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In memoriam: Nico Smith

24 June 2010

Nico Smith, a former teacher and later colleague of mine at the University of South Africa, died last week.

I first encountered Nico Smith on a cold winter’s day in 1979 at SACLA — the Southern African Christian Leadership Assembly, the most comprehensive Christian gathering that has ever been held in southern Africa. It brought together Christians from a wide variety of traditions. I think the only ones missing were the Orthodox and the African Independent Churches.

I heard Nico Smith speak twice at SACLA. This was not a personal encounter, since he was speaking to an audience of several thousand. The first time was a testimony, on “Love across the barriers”. He had been told by his mother that he must never talk to a black person except when he wanted them to do something for him. He went to serve a black congregation, but for three years there was no communication, and he loved them only in the Lord, but not as persons. He thought that loving them personally was a work of superrerogation. But we can’t love one another collectively. If we do not build up personal relationship, and demonstrate in a concrete and visible way that we belong to Christ, then we are no witness at all.

The following day after supper was supposed to be the opening session of the National Leaders conference, and a free evening for the other conferences (congregational, youth etc), but by popular request it had been turned into a plenary, and so it began with an introduction by Nico Smith, Stan Mokgoba and Calvin Cook, to fill in the newcomers on “the story so far”. I’ll summarise all three.

Nico Smith said there were three plus and three minus points:

+1) the conference was long overdue. The response had shown that there was a need for it, and proved that it was not too late yet.

+2) there was an enriching influence of Christians upon each other from over borders. Many were hearing for the first time how the Holy Spirit makes the Word clear.

+3) there was a balanced diet in the papers — vertical/horizontal, violent/mild, though some were too missiological, or missed the point.

And the minus points:

-1) too many people were claiming that God was on their side.

-2) we should not hide our differences (which some people were tending to do) or allow them to divide us.

-3 we have discovered many ways of witnessing, but we have not really discovered the situation, which is far worse than we think.

Stan Mokgoba said we not only had to bring together different experiences from South Africa, but also from every continent. One of the main lessons learned so far is that Jesus is Lord of the whole world.

Calvin Cook said God is dragging his net, and brought fish of many schools together at SACLA. At first they stayed apart in their schools, mackerel, salmon and sardines, but now they were beginning to get all mixed up.

Nico was then teaching Missiology at the University of Stellenbosch, and I lived in Zululand, so we had no chance to meet personally. But at the end of 1982 we both moved to Pretoria. I was to be Director of Mission and Evangelism for the Anglican Diocese of Pretoria, and Rector of the parish of St Stephen’s, Lyttelton, and Nico to be dominee of the Dutch Reformed Church at Mamelodi, which was then a black township where whites, coloureds and Asians were not allowed to live, but Nico, white though he was, went to live there anyway.

St Stephen’s Church, Lyttelton, was interesting. It was made the base for the mission and evangelism department because they had a very successful evangelism programme going, though by the time I arrived about a third of the congregation had left, including some of the key leaders, to follow the previous rector, who had briefly become a Baptist before starting his own church.

Nico’s flag-draped coffin in Melodi ya Tshwane Church

It was also a very military and militarised area, at the height of P.W. Botha and Magnus Malan’s “total onslaught”, and was probably a prime military target. To the east and west were two air force bases, to the south was a top-secret military research establishment, and a couple of kilometres to the north was the biggest arms factory in the southern hemisphere. Quite a large proportion of the parish were Afrikaans-speaking, so I thought it might be a nice ecumenical gesture to invite a Dutch Reformed dominee to preach one Sunday, but not a verkramp one, so I invited Nico Smith, whom I had been impressed with at SACLA and could not be verkramp if he was living in a black township, and so could counter some of the propaganda that was part of the everyday experience of the military people as part of the “total strategy” to combat the “total onslaught”. So I suppose in inviting Nico Smith to preach, I was part of the total onslaught, underrmining the morale of the troops, and in preaching Nico too was part of the total onslaught for the same reason. I told the Afrikaans-speaking editor of the parish magazine, Anita Steenkamp, that I was inviting a dominee to preach, and when I told her it was Nico Smith, her eyes went big, and she said, “A rebel dominee!” So Nico came and preached, and we met face to face. He preached very well.

He was also lecturing part-time in the Missiology department of the University of South Africa, where I was studying at the time, and at one point gave me 85% for one of my assignments, which was another very pleasant memory of him.

In 1985, as part of my work in mission and evangelism, I helped to arrange a month-long mission course called Perspectives on the world Christian movement for a group of about 25 young people at Boithutong in Soshanguve, and Nico Smith came to teach at that.

At around that time, too, Nico could see that the “total onslaught” propaganda was giving white people a totally distorted view of the world, and most whites had no idea what black people were thinking or experiencing, with soldiers and police patrolling the black townships in armoured cars, shooting at people. On one occasion, twelve people in Mamelodi were killed. Nico, living in Mamelodi and serving in a congregation there, was frequently counselling bereaved families whose loved ones were shot by the police and yet many whites were unaware of what was happening. People that Nico knew well also suffered directly, such as the medical doctors Fabian and Florence Ribeiro, who were assassinated and Stanza Bopape, who disappeared, and was later found to have bene killed by the security forces.

