'Radical educationist' Patrick van Rensburg: A rebel with a cause

03 August 2020 - 13:53
'Patrick van Rensburg: Rebel, Visionary and Radical Educationist' by Kevin Shillington.
'Patrick van Rensburg: Rebel, Visionary and Radical Educationist' by Kevin Shillington.
Image: Supplied

Patrick van Rensburg’s philosophies and projects were beneficial, stimulating our thinking and urging us to reshape Botswana’s education. He shook our ideas. Kevin Shillington is to be commended for bringing his story to a wide audience. This book should be read by anyone interested in education, as Pat’s Education with Production model is relevant to the whole education ladder, from early childhood through to university. — Gaositwe K. T. Chiepe, educationist and politician, minister of education, Botswana, 1995–1999

Patrick van Rensburg (1931–2017) was an anti-apartheid activist and self-made “alternative educationist” whose work received international recognition with the Right Livelihood Award in 1981.

Born in KwaZulu-Natal into what he described as “a very ordinary South African family that believed in the virtue of racism”, Van Rensburg was to become a rebel with several causes. In his case they were, initially, the fight against apartheid and, later, a unique contribution to education, which, as he would tell his audience when he accepted the prestigious Right Livelihood Award, “as I saw it then, was a necessary tool of development”.

Exiled from SA because of his involvement in the boycott campaign in London that gave birth to the anti-apartheid movement, Van Rensburg went to Serowe in Botswana (then Bechuanaland), where he founded co-operatives, provided vocational training and was one of the earliest people to espouse the discipline of development studies.

Perhaps his best-known legacies were Swaneng Hill School, in which he involved his pupils in building their school, running it, providing their own food and making their own equipment and furniture, and “brigades” to provide an educational home for primary school “dropouts” through a curriculum that combined theory and practice, mental and manual labour.

This sensitive and compelling biography does justice to a giant of a man, controversial throughout his life but undeniably a hero.