Tuesday, October 19, 2021

Not everyone saw UBLS as a wise investment

At its annual general meeting on November 5 at the University of Botswana, alumni of the University of Botswana, Lesotho and Swaziland (UBLS) had a whole day to relive what has been touted as a glorious past.

In an era when Botswana was dirt-poor, it made perfect sense to pool resources with Lesotho and Swaziland to create a university system known as UBLS in 1964. The UBLS campus was in Roma, Lesotho and it was here that Batswana students were educated. A year later, a South African refugee called Patrick van Rensburg started Swaneng Hill School in Serowe. Van Rensburg did an excellent job of mobilizing resources for the new school from the international community and one of the people he brought onboard as a teacher and Vice Principal was Sheila Bagnall from the United Kingdom. Bagnall recorded her experiences in this part of the world in letters that she wrote to friends back home in the UK. That collection of letters now forms a book called “Letters from Botswana: 1966-1974” which was edited by historian and newspaper columnist, Sandy Grant.

This is what Bagnall recorded about her visit to the UBLS campus on June 29, 1968: “Roma as a university was disappointing. Its setting is marvellous, its buildings are mellow sand stone and its appointments luxurious. But this is all wrong ÔÇô every penny should go on something contributing more directly to education, and the university should be in the capital instead of 22 tortuous miles away, so that various specialists on the academic staff could act in advisory capacities to the Ministries and the extension resources of the University could be better used. The vast campus, with its huge library and halls of residence, houses only 300 students and it is in use for only over six months of the year. In other words, a truly British pattern is being used, whereas the American system would probably be much better suited to local needs. Roma is bedeviled by staff who, as expatriates, trot off to England for six months every two years. It costs Botswana more to send a student to Roma than to England for further education.”

Two months earlier, Bagnall had caught a ride from Mochudi to Gaborone with Ken Pascoe, a Ministry of Education official who told her that “Botswana pays ┬ú63 000 a year to UBLS for the privilege of sending 30-4- students there.” Her observation was that these students “could be educated abroad more cheaply and more efficiently, I should think.”

UBLS unravelled in 1975 when Lesotho’s Prime Minister, Leabua Jonathan decided to nationalise the university without doing so much as consult partners in the joint project. Jonathan’s unilateral decision effectively meant that Batswana and Swati students were debarred from UBLS. This move would force Botswana and Swaziland to establish their own universities. That is how UB came about.

Bagnall was more than qualified to make this sort of analysis she makes. Alongside Van Rensburg, she turned Swaneng into an international model of excellence, unparalleled not just in Africa but in much of the Third World. Then Swaneng attracted volunteer teachers from elite world-class universities like Harvard, Yale and Oxford. With a strong vocational education component, the Swaneng of this time produced likes of the Minister of International Affairs and Cooperation, Pelonomi Venson-Moitoi and the late Moses Lekaukau who held several high-profile posts in both the public sector and parastatal organisations. The school also enjoyed exalted status among black Rhodesians some of whom went on to hold high positions in independent Zimbabwe.

“Outside Swaneng, everyone thinks that secondary and further education automatically means a high standard of living, a white-collar job in the Ministry, a house in the suburbs of the capital and a lofty disdain for all who don’t attain such glories,” Bagnall observed with regard to what UBLS was doing.

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