Defying apartheid's divisions

LIKE most new homeowners, Nico Smith can't wait to move in. Like very few, he will make history when he does. The Rev. Nico Smith is a white minister in South Africa's Dutch Reformed Church, which for decades preached the apartheid system of forced racial segregation as the work of God. Next month, he and his wife will defy apartheid by moving to Mamelodi, the blacks-only commuter township near Pretoria.

It is but one leg on a trek Mr. Smith began 30 years ago: from easy acceptance of apartheid and white man's rule to a conviction that his country's future must be decided by its large black majority.

Smith sees no particular role for himself in that process. Soft-spoken and typically garbed in a dark suit and tie, he comes across as the small-town minister he has trained himself to be. His one stab at overtly political activity was a failed attempt last year to get government permission to visit Zambia, so he could hear the views of the most prominent black nationalist movement in South Africa, the outlawed and exiled African National Congress.

He has had little of the public exposure of South Africa's other anti-apartheid clerics, such as the Rev. Beyers Naude, the Rev. Allan Boesak, or Bishop Desmond Tutu.

The Rev. Mr. Smith's aim is more limited -- perhaps more difficult. ``As a minister, I want to try wherever I can to help establish points of contact between whites and blacks,'' he says. ``The terrible thing is that apartheid has worked! It has divided this country into separate worlds.'' He feels most whites have no idea how the country's blacks live or think.

One example: the government's strategy to ``reform'' race policies. Though a real step away from some aspects of apartheid, the strategy is viewed by most blacks as insufficient and too late to resolve the country's crisis.

``If there is to be hope for a new South Africa,'' Mr. Smith says, ``these barriers to communication and understanding must be broken down.''

Bit by bit, he has been chipping away at the barriers. He has arranged for black families from Mamelodi to join whites around their dinner tables in Pretoria, and vice versa. About once a month, he also brings groups of black and white youths together at a restaurant.

``It is a first for both groups,'' Mr. Smith says with a smile. ``The blacks have never eaten in a nice restaurant, and the whites have never eaten with blacks.''

Having involved about 200 people in his own exchanges, he has helped start similar programs in half a dozen other urban communities around the country.

If you had asked a 20-year-old Nico Smith in the early 1950s whether apartheid made sense, he would have gaped at you as if the very question were an insult. He rejoiced alongside fellow Afrikaners at the surprise triumph of the pro-apartheid National Party in the 1948 elections. After graduation from Pretoria University's theology school, he served two white congregations before his posting as a missionary to the black tribal area of Venda, in northern South Africa. Venda has since become a nominally independent ``homeland,'' as part of the apartheid-related effort to redefine South African blacks as members of various tribal ``minorities.''

It was in Venda, when foreign missionaries invited Mr. Smith to a mixed-race luncheon that the change began. It was no sudden conversion, but a process of gradually deepening self-doubt that grew into open rebellion a decade later. By then, Mr. Smith had approached the pinnacle of church and Afrikaner achievement. He was a member of the Broederbond (meaning ``brotherhood''), the secret society pledged to protect and perpetuate the ``Afrikaner nation.'' He taught at Stellenbosch University, Afrikanerdom's Oxford, with its thick lawns, rolling hills, and grape-arbor estates lying an hour's drive northeast of Cape Town.

But in the early 1970s, Mr. Smith suddenly quit the Broederbond, ``feeling I was not free to think for myself,'' and started concentrating on ``applying my religion to the practical situation around me.''

Throughout the 1970s, he faced intermittent questioning from church authorities for remarks he made in the classroom or from the pulpit. But it was not until the end of the decade that his break with orthodoxy was complete. Some of Professor Smith's students finally forced the issue. A group of 150 blacks staged a protest in Cape Town against the bulldozing of their homes in a nearby township. When other churches pitched in to provide blankets and other aid to the sit-in demonstrators and the Dutch Reformed Church did nothing, Mr. Smith's students asked for guidance.

He said he had no answers, but that the church must be willing to ``go and talk to the demonstrators, to find out the reasons, and then take a position.'' Pressed to join his class to do just that, Mr. Smith agreed. When the university authorities found out, they forbade him from discussing such issues in class. He acquiesced, but wrote a dissenting editorial that the church journal promptly printed.

It was in the midst of this controversy that Mr. Smith suddenly received a telegram saying that a black congregation in Mamelodi wanted him as its minister. Smith, smiling at the recollection, admits to having felt a tinge of apprehension.

``My wife was in Cape Town, and I must say that I figured if she came back and refused, that in deference to my God-given partner then I simply couldn't go.'' He wondered how he would be able to abandon the home he had built in Stellenbosch.

But Ellen Smith returned home, read the telegram, and said, ``You know, we must go.'' Neither has regretted the move. But both quickly decided that the traditional white minister's approach, living in Pretoria while ministering to Mamelodi, was unworkable.

``We were in effect living like visitors, hit and run. We decided that in order to truly do our work, we must become part of our community.''

This is against South African law. The Group Areas Act divides Pretoria, Mamelodi, and many other urban areas according to race. About two years ago, Smith wrote the government requesting an exemption. Approval came last December.

Mr. Smith's ties with older Mamelodi youths, including the militant anti-apartheid leaders known locally as ``Comrades,'' seem strong. But he says he does fear his move might provoke a response from black vigilantes who are locked in an increasingly violent rivalry with ``pro-Comrade'' forces in Mamelodi and other black townships.

Smith says his move should, if nothing else, bring him closer to his congregation. He will be able to visit more homes more often. ``When I visit, I do not offer answers. I don't have advice. That is the main thing I think I have learned as a minister here. The most valuable thing I can do is to listen -- to problems, and frustration, and pain. It is a new experience for most blacks. They are used to white men who do the talking.''

Mr. Smith hopes for more than this: ``I want our home to become a bridge, maybe to help in a small way to bring whites and blacks together, to break down barriers. I think of myself as doing this for a new South Africa. My concern is that even if real change does come here, we may not know how to relate to each other.''

The battle against barriers is sometimes a discouraging one, Smith says. ``It is slow work.'' But there are moments when he knows the effort is worthwhile: ``It is just so encouraging, you know, when white and black people actually do come together, to see how people can change, to hear the responses!'' DO YOU KNOW A PEACEMAKER? If you know an individual, anywhere in the world, who is actively involved in reducing violent confrontation between people, we invite you to tell us. Selected individuals will be contacted by the Monitor for future peacemaker profiles. To be considered, nominees must: Be people, not organizations Be personally involved in resolving violent confrontations Have a record of success in working out peaceful solutions Send your letters to: The Christian Science Monitor, One Norway Street, Boston, Mass. 02115, Attention: Editor for Special Projects/P214 (Peacemaker). Please include your address and phone number.

You've read  of  free articles. Subscribe to continue.
QR Code to Defying apartheid's divisions
Read this article in
QR Code to Subscription page
Start your subscription today