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Van Rensburg: Homage to the life and spirit

Patrick van Rensburg: Rebel, visionary and radical educationist – a biography by Kevin Shillington, ISBN: 9781776146048
Professor Kevin Shillington’s Patrick van Rensburg: Rebel Visionary and Radical Educationist – is a Biography published by Wits University Press in 2020. The book is available in leading bookstores as well as in eBook format.

My review follows closely on the tracks of another review by Fred Morton in the Mmegi of September 4, 2020. Morton’s review dealt with the surface thematic issues of the publication and opens space for me to engage more with issues germane that the memorial hints to, highlights or underscores. It perhaps deals with the way the author goes about the enterprise of his representation. From the point of view of witness, I vouchsafe that van Rensburg breathes through this 354-paged biography. It is a verifiable collection of life.  Stories that have so been felicitously rendered. I also write to attest generally that the biography lives up to its claim as a diligent portraiture and a depiction of a life, one that has been sensitively and accurately rendered too, to the point of exact detail. I believe the biography is a befitting homage to the life and spirit of Patrick van Rensburg, and a token of solace to those closest to him; a celebration of the life of Patrick van Rensburg even. And Pat was many a things to many people. As a work of art, the biography is certainly the story of the life of a great man that van Rensburg was. A workaholic devoted to doing for others. It is a first of its kind, in-depth, in magnitude and in the sense of its artistic distance, a first in the recent annuls of Botswana to be written at the end of a rich life albeit carefully with a sense of learned disinterested interest.

The biography reflects its subject matter as an unfortunate godsend that arrived slightly before its time. To the neo-colonial leadership of the country that was Bechuanaland of his time. Van Rensburg was the proverbial ‘margarita au porko!’ pearl on the neck of swine, hence his appellation by the first president at one time as “the purveyor of our youth”. His valuable contributions went unheeded or less taken advantage of, though they were technologically sound and appropriate at the level of leadership. This, precisely because he was the man that he was an innovator; an inventor of systems; and this was a fact that made lesser men tremble with fear, impotence and just a sense of inadequacy.

Van Rensburg would coolly take the bull by its horns. Yet, he was overall a surefooted innovator and a diplomat, a great spokesperson for his ideas and networker that could source both audience for his endless visions and their finance. Because it is portraiture of a man whose experience was larger than life, one must invariably provoke the question of ‘is that all?’

Or was that all that was significant about the life of this man? More books await us in the wake of his departure.  As a work of interpretation and representation it joins the shelves and takes a pride of place and an articulative space, as a robust portraiture of the life of a man of great stature and personal warmth.

His relationship with both colleagues and people who came to him for guidance and example testifies to that effect.

Shillington’s portraiture reflects well the man I came to know, to like even, if not to try to emulate, right through the years of secondary education. He appeared to me as a towering colossus, a practical revolutionary, one I admired and revered since, and at certain points could not resist the temptation to directly work for. Pat, as we simply called him around Mmegi offices [then at Dikgang Publishing Company, Segogwane Way], was the semblance of the Chinese sage who teaches men how to fish rather than give them fish for when they hungered.

The gift of fishing skill was also an explosion of consciousness. It was this explosion of consciousness that troubled authorities and made them shy away. Around van Rensburg’s Swaneng Hill Brigade, there had developed a formidable force of self-conscious graduates.

At personal level, van Rensburg was essentially a warm person, who enjoyed laughter and loved life in a generous way. He worked and partied hard. Every Thursday, while the paper was en-route to Serowe for printing, Pat would gather the senior staff for a braai at his place. He would be keeping tabs on the printing process taking place some 310km away while he would guzzle, taking an inordinate amount of time on each beer and thoroughly savouring it. For him, alcohol seemed to fuel his mind into thoughtfulness rather than dull it in stupor. He would never lose his bearing, ‘kana a thathaekela’, or put his foot where it was not supposed to land. He would drink as he held an impromptu Socratic court   about new projects or affiliations, about the major developments on the newspaper itself or the rest of his projects and the quality of stories the paper was generating, front page stories or pages three and five and the concomitant rise of reader social consciousness. For van Rensburg the paper was never good, but was always getting better. Though each copy was always better than the one that preceded it.

