The 48-year-old University of KwaZulu-Natal professor drowned after he fell off a river tube on the Mooi River. De Gruchy waved to his 15-year-old son David that he was all right, but did not reappear. His body was recovered 700 meters downstream on Feb. 24 some days after the accident.
Setri Nyomi, the general secretary of the World Alliance of Reformed Churches, said, “We have lost a great theologian and one who understands our Christian calling and mission to be intricately linked with being God’s agents of transformation and justice in the world.”
The Rev. Prince Dibeela of the United Congregational Church of Southern Africa, who serves on a governing body of the World Council of Churches, called De Gruchy a “God-loving son of Africa”. Dibeela highlighted his drive to make the Church a presence in social ethics, noting De Gruchy had been a conscientious objector against military conscription during the apartheid era.
While he studied at the University of Cape Town he was active in student protests against apartheid. De Gruchy served as a chaplain to Groote Schuur hospital in Cape Town, and later as a minister in Athlone, a mixed-race area of Cape Town, where he was in the middle of the uprisings against the apartheid government.
He was also a signatory of the Kairos Document, a cornerstone in the campaign to have apartheid declared a heresy. After the advent of full democracy in South Africa in 1994, De Gruchy was among a handful of theologians who tried to keep the momentum of the anti-apartheid struggle theology alive.
Said Dibeela: “Steve was unrelenting in ensuring that this was not just some appendage to the activities of the Church.”
De Gruchy spent six years as director of the Moffat Mission Trust in Kuruman on the edge of the Kalahari Desert, where missionaries Robert Moffat and David Livingstone were once based. In the Northern Cape province of South Africa he helped to establish several bodies promoting land rights, small business development, early childhood development, and leadership training.
“He turned the Moffat Mission into a place of theological education, a place of struggle on behalf of rural and mining communities in the Kgalagadi and a place of hospitality to pilgrims from all over the world,” said Dibeela. “He ventured into a re-reading of the story of the 18th and 19th century missionaries to Southern Africa … and developed what was known as the Kalahari Desert School of theology.”
In 2000 De Gruchy took up a post at the University of KwaZulu-Natal, and became head of the School of Religion and Theology at the university. He was editor of the Journal of Theology for Southern Africa from 2003.
De Gruchy had been involved in the World Council of Churches’ Justice, Peace, and Creation team, the World Alliance of Reformed Churches, the Council for World Mission, the International Congregational Fellowship and the Church Unity Commission in South Africa.
“Steve contributed so much. From the church’s role in the struggle against apartheid to helping define a theology for social activism and transformation,” said Jeanette O’Neill, senior director of Africa programs for Episcopal Relief and Development in the United States.
Mary Brennan, the Episcopal Church’s mission communication officer, described de Gruchy as “a remarkable man and a joy to be around. His insight on the connectedness of people and their actions in carrying out God’s mission in the world never failed to energize anyone who had the opportunity to hear him speak.”
De Gruchy, son of theologian John de Gruchy, is survived by his wife Marion and children Thea Siphokasi, David Maphakela, and Kate Tshiamo.