were also actively involved with study groups that discussed leftist literature and ideas on liberation did not sit well with the reactionary BDP government. The BDP government hated the people behind them and saw them as using the Brigades to build the BNF. The regime felt that the Brigades would rather die than give a life to young Batswana. To them these were institutions that sought to radicalize the youth. To the BDP Education is a Master/Servant kind of relationship exercise. It sees it as Paulo Freire would have said, as a bucket and tap relationship. Students accepting what they are taught without question. Devoid of democracy and not allowing participation of all stakeholders in decision making.
As a close Cde put it, Cde Pat, like Paulo Freire, believed that the oppressed need not be told that they are oppressed. They must experience oppression, and seek their solution through socialization and democratic participation.
Fare thee well Cde Pat. Yours was a life worth and well lived. The turbulence in your life path made those who knew you stronger and resolute. You might be gone but your imprints on our life will remain forever.
Please note that though there were fissures between the ANC and the PAC of South Africa, ZANU and ZAPU they were treated as one organization and issues relating to their sharp differences were not discussed in the study groups which they were part of. Hence in this write up I used ANC and ZANU(PF) as representative of the liberation movements from these countries.
*Moeti Mohwasa is Botswana National Front (BNF) Secretary General