The need and absolute necessity for building new young leaders in South Africa


Rev Edwin Arrison (centre in yellow scarf) trains young activists at the Moving Mountains event in June 2014.

Rev Edwin Arrison

Some people who call themselves “leaders” today are often “leading” in the same way that King Herod “led”: they are leading their followers and the rest of humanity towards death and not towards Life. I do not say this lightly or glibly.

Thankfully there are the opposite examples of leadership as well, and I think particularly of a leader such as Pope Francis and others who lead like him. These kind of leaders are cultivated, nurtured and formed over a long period of time and it is time that we recognise the way this happens, and encourage new systems, structures and programs that will make this happen in the future as well. It is my view that good leaders do not just emerge, but has to be carefully nurtured and cultivated (discipled even).

How deep friendships among good leaders influence society:

Leading and being on the right side of history, sacrificing everything for taking a stand for justice, often means that those who struggle alongside you become your best and deepest long-term friends, even if you sometimes disagree with each other. These friendships are often based on values that are found in our most sacred texts.

The struggle against apartheid in South Africa produced such long-term friendships and leaders that would stand the emerging post-apartheid South Africa in good stead. Young people who struggled alongside each other in the 1960s and in 1976 and beyond, who debated matters into the middle of the night, who were arrested and imprisoned together, etc. continue to be friends for more than 30 years and continue to work for non-racialism and non-sexism.

These friendships (and sometimes marriages) were based on courage and sacrifice for the common good.

The church in South Africa can also testify to this. Deep friendships were formed in the 1970s and 1980s at youth camps, longer-term youth courses, at ecumenical seminaries, etc. and this filtered into the communities where those who were trained were sent to serve. Those who trained together at seminaries often welcomed youth workers who were trained and this cycle continued to produce new relationships that would see many of the youth workers becoming clergy.

The communities and congregations benefited from this as the friendships between the clergy from different denominations resulted not in a tribal denominationalism, but in a wider outlook and appreciation of the theology and spirituality of the other person. When leaders lead in this way, congregations easily follow.

There was therefore no need for talk about “social cohesion” as the leaders naturally lived and practiced this openness and encouraged their people to do the same. It felt natural even though we now know that there were some structures behind the scenes deliberately making this happen, and also because the societal system created “apartness” and therefore the friendships created a form of creative resistance to this ideology of “apartness”. Ecumenical structures such as the SACC deeply benefitted from this as it could draw courageous leaders into their staff and leadership structures.

The new ideology of “apartness” today and the need for new leaders at this time:

Unfortunately, this ideology of “apartness” and “otherness” continues today, but it takes on forms that are more subtle. Income is the great divider and, beyond handing out things to poorer members of communities, a deeper solidarity and cohesion – another form of friendship building – is needed to hold society together. But unfortunately the systems and structures that produced the courageous friendships described above no longer exists.

It was therefore heartening to see that some children of the elite could protest alongside poorer students in the #Feesmustfall movement and get arrested. It was also heartening to see the students connecting their struggles to that of the workers. Hopefully this new forms of solidarity can be maintained and strengthened.

It is therefore for these new times that new systems and new communities should be set up that is beyond short-term campaigns, but reaches deeply into families and communities, and into people’s hearts. Without a conscious way of working for solidarity and creating new structures to express this solidarity, members of society will tear further and further apart creating fertile ground for demagogues to lead people away from each other. This is a recipe for new tribalisms to emerge, and we have sadly seen this especially in the churches. Countries like Rwanda and Burundi knows the eventual effect of this, especially when people are deliberately “othered”.

New questions to be asked:

During 2015, I loved the fact that young people, particularly students, led the way. That is where hope for humanity lies. But I believe that we have to ask ourselves – and the young people – some serious questions: How far are we willing to allow our prophetic imagination to go? Are we willing to think beyond the traditional paradigms? Are we willing to think of something like kibbutzes or villages for young people and adults who will never be taken up fast enough by or into the current system? Are we willing to connect to a new consciousness where our desires for material and consumer goods becomes secondary to building new communities of hope? Are we willing to nurture and support social/spiritual entrepreneurs who are able to innovate? And are we willing to stop talking and start doing?

A new leadership training course for young leaders:

To begin to answer this need for effective leadership training for these new times and to respond to some of these questions, a new residential church-initiated youth leadership training course to deepen these kinds of values and friendships is therefore in the process of being planned.

Those who are interested, can read about it on and see the registration form at

The detailed program for the course has not yet been finalised, and those who wish to make suggestions and give input into the program, can contact Rev Edwin Arrison at