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 as 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 were acquiring in socially useful productive work. After going back to South Africa in the 1990s, he was active in spreading the concept and practice of education with production in several forms. The premise of this concept was that a better approach to education was 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 had served as a civil servant and as a foreign diplomat abroad. However, shocked by the apartheid policies, he resigned his post as South African Vice-Consul in the Belgian Congo in 1957. He subsequently joined the Liberal Party of South Africa and became closely involved - during a private trip to Britain - 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 spell in Britain, where he wrote and published Guilty Land, van Rensburg took up residence in 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. His experience with the schools and Brigades through the 1970s led to his establishment of the Foundation for Education with Production (FEP) in 1980.

Alternative models for education

Van Rensburg's education approach was radically different from usual practice. The school was 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. A new academic subject matter was introduced in Development Studies, and all students were encouraged to apply the knowledge and skills they were acquiring in socially useful productive work. In an effort to bring schools within the reach of ordinary people, costs were lowered by the Brigades, which were self-help education and training organisations producing goods and services both for themselves and for public sale to help finance teaching and training.

In building on these early experiences, FEP sought to create a new blend of theory and practice in education, to be spread internationally. The Foundation devised and 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 afield as the Caribbean - that involved Ministries of Education, liberation movements, non-governmental organisations, teachers' institutions and the "world of work." FEP publishes a journal and occasional papers and has engaged in and promoted research.

The Foundation later concentrated on (a) identifying appropriate production and socially useful activities to link to education, and (b) identifying a related body of curriculum content and aims, in such subjects as Cultural Studies, Development Studies, Environmental and Social Studies, Language in Use, Applied Mathematics and Applied Science and Technology. Arrangements to examine these subjects have been concluded with reputable certification institutions, while FEP has also published textbooks and trained teachers in the subjects 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 perception of its 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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