South Africa caters for most religious dominations. Places of worship that include churches of every denomination, temples, synagogues and mosques are easily accessible in most towns and cities. Serviced are advertised in the local newspapers.

Almost all South Africans profess some religious affiliation, however attitudes toward religion and religious beliefs vary widely. 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.

The traditional spiritualities of the Khoisan and Bantu speakers were succeeded in predominance by the Christianity introduced by the Dutch and, later, British settlers. Islam was introduced by the Cape Malay slaves of the Dutch settlers, Hinduism was introduced by the indentured servants imported from the Indian subcontinent, and Buddhism was introduced by both Indians and Chinese immigrants.

Early African Religion

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.

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.

Missionaries and 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.

Roman Catholic Church

There are approximately 3.3 million Catholics in South Africa – just over 6% of the total population. 2.7 million are of various black African ethnic groups, such as Zulu, Xhosa, and Sotho. Coloured and white South Africans each account for roughly 300,000. Most white Catholics are English speaking, and the majority are descended from Irish immigrants. Many others are Portuguese settlers who left Angola and Mozambique after they became independent in the 1970s, or their children.

Archbishop Denis Hurley stands perhaps as the most eminent cleric in South African Catholic history. He was appointed bishop at the age of 31 and was a leader in opposing apartheid. He was member of the Central Preparatory Committee of Vatican II.

Protestant Church

Protestantism in South Africa date back to the initial European settlement on the Cape of Good Hope in 1652. Since then, Protestantism has been the preponderant religion of the European settlers and today, of all South Africans, regardless of ancestry.

Anglican Church

The Anglican Church was established in 1870 when its first Provincial Synod was held in Cape Town. It has grown over the years and now has 25 dioceses, found in the countries of Angola, Lesotho, Swaziland, Mocambique, Namibia, South Africa and the island of St Helena (South Atlantic Island). It has a diverse membership of approximately 3-4 million people, speaking many languages and representing many cultures and races.

The Archbishop is the Most Reverend Thabo Cecil Makgoba, who is also Bishop of Cape Town. There are currently 29 bishops, approx. 2000 clergy who minister in about 1000 parishes. During the years 1986 to 1996 the primate was Nobel Peace Prize laureate Desmond Tutu.

Desmond Tutu rose to worldwide fame during the 1980s as an opponent of apartheid. Tutu was elected and ordained the first black South African Anglican Archbishop of Cape Town, South Africa, and primate of the Anglican Church of Southern Africa. He received the Nobel Peace Prize in 1984, the Albert Schweitzer Prize for Humanitarianism, and the Magubela prize for liberty in 1986.

Zion Christian Church

The largest and fastest-growing of the African independent churches in the 1990s is the Zion Christian Church. Its members, estimated to number between 2 million and 6 million in more than 4,000 parishes, live primarily in urban townships and rural communities. The church is well known by the abbreviation, ZCC, pronounced “zed-say-say.” The ZCC was established in 1910 by Engenas Lekganyane, a farm worker in a rural area that later became Zion City, in the Northern Province. Lekganyane was educated by Scottish Presbyterian missionaries, and the church reflects some elements of that religion. The ZCC took its name from Biblical references to the Mount of Zion in Jerusalem, based in part on the inspiration of a similar community in Zion, Illinois.

Zionist beliefs emphasize the healing power of religious faith, and for this reason ZCC leaders sometimes clash with the traditional healers, or sangomas , who are important in many belief systems. Despite occasional conflicts, however, the ZCC respects traditional African religious beliefs, in general, especially those concerning the power of the ancestors to intercede on behalf of humans.

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