There is plenty evidence that van Rensburg was a vastly well-read man. The people and thinkers he references in the hundreds of his bibliography attests to that. His own references to works of giants of his day, Karl Marx and Hegel, Lenin, Chairman Mao, Frantz Fanon and Fidel Castro all make it into the archaeology that van Rensburg was familiar with.

In a nutshell, the memoirs restate the philosophical and the human dimensions and dispositions of a concatenation that was van Rensburg. It also lays bare the fact that, any one identity is not at all fixed, but is always plural and in the process of becoming. There is never an already made identity.  Yet as the question of traditional identity would suggest, the biography tries to resolve the question of ‘who really was Patrick van Rensburg?’

Supposedly seeking an identity, which preceded its owner, a father figure, but lends in undecidability. To us who came to Pat in Serowe he was a revolutionary thinker, a practical builder of schools and institutions Rraagwe Mothusi and Masego, the builder of schools and institutions we identified with. He was a white man, yes, but one that lived like everybody else, a black life inside an ordinary rondavel in the middle of nowhere, and gained a fulfilling life of botho and self-help, unambiguously. 

But that identity of one who gave up one’s own territory and its society, exile, or refugee unsettlement, remains for anyone a pretty tough passage. And this experience is represented throughout the pages of the biography up to the very last page. All the while denying all claims of identity as a fixed category. By all accounts van Rensburg was neither this nor that, in his life that suited an Afrikaans name bearing Anglophile. Patrick was comfortable equally at home in both cultures. He was, even as an iconic innovator that he was, largely a self-made colossus that sat ill-at-ease with nobility. He was cautious though, for ordinarily van Rensburg could not shut up when his mind was in rebellion.

Many will agree that van Rensburg was a much-liked man, and like many revolutionary thinkers that he either read or emulated, he was ever ready to learn new things and to unlearn old ones, to physically take the lead in the performance of difficult tasks, and to inspire the rest. He was always ready to put theory against practice and often disposed to deriving theory itself, from practice.  Whether it was in matters strictly of pedagogy, or be they matters of combining work, science and building a school that was a continuation of life outside it, with education, the theories (he came to test later in his life) of the educationist thinkers like Paul Frere of The Pedagogy of the Oppressed fame, Antonio Gramsci who tackles both education, economy, and society. Or their kingpin philosopher, Karl Marx who in their different ways tried to interpret and put to practice a theory of Marxism, of capital or of the ‘dictatorship of the proletariat’ from Lenin to Chairman Mao, Fidel Castro to Julius Nyerere

or Maurice Bishop. Pat was always eager to test an idea by its practical application on the ground. He had realised clearly that there was not just one type of society or application of Marxist thinking. He welcomed other comrades with their different understandings of the struggle. Hence he worked with the refugees of both the ANC and the PAC, but never joined either of the two organisations. 

But then again, living and working in Botswana of his day, van Rensburg must have had fears for his own life. The apartheid war machinery was never out of reach. Yet, somehow Pat lived through it all and pursued the best of his ideas. He was in that sense a creature very much of its own time and creation. Since the Boer forces were pervasive, Pat learnt like Chinua Achebe’s bird, to fly without perching. He was everywhere and nowhere all the time – asking this here or explaining that there. He was politically a creature of the ambivalent world of the so-called Cold War that was not always cold, but, particularly in Southern Africa, often translated into hot and bloody generalised commando night raid warfare.  And it was often Pat’s own Mmegi wa Dikgang that conveyed the gruesome details of news of the slain and carried its gory pictures. So then, which of the many Marxist variants or tendency did or could have Patrick van Rensburg exemplified? Was it the Fanonesque variety of uncompromising fight back or the Ghandian pacifist variety?

Patrick van Rensburg who like Frantz Fanon, Ngugi wa Thiong’o and Sembene Ousmane believed that the people were defined by the industry of their own hands, was enchanted by labour and often reserved the hardest for himself. He worked amongst ordinary people inspiring them to greater heights, people who had nothing but the power of their hands. And he set forth to give them self-confidence that their bare hands were designated as a labour reserve and set forth to change their minds to realise that their hands were their best assets. He was a consciousness builder who emphasised an appropriate technology. But here he was often misunderstood for condescension.

