Acceptance speech – Patrick van Rensburg

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

I would like, first of all, to thank Jakob von Uexkull and the Right Livelihood Foundation for this award to me. I must say that I’m very very glad that this comes to me in Sweden because I’ve had long associations in my work with people in Sweden. In 1962 when I began my work in building Swaneng Hill School, I received support from SIDA at a very early stage, and that continues. I want to record the fact that there are imaginative people within the aid administration who are interested in the development of alternatives and are willing to give support. I would also like to record my thanks to the Dag Hammarskjöld Foundation for support over many many years for the work I have done, and also for involving me in larger networks of people all over the world engaged in the search for meaningful development.

In the note on the presentation of this prize to me, you make reference to the fact that I am a South African exile. Behind that story there was for me a long painful process. I’m sure not many of you know what it means to be born into a society which inverts all values and stands them on their head, which brings you up to believe in the superiority of one race over another, which brings you up warning you that after a certain age you do not play with black children, Indian children or coloured children. You are born into that society and the way it brings you up leaves you with little choice.

I was born into a very ordinary South African family that believed in the virtue of racism. How do you disengage from that? You live in schools and in a society in which you pursue your ordinary ambitions as other men do. I did as well as I could in my schooling. I became a civil servant after leaving school. I studied in the evenings and I was very happy to be transferred to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. There were little question marks in my head as I grew up, but finally I became a representative of a racist regime and I had the task of having to defend policies that the rest of the world knew to be oppressive and evil, but which we had been brought up to believe was just the way that life was. It was a long bitter process for me to clear from the dark corners of my mind all the residues of a very evil system that gets deep into your soul.

It was the beginning of the work I’m doing now. Not because I went into it with a guilt complex or because I’m trying to atone for the past. But because it gave me a very clear insight as I struggled to understand the sources of injustice. When one tried to defend the herding of people into small pieces of land, as it is being done now in the bantustans, one realised that what was being created were vast reservoirs of labour in which people were dependent on migrancy, in which they were to be controlled no longer by the white police forces and the white army but by puppet regimes, puppet soldiers, puppet police, who would shoot their own people because they had been given privileges within those boundaries, so they would stand guard. They had become the masters and the agents of this order.

I resigned, I returned to South Africa and I eventually joined what was called the Liberal Party. It believed at least in one man, one vote, and I struggled within it and ran into difficulties, harassment by the police. I went abroad and helped to promote the boycott campaign in 1960. I tried to return home and there was then an emergency and many thousands of people were arrested. I came back to a situation of great hostility for having participated in a boycott campaign abroad. I was considered a traitor and I went underground and wasn’t discovered. But the Liberals felt that it was dangerous to try to hide me and they took me to Swaziland, so this long process of exile of nearly twenty-two years began.

I went to Bechuanaland, as it was then in 1962, because I didn’t like living the life of a political exile, and I began this work of education. Not having any special experience of education or qualifications as an educator, it was simply a recognition that education, as I saw it then, was a necessary tool of development. The Bechuanaland of those days had six secondary schools and something like 15% of those who left primary school went on to secondary school. For the rest there was nothing to do. So it did seem then that what one ought to do, if possible, was to try to create in those people, who were fortunate enough to get an education, a sense of responsibility for the development of the society as a whole, and we tried to introduce measures into our secondary schools to achieve this.

First of all, we evolved a course in development studies which was an attempt to analyse social development historically, and in countries like Botswana, to present choices and options that people could take, also to give them skills, practical skills in building, and to involve them in the building of their own school. We had quite a lot of success and managed to develop three secondary schools. The initial response and participation of people in those schools was very encouraging to us, because the more response we had, the more we were able to contribute to that process ourselves.

But over the years we had a certain resistance: the young people felt that the courses which we were offering were taking time from the conventional courses they would need to pass their examinations. They resented the involvement in the voluntary labour with which we were constructing the school. We had in the meantime initiated another programme, something we called the ‘Brigades’, because we recognized that the problems we were dealing with were economic. There were not the resources to train and educate everybody who wanted schooling and the extent to which we could involve people in the building of their own school or running of the school, in providing their own food, in making their own equipment, their own furniture, the extent to which we could do that, was the extent to which we saved resources and were able to use the resources we saved for expansion. The Brigades built on this principle by producing goods and services which yielded a considerable amount of money, enabling us to pay teachers, to pay instructors, in other words, to develop a model which involved people’s participation in their education and training.

