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Memories of my Father: Patrick Van Rensburg

Forbes remembers her father van Rensburg
My father passed away on May 23, 2017. Not a day goes by during which I do not think of him. The public man was a remarkable activist, educationalist and journalist who undoubtedly had an enormous influence on the lives of many in Botswana. The private man was more complicated.

From a very early age, I recognised that my dad was work-obsessed and I was often frustrated by the nagging editorial that had to be written each week for this newspaper. 

He was also a bit of a procrastinator – thinking and worrying about his chosen topic until minutes before the deadline when the words would fly off his computer.  In the early days, the paper was printed in Serowe with the finished product transported to Gaborone for distribution early Friday morning.

He would spend much of the rest of the day leafing through each issue (as well as those of the competition). He was incredibly proud of the contributions his small team was making in support of a growing and vibrant free press culture in Botswana. 

When he wasn’t working, he loved to travel and journeys with Dad were wonderful.  One of my earliest memories is of jiggling in his arms as we darted in and out of the waves on a sandy beach in Malawi. When I was five, we spent hours studying elephant poo in Chobe (an early obsession of mine) and watched dung beetles doggedly crossing an empty road in Namibia.

Many vacations were spent in South Africa where we toured some of the places that had influenced him deeply during his youth – the concentration camp near Harrismith where his grandmother had been interned during the Boer war; the boarding school in Ixopo where, as an impoverished teenager, he camped out on a teacher’s veranda for a couple of years.

I also met his extended family in Pietermaritzburg and visited the building in Cape Town where he had lived during his days in the SA Foreign Service. Throughout the 1990s, these trips were important for him – they connected him emotionally to a country from which he had been separated for over 30 years.  These journeys continued after my mother and I moved back to Canada in 2001. He would spend a month with us each Christmas.  

He loved it, and on returning to Botswana he would brag about the six feet of snow and our -40 degree temperatures that he has experienced. 

The reality is that he never went outside – he would simply admire this winter wonderland from the comfort of our centrally- heated living room made excessively hot by our  wood burning fire place.

He wasn’t an average father. To begin with, we were his second family and he was far older than my friend’s fathers. 

I was often envious of my older brothers because he had been so much younger during their childhood. However, there were advantages.   He had a lifetime of experiences to pass on to me.  He

taught me about justice and equality. He gave me a passion for learning and a desire to make life meaningful. He taught me about resiliency and the efforts one must go to in order to remain strong during hard times.

Soon after his memory started to deteriorate, he was invited in 2010 to Germany to attend a conference honouring all the Right Livelihood Award recipients.

The award is described as the alternative Nobel Prize and Dad had been one of the first awardees in 1981 for “developing replicable educational models for the third world majority.” Not wanting him to make the visit on his own, I flew from Canada and joined him in Bonn where we spent a difficult week together. He was already ill and needed a lot of support. 

It was during this trip that I recognised how scared and unsure he had become.  I was so glad that I was there and able to hold his hand and give him support through what was clearly a challenging time.   For the first time, as with so many parent/child relationships, our roles were reversed. His vulnerability brought us closer, and I could only imagine the panic that hid behind that normally confident veneer.

His mind was starting to fail and he could no longer depend on that prodigious memory that had served him so well in the past.  His vulnerability reminded me of my own. When I was 19 years of age, the stresses of school had brought on a series of panic attacks and constant anxiety.  My mother, with her protestant work ethic, had urged me to soldier on.  My father, whom I had expected would be intimidated by neurosis, gave me a poem by Gerald Manley Hopkins. The poem spoke of a ship weathering a merciless storm. 

The ship eventually reached shore with extensive damage, but it had braved the volatility and unpredictability of its environment – and survived. I often thought about the storms my father had endured, and I was eternally grateful for his guidance throughout my own.  Dad was 85 when he passed away.

By then, he had lived a long and productive life and his passing shouldn’t have come as a shock.  But it was an enormous one. I am still reeling from its impact.    However, in those moments of greatest despair and grief, I remember his wicked sense of humour, his adoring eyes, his support, his intellect, his complex spirit, his confidence and boldness, his insecurities  …and then I remember how fortunate I was to have him as my father.

*Joanna Forbes is the late Patrick Van Rensburg’s daughter  and a teacher at Westwood International School

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