South Africa Table of Contents

Almost all South Africans profess some religious affiliation, according to the official census in 1991. Attitudes toward religion and religious beliefs vary widely, however. The government has actively encouraged specific Christian beliefs during much of the twentieth century, but South Africa has never had an official state religion nor any significant government prohibition regarding religious beliefs.

About 80 percent of all South Africans are Christians, and most are Protestants. More than 8 million South Africans are members of African Independent churches, which have at least 4,000 congregations. The denomination generally holds a combination of traditional African and Protestant beliefs. The other large Protestant denomination, the Dutch Reformed Church, has about 4 million members in several branches. Most are whites or people of mixed race.

Other Protestant denominations in the mid-1990s include at least 1.8 million Methodists, 1.2 million Anglicans, 800,000 Lutherans, 460,000 Presbyterians, and smaller numbers of Baptists, Congregationalists, Seventh Day Adventists, and members of the Assembly of God and the Apostolic Faith Mission of Southern Africa. More than 2.4 million South Africans are Roman Catholics; about 27,000 are Greek or Russian Orthodox. More than 7,000 are Mormons. Adherents of other world religions include at least 350,000 Hindus, perhaps 400,000 Muslims, more than 100,000 Jews, and smaller numbers of Buddhists, Confucians, and Baha'is.

Historical Background

African Religions

The earliest southern African religions, those of the Khoisan peoples, were more complex than early missionaries often recorded. Their beliefs and practices were substantially eroded by contacts with Europeans. Exceptional records of Khoisan rituals were made by a German linguist, Wilhelm Bleek, during the 1870s and the 1880s. Some traditional Khoisan beliefs have been preserved through oral histories, and some religious practices are still observed in remote areas of Botswana and Namibia.

Many Khoisan peoples believe in a supreme being who presides over daily life and controls elements of the environment. In some Khoisan belief systems, this god is worshiped through rituals or small sacrifices. A second, evil deity brings illness and misfortune to earth. This dualism between good and evil pervades other areas of Khoisan thought about the nature of the universe. Some Khoisan belief systems maintain that a person should never attempt to communicate with the beneficent deity, for fear of provoking his evil counterpart, and some believe that spiritual beings simply ignore humanity most of the time.

Traditional Khoisan religion also included numerous mythic tales of gods and ancestor-heroes, whose lives provided examples of ways to cope with social conflicts and personal problems. Also important was the use of dance and altered states of consciousness to gain knowledge for healing an individual or remedying a social evil. Healing dances are still among the most widely practiced religious rituals in South Africa, even in the 1990s, and are used in some African Independent churches to heal the sick or eradicate evil.

For many Khoisan peoples, the sun and the moon were gods, or aspects of a supreme deity. The cycle of religious observance was, therefore, carefully adjusted according to the cycles of the moon. Seventeenth- and eighteenth-century observers in the Cape Colony noted the importance of ritual dances and prayers during the full moon each month. Khoisan legends and myths also refer to a "trickster" god, who could transform himself into animal or human forms, and who could die and be reborn many times over. The praying mantis, a predatory insect with large eyes and other features characteristic of animal predators, figures in San myths and folktales in a role similar to the clever fox in European folktales. Khoisan herdboys still use mantises to "divine" the location of lost animals, and in Afrikaans, the mantis is referred to as "the Hottentot's god."

Bantu-speaking peoples brought an array of new religious practices and beliefs when they arrived in the first millennium A.D. Most believed in a supreme being, or high god, who could bestow blessings or bring misfortune to humans. More influential in their spiritual life, however, was a group of ancestral spirits--a different pantheon of spiritual beings in each community. These spirits could communicate with and influence the lives of the living, and they could sometimes be influenced by human entreaties. The male head of a homestead was usually the ritual leader, responsible for performing rituals, giving thanks, seeking a blessing, or healing the sick on behalf of his homestead. Rites of passage, or rituals marking major life-cycle changes such as birth, initiation, marriage, and death, were also important religious observances, and rituals were used for rainmaking, strengthening fertility, and enhancing military might.

Zulu and Xhosa religions generally sought to placate male ancestral spirits, often with libations of beer or offerings of meat, and to seek their guidance or intercession. Ancestral spirits were almost uniformly benevolent; evil was generally attributed to witches or sorcerers, who might overpower or bypass a spiritual protector or ancestor. Ancestral spirits occasionally caused minor illnesses, primarily as a warning against religious neglect or misdeeds.

Most Bantu religious systems had no priesthood, or officially recognized mediator between the material and the spiritual worlds. Rather, they believed that political leadership was accompanied by religious responsibility. For example, a chiefdom or kingdom relied on the chief or monarch for physical and spiritual survival. Particular importance was attached to the status of the diviner, or sangoma , however; the sangoma underwent rigorous training to acquire the extensive knowledge and skills necessary for divination and healing.

Bantu religions usually avoided any claim that rituals performed by human beings could influence the actions of the supreme deity, or high god; rituals were normally intended to honor or placate lesser spiritual beings, and sometimes to ask for their intervention. The high god was a remote, transcendent being possessing the power to create the Earth, but beyond human comprehension or manipulation. Ancestors, in contrast, were once human and had kinship ties with those on earth, and they were sometimes amenable to human entreaties.

Many Bantu societies have historical accounts or myths that explain the presence of human society on earth. In many cases, these myths affirm that human beings first emerged from a hole in the ground, that they were plucked from a field or a bed of reeds, or that they were fashioned from elemental substances through the efforts of a supreme deity. Death originated in the failure of human beings or their messengers, such as a chameleon who was sent to relay a divine message of immortality, but who delayed and was overtaken by the message of death.

