JOHANNESBURG – 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 of a heart attack, one of his daughters said Sunday. He was 81.
Smith collapsed while attending a friend's birthday party Saturday in Pretoria, and died before he could be taken to a hospital, said Marita Laubscher, the eldest of his three daughters.
In the tumultuous '80s, Smith was one of a tiny handful of clerics 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 instead joined the denomination's black offspring.
Smith, who had been a missionary in the far north of South Africa and later a theology professor at the University of Stellenbosch, began preaching in Mamelodi, the main black township outside Pretoria, in 1982.
He moved there to live 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.
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.
At the time, few whites knew firsthand how blacks lived because they seldom ventured into the townships located on the periphery of the cities.
Laubscher, in a telephone interview, said her father was dedicated to the goal of racial reconciliation in South Africa, which dismantled apartheid in the early 1990s.
"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."
Smith's funeral is scheduled for Thursday at a church in Pretoria where he and his colleagues helped build a multiracial congregation.