The Cost of Faithful Witness in South Africa: Russel Botman, 1953–2014

Russel Botman, Reformed theologian and university president, died on June 28, 2014, in Stellenbosch, South Africa. A 60-year-old dying in his sleep is not typically a matter for international attention. But in later press investigation and commentary a more complex story emerged. The context of his life and the circumstances of his death should interest us because they illustrate a theme about the personal toll exacted on those who would follow in the gospel train of Mandela, Tutu and King in trying to implement the changes needed to live in a just and democratic society.

A story in a leading newspaper – The Times of South Africa – had the provocative title, “Who Killed Russel Botman?” It was not sensationalist journalism. The author was Jonathan Jansen, the vice-chancellor (president) of the University of the Free State, Bloemfontein. He wrote, “It is a subject nobody wants to talk about – the high personal cost of transformation.” He quoted others, across the country and at Stellenbosch, to answer his own question: “They killed him,” through “relentless pressure on a gentle soul.”

Jansen attended the funeral, where, out of respect for the family, no one mentioned the storm that had been swirling around Botman in recent months and years. But then, he writes, Russel’s sister-in-law “dropped a devastating one-liner, expressing a measure of relief for his departure: ‘dark clouds of evil were gathering around him.’ There were quiet nods all around; we knew what she meant and her words were needed.”

These events point to the slow pace of change in the new South Africa, and to those who are impeding it. Even though more than 20 years have passed since Nelson Mandela walked free, there is still a considerable under-representation of the black majority – students, staff and faculty – in the universities of the nation. Those trying to change that are called “transformation officers,” either at the head of the university or in special units designed to monitor and promote change. Botman was at the top of the list of people trying to transform a prestigious institution.

Botman was a person of mixed race, so he was classified as “coloured” by the apartheid regime. Therefore he had attended the University of the Western Cape, the school no one ever really wanted. Whites begrudged its existence, and blacks wanted to go to the already-existing universities, such as Cape Town, Stellenbosch and Witwatersrand. Russel felt called to the ministry, and he later pursued that vocation before finding his true calling in academic life.

Botman joined others, especially the charismatic chaplain at the University of the Western Cape, Allan Boesak, to incline the school’s theological studies toward the pressing questions of opposing apartheid. Apartheid was a complicated system of racial and other classifications. Everything fit into a whole, and it was all undergirded by theology. The architects of apartheid (ironically, many from the university Botman was later to head), drew on the works of the Dutch political and religious leader of a century ago, Abraham Kuyper. Kuyper’s vast system called for a cultural theology of diff erentiation into “sovereign spheres.” In South Africa, that was used to support a diff erentiated racial system.

But the students at Western Cape would not allow that hijacking of the neo-Calvinist Reformed faith. They rediscovered the social justice side of the complex Kuyper. Allan Boesak would write in his landmark book, Black and Reformed, that the full Kuyperian heritage was for all peoples and it spoke the words of social justice. The document they produced, the Belhar Confession, declared that the theological basis for apartheid was a heresy. Therefore, when apartheid fell, it was as much a religious revolution as a political one.

Botman’s vocation in post-apartheid South Africa was as a transformational leader in religious and academic life. Like Bishop Desmond Tutu, Botman was a no-nonsense gospel advocate for social justice, but also like Tutu, he knew that there was “no future without forgiveness.” That was Botman’s genius: tough-minded thinking coupled with a gentle heart, which was recognized by Princeton Seminary when it awarded him the prestigious “Abraham Kuyper Prize for Excellence in Theology and Public Life.”

The world of South African theology had changed. But the realities on the ground were not so open to change. That’s why, one supposes, the University of Stellenbosch asked Botman in 2000 to join the faculty. In 2007, he was named vice-chancellor, the first nonwhite ever to be tapped to lead a historically white university. Because he was bilingual (English and Afrikaans), as are most “coloured” people (in the old apartheid categories), he was right to lead Stellenbosch, a place where language rights is a volatile part of the academic scene. It was where many apartheid-era thinkers had been schooled. Indeed, six of the seven prime ministers were graduates of Stellenbosch, including apartheid’s main architect, H. F. Verwoerd.

Botman had considerable success in his first five-year term in turning the University of Stellenbosch away from what he called a culture of exclusion, in which white and male leadership and perspectives were seen to be normative. But in his second term he intended to move the university toward a culture of inclusion. His goal, he said, was to have Stellenbosch be a place “where the daughter of a farm worker would feel equal to the son of a farmer.” The vehicle for the way forward was to be the Centre for Inclusion, which was to monitor and promote inclusion on campus.

A formidable minority on the Council (similar to a Board of Trustees) bitterly opposed the center and what it stood for. To them it was an affront to their heritage and all they thought the university had valued for over a century. They did what they could to frustrate, discredit and undermine Botman. On the day before what was to be his last council meeting, a local paper said there would be a motion of no confidence in Botman. There was none, but it was part of a campaign to rattle him and wear him down. The chair of the council publicly deplored such actions by his colleagues. A few days later, on June 27, 2014, Botman said he felt unwell and went home. His heart stopped beating sometime overnight. We know who killed Russel Botman and why they did so. They will not be brought to justice.

Russel Botman is gone now. Rest in peace, my friend. Yet, even now, I believe he would ask us to quiet our anger at those who pushed him to the edge while at the same time renewing our commitment to the goals he stood for. He would want us to stand with Martin Luther King Jr. in pointing to the arc of history and to the justice toward which it bends.


Ronald A. Wells is professor of history emeritus at Calvin College, Grand Rapids, Michigan, and is mostly retired, living in the foothills of the Smoky Mountains in Tennessee, where he directs the Symposium on Faith and Liberal Arts at Maryville College.