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SACLA after 30 years

15 July 2009

Thirty years ago today the South African Christian Leadership Assembly ended at the Pretoria Showgrounds, and 5000 South African Christians scattered to their homes after a week of learning and interaction.

What difference, if any, did it make to Christianity in South Africa?

What difference, if any, did it make to life in South Africa?

Did anything happen there that is worth sharing with the younger generation? Those who were born then are now 30 years old. The youth who attended then are now in their late 40s and early 50s, and some of them are now grandparents. Is there anything they would like their grandchildren to know?

David Bosch, of the Unisa Missiology Department, speaking at SACLA

David Bosch, of the Unisa Missiology Department, speaking at SACLA

It was probably the biggest and most representative gathering of Christians that had taken place in South Africa up till then. It attracted opposition from the Right, who let down the tyres of the cars of people attending. It attracted scepticism from the Left, who thought it was too inclusive, and that people like Piet Koornhof and Gatsha Buthelezi should have been excluded.

It wasn’t that inclusive, however — I didn’t notice any Orthodox or Zionists there, but most other sections of South African Christianity seemed to be represented. As Tom Houston, one of the speakers put it, there were the Fundamental, the Sacramental and the Sentimental — and there’s something mental about them all.

Here’s what I wrote in my diary:

15-Jul-1979, Sunday

We had Mass in the planary hall in the morning with all the SACLA delegates, and several others. Michael Nuttall, the Bishop of Pretoria, celebrated, using Liturgy 1975, and clergy of all denominations administered communion to people in their places. Our bishop, Lawrence Zulu, preached. It was a fitting close to the week, but it wasn’t the end, because there was lunch, followed by a rally, which was to have been in the open air in the Pilditch Stadium, but which they had decided to hold under cover, in the same venue as the plenaries. Caesar Molebatsi and David Bosch preached, but it was rather an anticlimax after the Eucharist in the morning, but perhaps I only thought that because I was beginning to get a cold and was feeling sick.

I went to town to get a meal and some orange juice, and then went back to the Russells, and went to church with them. Michelle was staying with a friend for the weekend. They met in the church for prayers, and Chris and Deana shared what they thought of the SACLA rally this afternoon; they had thought it was wonderful. They also said that Michelle had been speaking in tongues since she had gone to a conference with a friend of hers from the Full Gospel Church. We had tea at the rectory afterwards. The rector is Tony Farrell, whom we had met in Pietersburg on holiday three years ago. There were some students from the veterinary college at Onderstepoort, one of whom had just returned from a marathon horseback ride in the Free State.

The Russells were a family in Pretoria North that I had stayed with during Sacla, and they attended the Pretoria North Anglican Church. Hundreds of Pretoria families had opened their homes to Sacla delegates from all over the country.

But the question still remains: what does it mean 30 years later?

I suspect that the Right were right to fear Sacla and to want to stop it, for it helped to make all their nightmares come true.

Over the week that it met, people from all over the country were learning together, and meeting each other and discovering that what they had in common was much more important than their differences. It was more important to be Christian than to be black or white. It was more important to be Christian than to be Afrikaners or English or Zulu or Tswana or Xhosa. Sacla helped another generation of young South African Christians to resist apartheid, and to resist the propaganda that bombarded them in school, in society, and sometimes in even in church. I believe that many were given new hope and new encouragement to resist, and that they went back to their home churches with a renewed vision for a changed South Africa.

SACLA delegates -- with suits and ties

SACLA delegates -- with suits and ties

But that is just a perception, it was just an impresion I had. Did it really happen?

There is a way of finding out.

Much of the administrative work for Sacla was done by African Enterprise (AE), an evangelistic and training organisation based in Pietermaritzburg. Michael Cassidy of African Enterprise (then better known as Africa Enterprise) and David Bosch, of the Missiology Department of the University of South Africa were the prime movers. It was pretty well organised, and I wonder if AE still has the list of people who attended.

The feeding of the 5000 who attended SACLA

The feeding of the 5000 who attended SACLA

There could be a masters or doctoral thesis for a student of missiology or church history who would be willing to follow up the people who were at Sacla and find out what they did afterwards, and how Sacla affected their lives.

Twenty-four years later there was a follow-up, a Sacla II, but compared with Sacla I it seemed rather uninspiring. It at least has a web site, but it seems to have grown cobwebs. But I think Sacla I had a significant effect on the Christian scene in South Africa, and one that deserves to be recorded.

7 Comments leave one →
  1. 15 July 2009 12:24 pm

    Thanks so much for this Steve. I have indeed suggested my News and Commentary list read it on your blog.

    • 15 July 2009 7:24 pm

      Thanks very much, David

      It would be good to know how many who were there are still around.

    • 15 July 2009 11:45 pm

      Hi Father David,

      Fancy meeting you in a place like this ;)?

      I’ll link to your blog and say hi.

      In Christ,

      Mark Penrith

  2. 15 July 2009 11:39 pm

    Hi there,

    Very informative post.

  3. 16 July 2009 10:03 am

    Indeed, this is very informative.. Thanks Khanya, I have added your blog in the side panel in “Orthodox blog” list!

    In Christ,


  4. 16 July 2009 4:22 pm

    Thanks for this post about SACLA Steve! I know about SACLA I but very little. I was 9 years old at the time and living in Durban. I am very interested in this history and believe it is important for me and younger generations to know more about it.

    Could you follow this up with another post (maybe even a series) with more detail about what actually happened there, key things that were said by whom, how it influenced the role of the church in bringing about change in South Africa etc?

    I think there are lessons to be learnt from that time that we still haven’t applied in the church today.

  5. Janet permalink
    20 July 2009 1:47 pm

    Hi Steve

    Reading your blog on SACLA certainly brought back memories. I was 18 at the time and in my second year at University. I remember writing a report/project on the Leadership Conference as part of a research assignment for the Theology 2 module that I was taking at the time as part of my BA degree at the former University of Natal (Pmb).
    I made friends with David Bosch’s son who I remember took me around Pretoria (my first time in the city) and to the Union Building etc. I think I still have a photo of him taken there.
    For me, SACLA was a wonderful opportunity to listen to great thinkers and speakers and to have my thinking teased by the various teachings and especially the theme of unity and integration. I think SACLA was a building block in the foundation shaping something of who I am today. It was an amazing experience.
    Take care
    Janet (nee Shemilt)

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