Such widespread myths not only provide an account of the origins of the human condition, but they also describe appropriate behavior for coping with a complex world. For example, a Zulu myth tells of the creation of both black and white human beings, the assignment of the black people to the land and the white people to the sea, and the provision of spears for black people and guns for whites. Many of life's conflicts arise, it is believed, when people defy the divine plan.

Scholars have reported that during the rapid acculturation of the nineteenth century in southern Africa, new myths and legends arose, attributing greater and greater power to traditional gods. In this way, new events and displays of power were incorporated into existing belief systems. Others have suggested that the upheaval of the nineteenth century provided fertile ground for Christian and Muslim missionaries, whose teachings of a Supreme Being presiding over the entire world provided reassurance of a divine order in a changing environment. In this view, the new world religions drew converts based on their appeal as an explanation of changing circumstances.

The Arrival of Christianity

Religion and politics were inextricably interwoven as soon as the Portuguese navigator Bartholomeu Dias (Diaz) erected a limestone pillar and Christian cross at the Cape of Good Hope in the year A.D. 1488. Religious missionaries did not arrive in any significant numbers for more than a century, however. In 1652 the Dutch East India Company established a resupply station at the Cape, based largely on the experience of Jan van Riebeeck, who had survived a shipwreck off the coast of the Cape in 1648 and who later became the governor of the Cape Colony. Dutch Reformed Church missionaries reported in 1658 that Khoikhoi slaves in the area attended their mission services (and were rewarded with a glass of brandy after the sermon).

Religious reforms swept through the Netherlands in the early seventeenth century, and the Calvinist Synod ruled in 1618 that any slave who was baptized should be freed. In the Cape Colony, however, farmers who depended on their slaves refused repeated entreaties from the church authorities in Europe to free these slaves. Instead, the slaveowners banned religious instruction for slaves, so none could be baptized.

The London Missionary Society sent large numbers of missionaries to the Cape Colony in 1799, and soon after that, the Glasgow Missionary Society and the Wesleyan Methodist Missionary Society arrived, along with missionaries from the United States, France, Germany, and Scandinavia. Most missions placed a high priority on literacy and Biblical instruction, but as the Industrial Revolution swept through Europe and the United States, the evangelical message increasingly emphasized the spiritual benefits of productive labor. Missionaries also promoted European values and occupations as well as the possession of material goods unrelated to spiritual salvation, such as European clothing, houses, and tools.

Many Western missionaries mistakenly believed that southern Africans had no religion because of the differences in their faiths. Africans often denied the existence of a single, supreme being who could be influenced by prayer on behalf of humans. They appeared to confirm the missionaries' suspicions that they were "godless" by performing ritual oblations to lesser spiritual beings and ancestors. The absence of a priest or minister, or any type of church, was interpreted as further proof of the lack of spiritual beliefs, even among those who had strong beliefs in an array of spiritual beings and forces.

A few African leaders took advantage of the missionaries' presence to enhance or to reinforce their own political power. For example, the nineteenth-century Sotho King Moshoeshoe I claimed that Christian teachings only validated rules of behavior he had long advocated for his subjects. The Xhosa chief, Ngqika, rewarded local missionaries when their prayers appeared to bring much-needed rain. Sotho, Tswana, and others sought the protection of Christian missionaries during the mfecane and the related upheaval of the first part of the nineteenth century. The term Mfengu was originally applied to these displaced people who settled around Christian mission stations, but over time, the Mfengu came to be recognized as a relatively cohesive ethnic group.

The relationships among indigenous African leaders, missionaries, and European settlers and officials were always complex. Missionaries whose efforts were frustrated by local chiefs sometimes sought government intervention to weaken the chiefs' power. Government officials relied in part on the influence of missionaries in order to convince indigenous Africans of the validity of European customs. At times, however, missionaries objected to official policies that they considered harmful to their followers, and they were criticized by government officials, as a result, for interfering in official matters.

In the 1830s and the 1840s, British officials in the eastern Cape Colony tried to eliminate the Xhosa practice of witch hunts, which were increasing in response to the turmoil in the region and were spreading fear through many religious communities. The British also abolished traditional economic practices, such as the Xhosa custom of paying lobola , or bridewealth given by the family of a groom to that of his bride. But abolishing an element of traditional culture almost always resulted in an array of unforeseen cultural consequences, and this was especially true when the practices being eliminated were central to a group's social organization, as was the lobola .

By 1850, the Xhosa were enraged by the British presence. A leading Xhosa healer and diviner, Mlangeni, organized an army to confront the British and promised supernatural assistance in this effort, as long as the Xhosa people sacrificed all of their yellow and dun-colored cattle to counteract the evil spell that had engulfed them. A brutal frontier war ensued, and the rebellion was suppressed in 1853.

The Xhosa defeat was made even more bitter when a chiefly adviser, Mhlakaza, convinced many people of a prophecy brought by his niece, Nongqawuse, telling of an end to British domination and the redemption of the Xhosa if they would first kill all their remaining cattle and destroy their food stocks. In 1856 and 1857, thousands of Xhosa responded to the prophecy; more than 400,000 cattle were sacrificed. After the prophecy failed, more than 40,000 people died of starvation, and almost as many were forced to seek work in the colonial labor market.

Religion and Apartheid
Zion Christian Church

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Source: U.S. Library of Congress