Nico Smith, Minister and Fighter of Apartheid, Dies at 81

Nico Smith, Minister and Fighter of Apartheid, Dies at 81
By DENNIS HEVESI
Sourced from http://www.nytimes.com/2010/06/25/world/africa/25smith.html
Tags: Nico Smith, South Africa, New York Times, heroes
Published: June 24, 2010


The Rev. Nico Smith, a white minister who defied his racist upbringing in South Africa by living in a black township and leading a congregation there while organizing protests against apartheid, died Saturday in Pretoria. He was 81.
The cause was a heart attack, according to a statement by the African National Congress, the South African political party with which he worked closely.
Dr. Smith “sacrificed his well-being and forsook his privileged white status,” the statement said, “to join hands and lead the struggle for the emancipation of black people.”
From 1985 to 1989, some of the most climactic years of the struggle, Dr. Smith and his wife, Ellen, lived in Mamelodi, the main black township outside Pretoria. They were the only South African whites for hundreds of miles to have received official permission to breach a pillar of apartheid called the Group Areas Act, which determined residential areas by race. Dr. Smith had begun preaching in Mamelodi in 1982 as a minister of the Dutch Reformed Church in Africa, a breakaway denomination of the segregationist Dutch Reformed Church.
While a minister there, he regularly demanded inquiries into the killings of anti-apartheid activists. In 1988, he helped organize an effort aimed at racial reconciliation in which, for four days, 170 whites moved in with black families in Mamelodi and 35 blacks lived in the homes of whites in the suburbs of Pretoria.
Despite visits by the police, the families prayed together and shared meals, joining for a barbecue at which — at Dr. Smith’s urging — they sang “Nkosi Sikelele Afrika” (“God Bless Africa”), an anthem of the movement.
The Smiths moved back to a white neighborhood in 1989. After apartheid was dismantled in the early 1990s, Dr. Smith helped build a multiracial congregation in Pretoria.
Nico Smith was born in the rural reaches of the Orange Free State, which had been an independent Boer republic during the 19th century and joined South Africa in 1910. His father was the principal of a school for the children of white farmers.
He was 4 years old, Dr. Smith told The New York Times in 1985, when his mother gave him his first lesson in apartheid: Talk to blacks only when you have an order to give to them. Back then, he said, “blacks were not considered as people, they were just implements.”
After studying in Pretoria, Dr. Smith was ordained by the Dutch Reformed Church, which found scriptural justification for apartheid. He was a member of the elite, secretive Afrikaner fellowship called the Broederbond and taught theology at the University of Stellenbosch.
But in 1963 Dr. Smith met Karl Barth, a renowned German-Swiss theologian, who confronted his racist thinking.
“He said to me, ‘Will you be free to preach the Gospel even if the government in your country tells you that you are preaching against the whole system’ ” of apartheid? Dr. Smith said in the Times article. “That made a deep impression on me.”
By 1981, Dr. Smith had withdrawn from the Broederbond, resigned his professorship and left the Dutch Reformed Church. That year, he protested the plight of 120 black women in Cape Town’s Crossroads squatter camp whose homes were bulldozed in midwinter.
“I knew I had to make a choice,” he said. “I would have to decide to teach my theology but not apply it, or apply it and take the consequences.”

Sourced from http://www.nytimes.com/2010/06/25/world/africa/25smith.html

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