South African Culture

Religion

South Africa has never had an official state religion. The country’s constitution explicitly states everyone’s right to freedom of conscience, religion, thought, belief and opinion. However, the government actively promoted Christianity throughout much of the 20th century and it remains the most widely followed faith today. While the 2011 South African census did not include a question of religious affiliation, the majority of South Africans (84.2%) identified as Christian in a 2013 General Household Survey. This represented an increased from 79.8% reported in the 2001 census. Of the remaining population, 5% identified with ancestral or traditional African religions, 2% identified as Muslim, 1% identified as Hindu, and 0.2% identified as Jewish. Atheism and agnosticism were identified by 0.2% of the population, while 5.5% identified with ‘nothing in particular’, and 1.6% did not specify.


Christianity in South Africa

Christianity was first introduced to South Africa in the 1600s when large numbers of Christian missionaries began arriving from the Netherlands. Further missionaries from the United Kingdom, France, Germany, Scandinavia and the United States started to arrive from the early 1800s. South Africa’s religious composition was (and continues to be) deeply shaped by these early interactions. Today, the majority of South Africans identify as Christian (84.2%).


According to StatsSA, the provinces of Northern Cape (97.9%) and Free State (95.5%) have the highest percentage of Christians in the country. Christianity often plays an important role for South Africans and their communities. For instance, the General Household Survey also found that 56.4% of those who identify as Christian report attending religious services on a weekly basis.


The ‘African Independent Church’ (or African-initiated Church) make up the largest Christian group. This consists of several churches and subdivisions are denominationally, ritually and linguistically diverse. However, they are all united by the fact that they were established by African initiatives rather than foreign missionaries. African Independent Churches often openly incorporate aspects of ancestral and traditional African religions with Christian practices. The largest church of this kind is the Zion Christian Church (ZCC), which presents a syncretism between the worship practices of Christianity and traditional African religions. This tradition places emphasis on practices relating to physical and spiritual healing. Methodist, Roman Catholic, Anglican, Dutch Reformed, Lutheran, Pentecostal and Seventh-day Adventist churches are also popular throughout South Africa.


Christianity and the Apartheid

Christianity has had an influential role in South African society and politics, both during and after apartheid. For example, the Dutch Reformed Church (Nederduitse Gereformeerde Kerk) became the official religion of the National Party during the apartheid era, accumulating more than three million followers by the 1990s. This church posed a barrier to political reform as many clergy members were highly committed to apartheid (often moreso than many of its followers).


However, many Christian churches also played an instrumental role in the abolishment and transition from apartheid. Former president Nelson Mandela often called upon churches and religious organisations to help in the process of building a “new” South Africa. The South African Council of Churches (SACC) was one of the most active anti-apartheid organisations under the leadership of Anglican Archbishop Desmond Tutu.


Traditional African Religions

The earliest known religion in South Africa was the traditional beliefs and practices of the Khoisan people, who resided in the region for centuries. Bantu-speaking groups introduced further religious traditions to the region in 1000 CE. Today, South Africa is home to a diversity of traditional African practices, with roughly 5% of the population identifying with a traditional African religion. Those who identify with traditional African religions make up 11.35% of the population residing in the province of KwaZulu Natal.


Some South Africans adhere solely to traditional and ancestral beliefs and practices. However, it is also common to find a mixture of such beliefs and practices with Christianity, reflecting how religious demarcations in South Africa are often blurred. A respect for past and present elders plays an important role in most traditional African religions. People tend to maintain a spiritual connection with their ancestors through various activities such as prayer. Some traditions may have a spiritual leader who has various responsibilities. For instance, in the Zulu tradition, there are special mediators called ‘sangomas’ that are responsible for physical and spiritual healing, as well as counselling about the future.


Islam in South Africa

The first Muslims to arrive in South Africa were political exiles from British and Dutch colonies (South Asia, Indonesia and Malaysia) during the 17th to 19th century. Today, it is estimated roughly 2% of South African population identifies as Muslim. These are mostly people of Indian and/or Asian descent, predominantly living in the provinces of Western Cape, KwaZulu Natal and Gauteng.


Hinduism in South Africa

Hinduism was introduced to South Africa in the 1800s by indentured labourers from South Asia. In present-day South Africa, approximately 1% of the population identifies as Hindu – most of which have South Asian or Malay descent. Many Hindus in South Africa practice temple-based rituals, and the most popular festival celebrated is Diwali. Hindus make up 3.9% of the population residing in the province of KwaZulu Natal.

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