Twenty years ago: death of David Bosch and the coming of the Copts
Yesterday was the twentieth anniversary of the death of David Bosch, the Professor of Missiology at the University of South Africa (Unisa). He was killed in a car accident somewhere in what is now Mpumalanga, and his death was a tremendous blow to the theology faculty at Unisa, and probably to missiology worldwide.
Here is what I wrote in my diary at the time:
Thursday 16 April 1992
I went to work later than usual, and went to have coffee with the church history department, and they told me there was bad news. My first thought was that Gerald and Nirrie’s baby had died, and then
they said that David Bosch had been killed in a car accident last night. I went down to missiology, and Willem Saayman confirmed it – said he had been to the Eastern Transvaal and was returning for
the funeral of another lecturer, and pulled out to overtake a vehicle in poor visibility and hit a truck coming the other way. It is a tremendous loss for the missiology department. There is no one else in the department with anything like his intellect or capacity for work. It was always so enormously stimulating to talk to him, and he had a wonderful way of sparking off ideas in other people. I think he was probably the best-known member of the whole theology faculty – the only one with a solid international reputation.
I talked to Gary about future plans. He wondered why the Copts were at this stage wanting to establish themselves in Southern Africa. I said I thought it was because the iron curtain at the Limpopo had
come down, and they were possibly looking for a place that was not quite so dependant on Muslim goodwill as Egypt – a place where they could establish a base and train their clergy with less risk of interference…
“Gary” was Fr Chrysostom Frank, who was our parish priest at St Nicholas Orthodox Church in Brixton, and “Gerald” was Gerald Pillay, a fellow lecturer of his in the church history department, whose first child had been born a few days before.
I was teaching in the missiology department at David Bosch’s request, and one of the consequences of his death was that I stopped working there a couple of years later.
What I wrote above in my diary was my immediate reaction at the time, and, looking back after twenty years it ncan be seen that his death was a bigger loss than we ever thought at the time. He was one of the founders of the Southern African Missiological Society, and founder and editor of its journal Missionalia. After his death a committee of three people tried to continue to produce Missionalia, and found it difficult to cope. In almost every activity he had been engaged in, three people could not manage the work that he had done single-handed. Perhaps he was the classic workoholic, but in his case a lot of the work that he did simply never got done without him, and we didn’t really see that until he wasn’t there.
He died just a year after the publication of his magnum opus, Transforming mission, which has been translated into about 16 languages, one of the most recent being Slovak. It is used as a standard textbook for missiology in many countries.
Many articles, dissertations and theses have been written about his work, and perhaps that indicates the gap left by his death, and the number of unfinished conversations. If he had lived he would, of course, have retired by now, but I suspect that a new generation of young missiologists would have enjoyed the opportunity to meet him, and to benefit from his wisdom in analysis of current problems facing church, mission and society.
David Bosch died just as a new democratic South Africa was coming into being, the first democratic elections being held just two years after his death. He had spent much of his life in the anti-apartheid struggle, and especially at the ideological level, challenging the apartheid thinking that had dominated the Dutch Reformed Church in the past.
Those Christians and churches that had opposed apartheid often found themselves lost and adrift in post-apartheid society. The anti-apartheid struggle had given meaning to their lives, and even to their theology. It seemed, in some ways, to illustrate what Jesus said, that when an evil spirit goes out of a man, seven others, worse than the first, come in to take its place, and the Christian churches were unprepared for this, and paralysed. I think that, had David Bosch lived, he might have helped many to cope better with the new and different problems that emerged in a post-apartheid society.
The coming of the Copts, which I mentioned in my diary on the same day, was also a sign of the new South Africa. The iron curtain had begun to descend on the Limpopo river in 1960, the year that many countries in other parts of Africa became politically independent from their former colonial rulers. The white rulers of South Africa wanted to insulate the population, black and white, from the idea that black people could rule a country, and so they tried to cut off communication with other countries to the north.
In the 1950s there has been Coptic missionaries in South Africa, but by 1960 the mission had been reduced to a solitary Coptic monk in South Africa, and the government would not allow him to stay, or be replaced, so those they had baptised were on their own, and had gradually become an African Independent Church like most of the others.
Thirty years later, in 1992, Bishop Antonius Markos, the Coptic Bishop for African affairs, had visited South Africa and bought the old Hellenic College in Parkwood, Johannesburg, and tried to make contact with the converts of the previous missionaries. The return of the Copts to South Africa was one of the consequences of the glasnost and perestroika that had appeared in South Africa when F.W. de Klerk became president in 1989. The South African version was sometimes called “Pretoriastroika“, and there was a new openness to other countries and cultures in Africa and elsewhere that made it possible for the Coptic mission to be reestablished in 1992.
So 1992 was a year of momentous changes, good and bad. The death of David Bosch was a bad one, but the new glasnost was good.