Afrikaner cleric who refused apartheid is lauded in South Africa

By Ecumenical News International
June 24, 2010

The Rev Nico Smith, one of a small band of Afrikaner clerics who bucked the apartheid system by choosing to live in a black township, has died in Pretoria, the capital of South Africa - writes Hans Pienaar.

Smith was best-known for leaving a theological teaching post at Stellenbosch University, the then academic seat of Afrikaner power, to join the black offshoot of the 'State Church' the Nederduitse Gereformeerde Kerk (Dutch Reformed Church) or the NGK as it is also known.

In 1985, [he] and his doctor wife Ellen, moved from their home in Pretoria, to live in Mamelodi to be close to their blacks-only Nederduits Gereformeerde Kerk in Africa congregation.

Smith was 81 when he died on 19 June 2010. He is being lauded since his death from heart failure while attending a friend's birthday celebration. Recently Smith upbraided fellow Afrikaners for not accepting black African government as irreversible.

At Grand Rapids in the United States, delegates to the Uniting General Council of the World Communion of Reformed Churches held a moment's silence on 21 June to remember Smith. The communion's General Secretary, the Rev Setri Nyomi, praised Smith as "one who has stood strong as a prophet in the time of apartheid".

In 1982, the World Alliance of Reformed Churches, one of two bodies that formed the communion, denounced apartheid as heresy, suspending two white member churches from South Africa because of the theological and biblical backing they gave for the system of white domination under which the country was governed from 1948 until the early 1990s.

The Los Angeles Times newspaper wrote in 1986, "'Aren't you afraid?' is the first question whites ask," Smith told The Times. "White fear is one of the great barriers to understanding and progress in this country .... But over the past two years there has been an increasing realisation by whites of the depth and the degree of black anger."

Jackson Mthembu, spokesperson for South Africa's ruling African National Congress party, said, "We pay homage to this gallant fighter and will forever treasure the contribution he made in the struggle for liberation and the building of our democracy." He added, "He fought …for all of us to achieve the freedoms we now enjoy."

Afrikaner leaders who might once have shunned Smith, praised him for his stand through the decades, calling him the "nagging conscience" of his people. His former church, now in trying to amalgamate with other NGK offshoots in the Uniting Reformed Church in Africa, said Smith "never remained silent when injustices were committed against black people".

In a letter to the Smith family, it wrote that he was prepared "to relinquish white Afrikaner privilege and to be ridiculed, humiliated and vilified together with black South Africans. He also took the side of the oppressed even if that meant that he would be rejected by his own people". Smith was a "true African Afrikaner", the letter said.

The NGK said Smith "would not be stopped by the devil if he was convinced that he was right".

Smith's first act of resistance was to label apartheid a sin in the late 1970s, when the racist ideology was at its height. For that he was forced to resign from the NGK in 1981, after which he joined its black off-shoot.

In 1985 he organised a delegation of clerics to visit the then banned African National Congress in Lusaka, Zambia. The trip was cancelled after death threats against the participants.

He then launched the Koinoinia, aimed at bringing blacks and whites together and started the Melodi ya Tshwane nonracial congregation in Bosman Street in the centre of Pretoria.

In 1990, as Koinonia director and chairperson of the Pretoria Council of Churches, Smith called for an investigation into death squad activities after the killings of Mamelodi township doctor, Fabian Ribeiro and his wife Florence, and political activist Stanza Bopape. This call helped provide impetus towards the launch of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission in 1995.

Smith wrote several books, including an exposé of the secret Afrikaner Broederbond society, of which he had been a member before resigning. He had earlier in 2010 completed his latest, a memoir he produced from his photographic powers of recall. Witnesses said his last words were, "Life is but a memory", when he collapsed at Pretoria’s botanical gardens.

Smith leaves his wife, Ellen, three daughters and five grandchildren.

[With acknowledgements to ENI. Ecumenical News International is jointly sponsored by the World Council of Churches, the Lutheran World Federation, the World Alliance of Reformed Churches and the Conference of European Churches.]

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