In the media circles, van Rensburg was known for original editorials and his furious pen, a writer who had perfect command of the English language and its diction in his daily engagement. Historically he was an archive. He was cogent, passionate and mercilessly eloquent. Producing in his lifetime countless of copy and hundreds of pamphlets, publications and addresses.  Right from his early writing, The Guilty Land, the work established him in the politics of opposition, a politics of the left of the centre. His association and membership of the white liberal politics of South Africa, was a necessary orientation to politics. His initial professional grooming as a diplomat, all went into defining and or shaping the character of the towering innovator. He thought and propounded a theory of education that combined learning with work and oriented the young towards individual autonomy and egalitarian work habits. Patrick van Rensburg himself says he was a friend of another towering intellectual of the country, a colossus and leader of opposition BNF, Kenneth Shololo Goabamong Koma. They shared the ideals of an egalitarian Botswana. Time is still too soon to unravel the kinds of conversations the two men would have had. But their friendship had both its significance and its own symbolic value. Both were known in the parlance of the day as anti-establishment. It was in regard to his association with Koma that van Rensburg earned the ire of Sir Seretse Khama.  It was he Khama, who called Van Rensburg ‘the purveyor of our youth’. Much of the ruling party’s resistance to the progressive ideas of van Rensburg was borne of fears of spread of communism, which the two men were supposed to represent.  The book hints at, but does not pay enough homage to another friendship van Rensburg had with a certain John Conradie, who was for all intents and purposes van Rensburg’s financial manager in the latter part of his life.

On page 134 of the memoir, Shillington reminds us that van Rensburg arrived in Bechuanaland at the very start of the Protectorate’s development into a modern state. And that is a crucial observation. My view, Bechuanaland of the day was a very poor country that inhabits the creative works of Bessie Head – a country of a few rich cattle barons and majority poor. A country suffering from colonial neglect and one entirely steeped in feudal patriarchy consciousness. And that was what Pat had to contend with throughout his various innovations. 

Van Renburg was up against a bourgeoisie consciousness that shunned manual labour. That thought of education as also a progression along a social ladder. For theirs was an elite type education that was largely calculated to distribute privilege   and create infantile dependency. Where the most educated was also one who worked least while the hardest worker was the least prepared for the job. Manual labour was for slaves and the poor dregs of society – nothing to write home about. And the educated elite were educating their young to duplicate their world of privilege. But the story of van Rensburg is also the story of a passionate reformer against old and retrogressive habits. A fighter against sexism in a patriarchy that punished young mothers by throwing them out of school and by extension out of life, just as their infants. 

Some of van Rensburg’s achievements include the creation of not only three self-supporting schools, Swaneng Hill School, Shashe River School in Tonota and Madiba in Mahalapye and the Brigades linked to them, but also a new kind of graduate that took pride in manual labour. It was an occasion for a prosperous cooperatives movement that opened the economy for citizen participation and made millions of pula at the best of times and gave tonic to economy of the largest village in Africa of its day. Van Rensburg activities answered directly a direly needed boost to local production of goods services and basic foodstuffs, fabrics, vegetables, milk tomatoes and peanut butter. And later other services like mechanics and printing created jobs in a village that was otherwise jobless.  But beyond that a production of a new mindset of ‘can dos’.  His contributions saw to an emergence of a new generation of people that took pride in physical hard labour. But that went against the hegemony and sensibilities of a bourgeois capitalising state where exploitation was the norm and a nationalist elite in the process of consolidation.

The biography is therefore a robust addition to the national history as it is in many ways adding to the varied histories of Serowe, Tonota and Mahalapye. Van Rensburg worked to uplift rural life, lessen and reverse the tyranny of city over the country.  His efficacy could also have been the reason for his down fall. Batswana have a saying ‘Poo e bonwa ka marole’ meaning that the worth of a man is what he leaves behind. His institutions grew around him and relied largely on his charisma with donors. He could not groom a number of successors or that many philosophical disciples who could carry on his vision because he could not trust another with power. Or it could be that he centralised critical decision-making and therefore the powerful financial backers he had created. There are of course some notable exceptions, but van Rensburg had far too many people passing through his systems to have created an army if he had fancied the idea. Or was he, just like the countless so many others, a hopeless idealist who wanted to build socialism on the wings of capitalism? Psychoanalytically though, one may ask, whether the indefatigable man has an oedipal persona or whether he is in any way haunted by the ghost of the segregationist policy of apartheid that forced him to flee a land he so loved? Or was he again an unfortunate victim of a feudal patriarchy that in its dying days only identified children by their fathers?

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