We did encounter many difficulties. We had many strikes by the students in these different types of programmes, resentment of the time spent in this work, resentment of the fact that the food which they received was not as good as in the main system. In other words, we had the main system, the ordinary system of education, and we were trying to develop an alternative. The problem about the main system was that it used the scarce resources of poor countries to give a very high standard of education to a few, at the neglect of the great majority. This great majority could only be mobilised through their own activity and they became resentful because they compared themselves with those who were better off.

We tried with our development studies to equip people with an analysis, so they could say, “We understand the workings of the society; we see this is why it is; we will become critical of the formal systems of the society.” The problem then became political, because here was a confrontation between the alternative and the main system. It led me to make an analysis of the formal systems of education and to withdraw from the secondary school which I had started to concentrate my energies on the development of the Brigades as an alternative to try to increase production.

Again we encountered the problems that emerged from the way that society developed as a whole. In the early days Botswana seemed to be a very poor, arid country dependent on cattle, and from the government there was some support for our system because it also helped them to solve their problems. But in the late sixties and early seventies mineral developments began to take place. The country was richer than we thought and the resources enabled a much better concentration on the formal systems but still to the neglect of the great majority. The great majority were still not going to school and couldn’t find work.

What I’m trying to stress is that the alternatives are absolutely essential in the Third World, to the training of people and the provision of work. We are all locked into an international economic order in which the people who rule in the industrialised world and those who rule in the Third World are in a sense accomplices and rivals. But we in the Third World are part of the system in which resources are exploited, in which we have monoculture, the culture of one crop economies, these are exported and enclaves are created in each of these countries in order to support exports to the industrialised countries and imports into the Third World countries. Supporting these enclaves are these educational systems mainly designed to train people for the civil service or people who are able to find high level technical jobs in the industries.

The alternative must do something else. It must be able to make people creative, not simply work seekers within the enclave economies. It must enable them to develop with their own skills and energies the agricultural resources of the country. It must enable them to take part in small‑scale industrial development, it must enable them to use alternative technology, to develop systems and models of development which mobilise people on their own, in a self‑reliant way, into satisfying first of all the basic needs and then from there on to produce for the satisfaction of other needs.

We need, for instance, an educational system that is linked fully into society and all its activities, recognising that education is not a separate category which takes place in schools, which is highly verbalised, very theoretical, very abstract in its measures. But that it is linked up to all other development, and I think that was the key lesson that I learned in the early days of this schooling: that the best way of learning is to involve people in the real activities which underlie all the concepts they are learning about.

We found that there were economic benefits to linking education and work, there were social benefits and there were very real pedagogical benefits. Through the involvement in production with the teachers and instructors we were able to create infrastructures, we were able to build roads, factories, workshops, farms. We were able to build goods and services which were not previously available. The involvement of the young people in this process was a real involvement in the development of their society. If we think about health, we shouldn’t be thinking only about hospitals, because health begins with good nutrition, clean water supplies, sewage disposal those are the things that are missing.

When we belong to a world order which is dominated by one part of the world, and dominated by small groups within that part of the world, we have to think about the impact of this order on the Third World societies where people are reduced to conditions of tremendous poverty, a poverty which is both material and spiritual because it is the material poverty that deprives them of dignity. It has destroyed them, it has destroyed already the social systems, the integrated social systems, in which they lived previously. It has made them dependent, dependent on migrant work, dependent on the control which takes place basically outside their own societies.

The lessons that I learned in South Africa, the rejection of racism, a dedication to opposing racism, remain always with me. But having lived in Botswana I have discovered that there are injustices perpetrated also within nations and races that have nothing to do with racism itself, and I have come to see that there are deeper underlying social causes. It isn’t possible to say that we would like to have some more benign form of capitalism in South Africa, free of racism, because in that manifestation of capitalism, racism is actually inherent. The whole system of migrant labour is built upon exploitation of people.

The creation of the bantustans wasn’t only an act of the racist but began with a need of the mines and the farms to have labour totally at its mercy, which it could regulate, cheap labour, while the wives and children were kept in the reserves so that they would have to feed themselves there. Their employer didn’t even accept that obligation. He simply fed the men and paid them enough to survive on, and they returned at the end of the contract to ensure that they never thought that they would belong to the place where they worked, but their homes lay somewhere else.

