The Rev. Nico Smith dies at 81; white South African pastor who fought apartheid

The Rev. Nico Smith, a white pastor who challenged South Africa’s apartheid system by moving with his wife into a black township in the 1980s, has died. He was 81.

Smith collapsed Saturday while attending a friend’s birthday party in Pretoria and died before he could be taken to a hospital, said Marita Laubscher, the eldest of his three daughters.

Smith was one of a few clerics in the 1980s who left the white Dutch Reformed Church — the largest denomination among the Afrikaners who then held political power — because of the church’s refusal to actively oppose apartheid.

Smith had been a missionary in the far north of South Africa and later a theology professor at the University of Stellenbosch. He began preaching in Mamelodi, the main black township outside Pretoria, in 1982.

He moved there a few years later, along with his wife, Ellen, a child psychiatrist. They were the first whites officially permitted by the government to live in a black township in an era where apartheid laws rigorously segregated residential areas, schools, hospitals and public amenities. Their home was financed by foreign donations, including $20,000 from the Bel-Air Presbyterian Church in Los Angeles.

“ ‘Aren’t you afraid?’ is the first question whites ask,” Smith told The Times in 1986. “White fear is one of the great barriers to understanding and progress in this country.... But over the past two years there has been an increasing realization by whites of the depth and the degree of black anger.”

In 1988, Smith was one of the principal organizers of what at the time was an unprecedented experiment in trading places. About 170 whites lived in Mamelodi for four days, sharing cornmeal dinners, outside toilets and middle-of-the-night visits from the police.

Few whites knew firsthand how blacks lived because they seldom ventured into the townships on the periphery of the cities.

They moved back to a white area in 1989.

Laubscher said her father was dedicated to the goal of racial reconciliation in South Africa, which dismantled apartheid in the early 1990s. He helped build a multiracial congregation in Pretoria.

“His sense of justice was what drove him to feel that all people should have access to opportunities,” she said. “He felt, as a Christian, how could he be part of a church if not all people could be considered human.”