Philippus Laurens Steenkamp (May 6, 1932-May 8, 2014) is remembered for his distinguished record of public service that culminated in his tenure as this country’s second Permanent Secretary to the President (1974-82).
Born in Kenya, the Steenkamp first came to Botswana in January 1955 when he was appointed to the then colonial administration after graduating with a BA and LLB from the University of Natal. Prior to independence he worked in various senior posts in Lobatse, Ghanzi and Francistown, as well as at the Protectorate’s then administrative headquarters in Mafikeng.
As the District Commissioner for Lobatse (1960) and Francistown (1963-64) in particular, he played a leading role in ensuring the safety of political refugees who were under threat from the apartheid regime, including the MK fugitives Harold Wolpe and Arthur Goldreich who he hid in the Francistown jail.
The late ANC/MK coordinator Fish Keitseng would later recall that: “When refugees would come we would report to his [Steenkamp’s] house rather than at the office because it was safer. The enemy had many agents, and Steenkamp knew how to avoid them.”
At independence Steenkamp elected to take citizenship and remain in the public service. In 1967 he became Permanent Secretary at the Ministry of Home Affairs, where he played a leading role in establishing Information and Broadcasting services. The ministry was also then responsible for the police and border control among other things.
Thereafter Mr. Steenkamp joined the Office of the President as Administrative Secretary prior to his appointment by Sir Seretse Khama as Permanent Secretary to the President, succeeding Archie Mogwe.
Mr. Steenkamp retired from the civil service in 1982 and was subsequently active in the private sector. In all of his activities colleagues recall that the late Mr. Steenkamp as no nonsense professional who was consistently fair in his dealings. He is also remembered for his tireless insistence that the public service be results oriented, while remaining free of corruption.
This week we continue our look at the life of Patrick van Rensburg (1931- 2017). We left off in 1959 with his becoming the “first director” of the European campaign to boycott South African goods while temporarily resident in the UK.
In this context he had successfully pushed the leadership of the Liberal Party to join hands with the ANC and its Congress Alliance partners in embracing the international boycott movement as one way in which the world at large could ‘bring home to the South African authorities that they must either mend their ways or suffer for them’.
Back in South Africa, there was popular outrage directed at Van Rensburg, particularly from amongst fellow Afrikaners. The Die Vaderland newspaper labelled him a ‘slangmens’ or ‘snake-person’. Rank and file members of the Liberal Party itself remained divided as to whether to support Van Rensburg’s call for boycott or not.
Upon returning to South Africa, Van Rensburg’s passport was confiscated and, following the Sharpeville massacre, with his own life under threat, he once more left his country. On March 30, 1960 he found political asylum in Swaziland, where he joined other exiles including Adelaide Tambo and the veteran Communist leader Sam Kahn.
Initially he had hoped that his stay in the kingdom would be short, but as the political crackdown within South Africa gathered momentum in became clear that his fate was now long-term exile.
After a frustrating few months Van Rensburg found a lifeline in then collective efforts, spearheaded by Canon Collins Defence and Aid Fund in collaboration with the ANC, to set up an aerial refugee pipeline to Ghana via Bechuanaland.
This effort followed the troubled but successful April 1960 transit of Oliver Tambo and others to safety via Serowe. Thereafter, with the security of prominent refugees in Swaziland being seen as increasingly problematic their evacuation became a priority.
An initial agent on the ground was George Clay, a South African correspondent for the British Observer newspaper and later the US broadcaster NBC, who is credited with recruiting from Southern Rhodesia a celebrated German Namibian pilot named Herbert Batuane, who would go on to set up a Lobatse based air service to facilitate airlifts out of the High Commission Territories (to be continued)
This week we continue our look at the life of Patrick van Rensburg (1931- 2017), with him as a young South African diplomat serving as Vice-Consul in Leopoldville (now Kinshasa), in the then Belgian Congo.
It was there that in in May of 1957, he broke ranks by resigning from the civil service in protest against the Apartheid policies of his government. At the time his Afrikaans surname added to the news value of his stance.
Back home Van Rensburg joined the Liberal Party, then a leading political organisation, alongside the by then banned Communists and Congress of Democrats, organising white South African opposition to Apartheid. In September 1958 he became the party’s organizing secretary in Transvaal.
Thereafter he was in the forefront with individuals like Patrick Duncan, in driving the organisation into an increasingly militant direction that culminated in its banning as well as the ultimate participation by some of its members in the emerging armed struggle.
Initially Van Rensburg focused on trying to turn young Afrikaners away from Apartheid. When in 1957 the ANC leader Albert Luthuli was banned for five years under the Suppression of Communism Act, he spearheaded a protest meeting at the steps of Johannesburg Library. Thereafter he frequently joined hands with ANC leaders such as Robert Resha in trying to organise Afrikaner students.
Van Rensburg moved to Britain in mid-1959 and became the “first director” of the campaign to boycott South African goods in Britain and the Netherlands which preceded the Anti-Apartheid Movement. The first edition of Boycott News carried the headline ‘A Direct Appeal from South Africa’. In November 1959 Patrick van Rensburg had written to Chief Lutuli asking him to send a statement calling ‘freshly and clearly’ for a boycott.
The Liberal Party had been split on the issue, but in November the Party’s National Committee passed a resolution approving the boycott ‘both here and overseas, as a legitimate political weapon’.
Thus the message carried in Boycott News was signed jointly by three ANC and Indian Congress leaders Lutuli and Dr G. M. Naicker, along with the Liberal Party National Chairman Peter Brown. It said that an economic boycott was one way in which the world at large could ‘bring home to the South African authorities that they must either mend their ways or suffer for them’.
This past week marked the anniversary of the passing Patrick van Rensburg (3/12/1931 – 23/5/2017). In life he was one of the founders of modern Botswana, a hero in the struggle against Apartheid, and through the work of his Foundation for Education with Production (FEP) became an internationally as well as domestically recognised pioneer of alternative education systems.
Locally, he was a principal founder of the Brigades movement in the Central District, which among other things gave rise to various rural production units and cooperatives, three secondary schools and the Mmegi newspaper. He was also politically active for many years as a member of the BNF.
While the fact that Van Rensburg came to Botswana as a South African political exile is generally well known, what is perhaps more obscure, at least to younger generations, is the circumstances that brought him here. From an early age issues of his own identity in a divided and unjust society surrounded him.
Patrick van Rensburg was born in Durban in December 1931. His parents separated when he was young and he was raised by his grandmother, who was an Afrikaner who had married a Frenchman from Mauritius named Lagesse.
His grandmother had also survived incarceration in a British concentration camp during the Anglo-Boer War. She subsequently accepted the Roman Catholic faith of her husband, resulting in young Patrick being brought up as a Catholic and speaking English in the home, while using the Lagesse surname.
It the above context he would maintain that it was only in his later teen years that it dawned upon him that he was an Afrikaner. After his studies he joined the civil service and started to further appreciate the ambiguous historic role of Afrikaner resistance to, and collaboration with, the forces of British imperialism.
But, unlike most of his peers his sense of injustice soon evolved beyond his own tribe to take in a broader view of the repressive role played by global capitalism in imperialism’s racial and economic subjugation of Southern African society as a whole (to be continued).