Nico Smith

Nico Smith

I first heard of Nico Smith when reading the Time article below, then heard him speak during the International Association for Mission Studies meeting in Rome in July 1988. At another IAMS meeting in Buenos Aires in 1996 I shared a bus shelter in the rain and a bus ride where he talked of his wife's work with traumatised children and the importance of encouraging them to draw their experiences and their feelings as part of their healing. He was a humble inspiration.

John Roxborogh

ENI 22 June 2010: Praise for Afrikaner cleric who bucked apartheid system

Johannesburg (ENI). 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. 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 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. [ENI-10-0423]

Rev. Nico Smith: White Among Blacks, Otto Friedrich;Peter Hawthorne/Mamelodi Time Magazine 27 June 1988 (Time )

Nico SmithA messenger unaware, the pith-helmeted colored, or mixed-race, mailman pedaled his bicycle past the bougainvillea that lined the quiet suburban street. He stopped and rang the bell at the home of a theology professor at South Africa's Stellenbosch University. A tall, stoop-shouldered man came to the door. Curious, then amazed, the mailman watched the professor open the envelope, read the brief message and suddenly begin weeping. The mailman had no way of knowing they were tears of joy.

The year was 1981, and the telegram said, "You are called to Mamelodi parish." To the professor, Nico Smith, it meant a complete change in his life, a rejection, in fact, of everything that his life had been until then and everything fundamental in Afrikaner society and Afrikaner belief.

Mamelodi is a black township of more than 300,000 on the outskirts of Pretoria. At Smith's request, not only was he about to become its white minister, but also he and his wife Ellen would be its sole white inhabitants. The Afrikaners, among whom Smith had spent his whole life, have a harsh word for behavior like that: Kwaardwilligverlating , meaning, literally, "malevolent parting." Says Smith: "It isn't just a divorce. It means you leave someone with the intention of destroying them. You become an enemy."

Smith, 59, is by now fairly well accustomed to being treated as an enemy. No Pretoria parish in the Dutch Reformed Church has invited him to speak since he went to Mamelodi. People he thought were friends have turned away. There are telephone calls in the night. "Now that you're living with the Kaffirs," said one caller, "when we come to shoot them, we'll shoot you too."

Last year Smith's niece heard two men talking about him in her office. One said Smith "should be stopped." The other asked the first what he would do if he suddenly met Smith. "I'd take out my gun and shoot him," the first man said. "And they are Christians," Smith observes wryly after recounting this story. "Do you know that 78% of the people in this country are Christians?"

There are times when the national sickness of racial hostility becomes almost unbearable. One night Smith heard the roar of cars racing past his house, the squeal of tires, then the rattle of gunfire and an explosion. Sometime later the phone rang, and the black woman on the line sounded on the edge of hysteria. She and her husband were known as antiapartheid activists. Their house had just been fire-bombed, and two of her sister's children had been badly burned.

After trying to comfort the woman on the phone, Smith began calling elsewhere to get help, then went to visit the charred wreckage of the house. Somebody had thrown a whiskey bottle full of gasoline into the living room. Another bottle landed in the tiny bedroom where the nine-year-old girl and six-year-old boy lay sleeping with others. One of them was splashed from head to foot. "Her panties were burned into her flesh," said their aunt, Nomsameli Molefe, her own burned arm in a bandage. "The other child caught it mostly in the face."

"I can only ask, 'O God, what are these people doing to us, to innocent children, to themselves?' " Smith said to the woman and a crowd of angry neighbors. "And I can only assure you that even though these things happen, you do have friends amongst us, God's children who are here as peacemakers. And we must continue to strive for peace and freedom and justice for all people in this troubled country."

Molefe had not bothered to call the police. "They know about it already," she said. "Why should we give them the satisfaction of hearing from us how much we are affected about it?"

"Why did she call Nico Smith?" somebody asked.

"Because he cares," she said.

Nicolaas Jacobus Smith was not born to a life of abnegation. He was born into the ruling class, in 1929, a descendant of Danish settlers who arrived in Capetown in 1795. His father, a school principal in the Orange Free State, was an elder in the Dutch Reformed Church. He believed, and taught his twelve children to believe, the church's then teaching that God meant blacks and whites to live separately, as servants and masters.

Smith remembers how the family servants lived in one-room shacks outside the main house, and how their plates and spoons were kept on a special shelf under the kitchen sink, and how, if the children happened to touch one of those utensils, they had to wash their hands with soap and water. Blacks were not really considered to be human beings. "They were merely implements," Smith says, "and to many, many whites, they are implements to this day."

Smith's aunt, his father's older sister, lived on until a few years ago and never lost her belief in the traditional faith. On her deathbed, at the age of 92, she summed it up in one sentence. "She was weak and dying, but her mind was still clear," Smith recalls. "She raised her frail old hand and laid it over mine. 'Nico,' she said, 'remember, this is pure blood.' "

Young Nico shared his family's beliefs. He was 19 when Daniel Malan and his Afrikaner Nationalists swept to power in 1948, and he took to the streets to help celebrate the promised coming of apartheid. He fulfilled his family's ambitions for him: seven years of theological training at Pretoria University, two white congregations in the Transvaal, marriage to a young doctor (their three daughters are now grown), seven years of missionary work in the black "homeland" of Venda (where he became acutely conscious that white and black clergy not only lived apart but also ate at different tables), three years of staff work at church headquarters in Pretoria, and then the appointment to the university in Stellenbosch. While in Pretoria he was honored with an invitation to join the Broederbond, the secret brotherhood that unites the ruling caste of Afrikanerdom and has long provided the country with a kind of inner government. Of his ten-year membership, Smith now says, "I am thankful that God gave me an opportunity to discover what was going on in the hearts and minds of Afrikaners."