One wonders as one struggles with changes in education: why does one encounter resistance? The problem is that if you have a formal system, like the school system, it is serving an existing social system. You cannot change it in isolation. The changing of consciousness is a total crisis that involves everything that is happening around us. It involves how we are born, the material conditions of our society.

I began to feel that education combined with production was important as a lever for change, because by involving people in production, by involving them in creating resources which helped to sustain their own education programmes, one was linking the school with society. One wanted them to be involved not only in production, in selling the things they made, in building within the community, but also in the social and cultural activities of society.

To me, the important element of this linkage is that we learn best what we do practically. If we simply are learning concepts we must remember that those concepts reflect social realities and the more we are able to engage in those realities, to be involved in them, the better we understand the concepts. In countries like Botswana, especially in the rural areas, in the schools we are trying to present all sorts of new concepts, in science and in mathematics, which are not actually reflected in the social practices of the society. The extent to which we are able to involve people in production, in the new social practices like the attempt to set up co‑operatives and collective action, the more we can do that, the better we are able to present a theory which explains and interprets those practices.

Today, I am the director of a foundation for education with production because I see this linkage as the corner‑stone of a broader conception of education, linking theory and practice, learners and teachers with the activities of the community. It is important that all young people who are involved in this learn also about the processes of management. In this new conception of education, people should develop themselves as fully as they can, mentally, have all modern knowledge available to them, but also have technical skills. They should understand the processes of production and how society has developed.

Our work in Botswana has had its ups and downs. We have at least developed educational alternatives which in one place, the place where I worked in Serowe, trained 400 young people in thirty‑five different skills. We produced milk and eggs and vegetables, we were able to produce cooking oil, we built houses, we could repair engines, we were able to produce clothes and we had printing presses. There was a wide range of activities which meant that the young people were engaged in a process of development which also changed them, and was an essential part of their education.

We see the process of linking education with production as a part of the whole process of social, economic and political development itself. It is essential that, in moving away from other models of development, from copies that are taken straight from the industrial societies that we should give people the where‑with‑all to understand the problems of their society and to be able to do something about them. I feel that this kind of development is important, not only to the Third World. As we see in the industrialised world more and more young people unemployed (in Britain half the school‑leavers now cannot find work), we recognise that the solutions to these problems lie within education as much as they lie within society.

The kind of education systems that we have, have been foisted on society by the nature and demands of the social arrangements and the economic order. As we begin to change these systems, we operate levers that can bring about social change also. Of course, it’s very risky to undertake alternatives, because when one is trying to bring about changes there are always dangers, mistakes, sometimes failures. The important thing is to realise that the changing of society is a process involving a change of consciousness and if our activities, our movements, our alternatives are rooted in broader trends for social change, then they illuminate that process, they guide that process and they help that process.

The more we understand those processes, the more we ourselves are transformed. It’s an interacting process of consciousness being raised and of people, through this new consciousness, being able to change the processes and development of society. Nowhere is this clearer than in the liberation movements of South Africa to which I have been giving some small support over the years. The example of Zimbabwe, where our foundation is now operating, is a good one to illustrate the principle that I have been talking about.

There were 30,000 young people who left Rhodesia to go to Mozambique, supporting Zanu, the party of Robert Mugabe, so the liberation movements were forced to develop some activities which would be able to educate them, they were forced to build schools, using the labour of the young people, they were forced by their circumstances to involve the young people in feeding themselves, so that within the struggle new ideas were born, new systems have developed. Now that they have returned to Zimbabwe, those young people have been brought back and not simply given the rewards of their struggle, not simply put into the white schools, the luxurious schools that still exist. For they were prepared to accept that they should be the vanguard of a new system of education which we hope to develop.

The essence of what I’m saying, is that, the more we can involve the ordinary people, who themselves then understand the processes and are able to continue with them, the greater chance we have of making sure that we create alternatives which will feed people, which will clothe people, which will house people, which will ensure their good health. All these strands of development in which they are involved are essentially the educational process.

Thank you very much.

Foundation for Education with Production
PO Box 53565, Troyville
2139 Johannesburg
Foundation for Education with Production
PO Box 20906