Black theologian head of elite once whites-only S. African university, dies suddenly

(Photo: Nooitgedacht Village, Stellenbosch website)Aerial view of Stellenbosch, South Africa with the town's university on the left.

South Africa is mourning the death of Russel Botman, a Reformed theologian and the first black rector of Stellenbosch University.

Stellenbosch is one of the country's top schools and while it was a whites-only institution in the apartheid era it was renowned for producing prime ministers.

"Prof Hayman Russel Botman, Rector and Vice-Chancellor of Stellenbosch University passed away in his sleep at his home in Stellenbosch last night" the university said in a statement on Saturday.

Botman was scheduled to make an overseas trip in the coming week and was scheduled to receive an honorary doctorate from the University of Aberdeen in Scotland in July.

"Over the past few years Stellenbosch University benefited from his visionary leadership which portrayed his philosophy that SU's excellent research and teaching should make a difference in society," the university council's chairman George Steyn said.

"South Africa has lost one of the leading lights of our higher education transformation," said South African President Jacob Zuma in a tribute to Botman.

An ordained minister, Botman was instrumental in the formation of the Uniting Reformed Church of Southern Africa (URCSA). He remained a staunch proponent of church unity within the Dutch Reformed Church Family to the end, the statement said.

Botman's death at the age of 62 was a loss for educational institutions, Archbishop Emeritus Desmond Tutu and Noble Peace Prize laureate said Saturday.

"He demonstrated that black people can manage complex educational institutions splendidly and we were very proud of him," Tutu said.

(Photo: University of Stellenbosch website)Professor Russel Botman

He said Botman was a precocious and courageous young church leader who emerged in the cauldron of the 1980s peoples' struggle against apartheid to put the feet of older church leaders to the fire.

Botman was born in Bloemfontein, in the Free State province on October 18 1953.


In 1976, the year of the Soweto uprising by black South Africans, while he was a student at the University of Western Cape Botman led his fellow students in human rights protests against apartheid laws.

He was ordained in 1982 and served as a minister for the Wynberg congregation of the Dutch Reformed Mission Church from 1982 to 1993.

In 1994, he joined the University of Western Cape as a senior lecturer in practical theology. Botman was promoted to associate professor and dean of the faculty of religion and theology in 1999.

In 2000, he joined Stellenbosch University as a professor in missiology, ecumenism and public theology in South Africa's second oldest city that is a center for wine growing set in a pictureque setting near Cape Town.

From 2001 to 20012 he was principal of the Theological School of the Uniting Reformed Church in Southern Africa.

He became vice-rector for teaching at Stellenbosch University in 2002 and served in that position until his historic appointment as the institution's first black rector and vice-chancellor in 2007.

He served as president of the South African Council of Churches from 2003 to 2007.

Botman served as a research consultant to the World Alliance of Reformed Churches from 2001 to 2004, before it became the World Communion of Reformed Churches.

In April 2013 he received Princeton Theological Seminary's Abraham Kuyper Prize for Excellence in Theology and Public Life.

That was followed in March 2014 with the award of an honorary doctorate by Hope College in Michigan for leadership in higher education and the Reformed church to promote a more just society for all South Africans

Botman had received honorary membership of the United Nations Association of South Africa for advancing the Millennium Development Goals to advance disadvantaged people.

The Anglican Archbishop of Cape Town Thabo Makgoba praised Botman for the special concern he showed for poor and disadvantaged students, creating an enabling environment in which they could succeed.

"Russell's contribution, especially within the ecumenical movement, will be remembered and be hopefully recorded," he said. "May this great South African – a husband, a preacher, teacher, an ecumenist and a leader – rest in peace."

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