So Nico started a progamme called Koinonia (Fellowship) and tried to encourage black and white families to meet monthly for a meal together in each other’s homes, and try to develop friendships. We did not really participate in that but they occasionally held bigger meetings of the participants and others. This linked up with another programme, which Nico’s Unisa colleague David Bosch and African Enterprise had helped to start, called the National Initiative for Reconciliation, and they collaborated in organising events in the Pretoria area to help to make white people, in particular, aware of what was going on.

As I noted in my diary at on 18 September 1988, which was probably the very worst time of the apartheid era,

In the afternoon Val and I went to Mamelodi, where David Bosch was speaking to the Koinonia Movement, which had been started by Nico Smith to encourage blacks and whites to have meals together. Robin Briggs was there, and we spoke to him briefly. David Bosch spoke on justice and reconciliation, but did not say much that was new.
There were questions and comments, and in some ways it was rather depressing. I have often felt helpless in the face of the political situation, and here it was obvious that others felt helpless too. They were whistling in the dark, and there we were, futilely trying to encourage each other. There was nothing wrong with anything that was said; it was just that I’d heard it all before, about people being followed by the SB, and telling how they had been harassed and intimidated.

If anyone had said to me then that within 18 months opposition organisations would be unbanned and Nelson Mandela would be released from prison, I would have thought they were bonkers.

Nico went out, led by a full police band

And today I went to Nico’s funeral at Melodi Ya Tshwane Church, which he had helped to found, in central Pretoria. I parked a couple of blocks away, and as I got closer to the church there were flashing lights, fire engines and ambulances, and then there were lots of cops around the entrance to the church. Seeing that many cops still makes me nervous, but then I realised they had actually come to the funeral. And then, having been givern as programme, I discovered that it was a civic funeral, with the Mayor of Tshwane there, and a representative of the Gauteng provincial government as well. There was a police band playing at the funeral. They formally draped the national flag over the coffin. They saluted Nico at the end,

That was amazing, and the most fitting send-off he could be given. Nico Smith, who had so often had to comfort families whose members had been shot by the police now had the police honouring him at his funeral!

Nico Smith’s hearse — a municipal fire engine

Then Zach Mochoebo spoke on behalf of the Belydende Kring (Confessing Circle) of Dutch Reformed ministers, and told of a certain Brigadier who said there were two types of terrorists: bomb terrorists and word terrorists. They had the bomb terrorists under control, but they were more worried about the word terrorists. And there were two types of word terrorists: there were the blatant public kind who were constantly in the public eye, like Allan Boesak and Desmond Tutu. They weren’t so worried about those either, because they could counter them with the SABC and other media at their disposal. And then there were the quiet ones, who plugged away preaching to their congregation, and those they could not control. And among those were the Belydende Kring, and among them people like Nico Smith. And that too was part of the total onslaught.

Tinyiko Maluleke, speaking on behalf of the South African Council of Churches, said something similar. Nico, he said, saw behind the external apparatus of power — the police, the army, the SB — and said that the real evil that must be attacked is the idea of apartheid.

And so we said goodbye to Nico, going off down Bosman Street in central Pretoria with a fire tender for a hearse, and preceded by a full police band.

Final farewell to Nico Smith

Links to other posts on Nico Smith

11 Comments leave one →
  1. 25 June 2010 9:02 pm

    Thanks Steve, I was there, too, and was also struck by the significance of Nico’s coffin being saluted by high-ranking police officers. It was truly a wonderful service.

  2. Phillip Pare permalink
    27 June 2010 3:47 pm

    Thanks for this most enlightening article Steve.
    Chris Barron has also written a good obituary in the Sunday Times–Nico-Smith–Afrikaans-theologian-who-lived-his-opposition-to-racism

  3. Maretha Laubscher permalink
    28 June 2010 7:22 pm

    Thank you Steve.

    It was indeed the most unusual honour bestowed on my father and a very strange occasion during which state and church co-operated. The organisers from the various municipal and provincial offices had only one day to arrange all the logistics. They really have to be lauded for the hard and thorough work as the funeral went off without a glitch.

    My father provided us as a family with so many happy memories, not the least being the funeral and memorial service. We even travelled with him on the fire engine from the church!

    We will miss his body, but his spirit is ever present.

    • Missionary to the USA permalink
      25 April 2019 7:33 am

      Thanks for sharing. Dr. Nico Smith was inspiring. I remember meeting one of his daughters in 1986 at a Wilgespruit Fellowship Conference. I think she worked in Pietermaritzburg for a short while. Was that you?

      • Maretha Laubscher permalink
        25 April 2019 1:45 pm

        No, it was not me. Probably not one of us. It might b Hildegard Lenz from Germany you r thinking of

        • Missionary to the USA permalink
          25 April 2019 2:53 pm

          Thanks for your reply. Much appreciated. I was with Belydende Kring (Reformed church based) in SA as well as the Council of Churches, so your father was known to us. I don’t know Hildegard Lenz, but that’s ok. I must be mixing up my facts. The name of the woman may have been Lintjie. Thank you and your family for your sacrifices. Blessings in Christ.

          • Maretha Laubscher permalink
            25 April 2019 3:11 pm

            Yes, that is my youngest sister. She married Murray Hofmeyr who runs Studietrust, an organisation running bursaries for students.
            Thx for taking an interest.


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