It was the eminent Swiss theologian Karl Barth, however, who gave Smith an opportunity to discover what was going on in his own heart and mind. Smith met Barth on a visit to Europe in 1963, and Barth asked him something very fundamental: "Are you free to preach the truths of the Gospel in South Africa?"

"Barth asked me the question three times, almost as Jesus Christ asks Peter, 'Do you love me?' " Smith recalls. "I found that I could not really answer the question truthfully. I thought I was free, and yet I was not sure."

His membership in the Broederbond finally showed him the answer. "I had to conform," he recalls. "I had to toe the line." When he finally quit, "it was almost like committing social suicide. There were people who suddenly stopped being my friends." In his lectures at Stellenbosch, Smith began challenging the church's support of apartheid. Afrikaner students accused him of preaching integration. "Teach theory, not conclusions," his superiors warned him. When Smith joined in public protests against the government's bulldozing of squatter shacks in Capetown, he was called before a church commission to justify his action. It was then that he got the call to Mamelodi.

The name means "place of melody" because a brook runs through the center of town, but there is nothing very melodious there. The government began building the township in the late '40s as a sort of dormitory-warehouse for black workers needed in Pretoria. The standard houses are four-bedroom huts, each with an outside water faucet next to the outdoor privy. For years the people shipped to Mamelodi were forbidden to own their homes or make improvements. That was supposed to make them look forward to eventual relocation to remote tribal homelands. Recently, the government has relaxed those restrictions; houses are being improved and a few streets paved.

Smith's house is relatively comfortable, a book-filled two-story cottage under a geodesic dome. Smith serves not only as pastor but also as school principal, ombudsman and civic planner. How, he prods a meeting of neighborhood residents, can we get more water pipes extended into the houses? When he walks his rounds through the back streets of Mamelodi, youngsters playing soccer call out the one word that is both recognition and greeting: "Smith! Smith!"

In an effort to spread his idea of community, Smith got 200 other whites to come to Mamelodi last March and spend four days living with black families. That too was regarded by traditionalists as a threat. There was talk that white youths might invade the township and attack the visitors. Smith regarded the possibility calmly. "Some people say they may beat us up. Maybe, for the sake of justice, whites must experience what it means to be beaten up." The sense of sin to be expiated is never far from Smith's mind. "When I walk around the township," he says, "I can only cry, 'My God, what have we done to these people? What are generations after us going to say?' That they don't take up a stick or an iron and knock down every white man they come across is to me still a miracle."

Smith keeps encountering that miracle on his pastoral wanderings. A septuagenarian lay preacher named Peter Mabuza, for example, welcomes him to his tiny township house and offers Coca-Cola and cookies, along with jocular tales of his youth, when his "baas" thrashed him for sitting on the bed of the baas' son while he helped the boy with his homework. "He t'rashed me again," Mabuza goes on, "when he caught me riding his son's bicycle instead of pushing it back from the railroad station."

"So how can whites and blacks get together in this country when there are people like that?" Smith wonders.

Says Mabuza: "Black people just got to pray more."

"There goes the colonized mentality of the older generation," Smith remarks as he leaves. "But 65% of the people here in Mamelodi are under the age of 18, and they aren't colonized. They're the decolonized generation who want the whites to answer for their sins."

Smith encounters plenty of the decolonized too, not only on the streets of Mamelodi but also in the supreme court building in Pretoria, where 19 of them have been on trial for "treason" for the past four years. Charges against them range from terrorist activities to subversion and murder. "I'm sorry, but you cannot enter without a jacket," the black policeman says as he bars Smith at the entrance to the court. It is such a sweltering mid-February day that Smith has risked being in shirt-sleeves.

"Can't I borrow a jacket from someone?" Smith asks.

( The policeman disappears inside for a few minutes, then returns with a smiling black woman who is carrying a jacket. It is tight across the shoulders and the arms are too short, but Smith puts it on anyway, and the policeman lets him in. Several of the shirt-sleeved defendants wave a welcome to Smith, and the testimony drones on.

Smith sits listening in his borrowed jacket, thinking that this trial represents the wrong way. "I believe in a theology of resistance," he says. "People will have to be taught by the church to resist the injustice, the evil structures and the negative attitudes toward blacks. They will have to realize that they are responsible to God to resist all forms of evil in their midst."

At the lunchtime adjournment, Smith gets up and walks toward the dock to talk with some of the prisoners.

"Can I have my jacket back now, Dr. Smith?" asks one of the defendants.

"Sure," says Smith. "You'd better check the pockets."

The defendants laugh. Nico Smith is almost one of them -- not exactly, but almost.

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