Patrick van Rensburg

Awarded 1981

South Africa

For developing replicable educational models for the third world majority.

Patrick van Rensburg (1931-2017) was a South African anti-apartheid activist and educator who pioneered alternative education systems. Born in South Africa, he originally served as a civil servant and a foreign diplomat abroad. However, shocked by the apartheid policies, he resigned and joined the opposition party—a choice that brought him to work for the campaign to boycott South African goods and eventually led him into exile.

In Botswana, he founded a more affordable, alternative school system where students were encouraged to apply the knowledge and skills they acquired to socially productive work. After returning to South Africa in the 1990s, he actively spread the concept and practice of education with production in several forms. The premise of this concept was that education should be viewed as the cornerstone of community development.

The alternatives are absolutely essential in the Third World, to the training of people and the provision of work.

Patrick van Rensburg, 1981 Laureate

A voice against apartheid

Born in South Africa, Patrick van Rensburg initially served as a civil servant and foreign diplomat abroad. However, shocked by the apartheid policies, he resigned from his post as South African Vice-Consul in the Belgian Congo in 1957. He subsequently joined the Liberal Party of South Africa. During a private trip to Britain, he became closely involved with the campaign to boycott South African goods, which preceded the Anti-Apartheid Movement. Returning to South Africa his passport was confiscated and after the Sharpeville shootings, he was forced to flee the country.

After a brief period in Britain, where he wrote and published Guilty Land, van Rensburg relocated to Bechuanaland, now Botswana, of which he became a citizen in 1973. There, he founded the Swaneng Hill School and, following its success, two other schools in association with the Botswana government, as well as the Swaneng Consumers Cooperative and the Brigades Movement.

Van Rensburg's education approach was radically different from traditional practices. His schools were seen as a centre of development and thereby of better learning. The curriculum included practical subjects like agriculture, building, carpentry, metalwork, technical drawing and typing. He introduced a new academic subject matter, development studies, where all students were encouraged to apply the knowledge and skills they acquired in socially useful productive work.

The Brigades Movement was composed of vocational training institutions that played a crucial role in providing skills training and education. In an effort to lower the cost of education and bring schools within the reach of ordinary people, the Brigades produced goods and services for themselves and for public sale. Van Rensburg's experience with the schools and Brigades through the 1970s led to him establishing the Foundation for Education with Production (FEP) in 1980.

Alternative models for education

The FEP sought to create a new blend of theory and practice in education to spread internationally. The Foundation 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 as the Caribbean - that involved Ministries of Education, liberation movements, non-governmental organisations, teachers' institutions and the private sector. FEP also published a journal and occasional papers, as well as engaged in and promoted research.

The Foundation later shifted its focus to two key areas. Firstly, it aimed to identify suitable production and socially beneficial activities to integrate into education. Secondly, it aimed to develop relevant curriculum content for subjects like Cultural Studies, Development Studies, Environmental and Social Studies, Language in Use, Applied Mathematics and Applied Science and Technology. The Foundation made arrangements with reputable certification institutions to assess and examine these subjects. FEP also published textbooks and provided training to teachers in the subjects being offered.

In the mid-1980s, van Rensburg revived a newspaper and turned it into what became a successful and widely-read national weekly, Mmegi (The Reporter). Around 1990, he returned to South Africa, where he was active in propagating the concept and practice of education with production in several forms. All these activities were rooted in FEP's core approach to education: training and production as a cornerstone of community development.

Von Rensburg passed away in Botswana on May 23, 2017.

In 2020, Kevin Shillington, published the biography Patrick van Rensburg – rebel, visionary and radical educationist (Wits University Press).

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