Religious affiliations

It is no secret that man is a spiritual being and that mankind through the ages and even today, in general, has an inclination to believe in something beyond itself that influences its daily life or determine its destiny. This ‘something’ may be considered as one or several deities, deceased ancestors, natural elements, spirits, intelligent extraterrestrial life and even scientific theory such as (macro-)evolution. From these various belief systems, numerous world religions have developed through the ages.1-3 Religion can be defined as a unified system of beliefs and practices relative to sacred things, that is to say things set apart and/or forbidden. These beliefs and practices unite into one single moral community, who are all those who adhere to them.”2 There are, however, also those who believe that man alone is in control of itself and its fate.1,2The people of South Africa are no different, and the complex religious make-up of South Africans is just as diverse as the South African population itself. Since South Africa is a secular country, everyone’s right to freedom of conscience, religion, thought, belief and opinion is protected by the Constitution. Although the country as a whole has, therefore, never had an official state religion, Christianity was strongly promoted during the late seventeenth and eighteenth century.4-7 In a General Household Survey in 2013, the majority of South Africans (84 %) affiliated themselves with Christianity, while 5 % identified with African traditional/ancestral religions, 2 % with Islam, 1 % with Hinduism, 0.2 % with Judaism and 0.01 % with Buddhism. Also, atheists and agnostics made up 0.2 % of the total population, and 5.5 % of citizens distanced themselves from any religion or form of spirituality practice.8Protestant Christianity rooted itself in Southern Africa in 1652 when Dutch colonists permanently settled at the Cape of Good Hope. Long before that, however, ancestral religious traditions were practiced by the San (Bushman) in the northern and central regions of South Africa, by the Khoi-Khoi in the southern parts of South Africa, as well as by various black African tribes in the northern and eastern areas.4,5,9-13 “Generally, these traditions were – and still are – oral rather than scriptural and are passed down from one generation to another through folk tales, songs and festivals. It includes the belief in higher and lower gods – sometimes including a supreme creator – and also the belief in spirits or power animals, veneration of the dead, as well as the use of magic and traditional medicine.” 11,13During the first 130 years of the Dutch colony at the southern tip of Africa, the society and church were under jurisdiction of the Vereenigde Oost-Indische Compagnie [VOC] (Dutch East India Company), a major Dutch trading house. The church was known as the Reformed Church of the Cape, also known as the Cape Church (Gereformeerde Kerk van die Kaap, ook bekend as die Kaapse Kerk), and was the only church denomination permitted. It was affiliated with the church congregation of the Dutch Reformed Church (Nederlands Hervormde of Gereformeerde Kerk) in Amsterdam in the Netherlands.9,10,14,15 The church at the Cape of Good Hope, with Dutch as the enforced language of communication, limited itself to the European colonists, but also ministered to some of the mixed parentage individuals (with mixed European and slave/Khoi-Khoi ancestry, later to become known as the Coloured Community). The Cape Church was renamed the Dutch Reformed Church (DRC) of South Africa (Nederduitse Gereformeerde Kerk [NGK] van Suid-Afrika) on 14 November 1842 and still exists as such as a predominantly Afrikaans-speaking denomination.9,10,15,16 After many years of futile petitions by German, Danish and Scandinavian colonists, the Lutheran Church was allowed for the first time in 1778, to built their own church and conduct public church meetings led by their own home-language Lutheran ministers.10,17

Muslims were granted religious freedom allowing public Islamic worship in 1804, although Islam had already reached South Africa in 1658 with the first arrivals of slaves from India, Indonesia and Malaysia. These slaves and their descendants – mainly the Cape Malay as we know them today – were allowed to practice their religion, but within isolating restrictions enforced by the VOC administration. Currently Islam is one of the fastest growing religions in the sub-Sahara region.9,10,18,19Furthermore, when Britain annexed the Cape for a second time in 1806, the lenient administrative policies of the British government, as well as the significant influx of British immigrants, resulted in the planting of nearly all of the Christian denominations that existed in Britain at that time, such as the Anglican, Presbyterian, Methodist, Baptist and Roman Catholic Church. The Orthodox Church also took root as a result of immigrants from other parts of Europe. It was also during the early nineteenth century that South Africa saw an upsurge in missionary societies entering the country with the aim to evangelize the indigenous African peoples and gain converts. These included the London Missionary Society, the Moravians, the Wesleyan Missionary Society, the American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Missions and others.4,6,9,10,20,21Another Afrikaans-speaking church denomination, the Netherdutch Reformed Church in Africa (NRCA) / Nederduitsche Hervormde Kerk in Afrika (NHKA) was founded in 1853 and became the state church of the independent Zuid-Afrikaansche Boer Republiek (ZAR) (1852 – 1902), also known as the Transvaal Republic. In 1859, yet another white Afrikaner church denomination was founded when disgruntled members broke away from the NRCA to start the Reformed Churches in South Afrika (RCSA) / Gereformeerde Kerke in Suid-Afrika (GKSA). In the early 1860s, however, the DRC – which by then was well established in the British Cape Colony, British Natal and the Oranje-Vrystaat Boere Republiek (OVS) – started to also get a foothold in the ZAR. The Declarations of Faith of these three Afrikaans sister-churches in South Africa are very similar, yet any past merger attempts over nearly 200 years have proven futile.9,10,22,23

Up until 1994 the family of Dutch Reformed Churches included the DRC of South Africa, the Nederduitse Gereformeerde Sendingkerk (NGSK) for Coloured people which was founded in 1881, and the Nederduitse Gereformeerde Kerk in Afrika (NGKA) for black Africans founded in 1951. These latter two church denominations merged in 1994 to form the Uniting Reformed Church in Southern Africa (URCSA) / Verenigende Gereformeerde Kerk in Suider-Afrika (VGKSA). The (Indian) Reformed Church in Africa (RCA) was created in 1968.15,22,23 Among South African Indians, of whom the majority are descendants of Indian labourers who arrived in Natal between 1860 and 1911, Hinduism and Islam are the predominant religions.9,10,18,24

There are also a variety of non-reformed church denominations in South Africa such as Pentecostal/Charismatic church congregations and Independent African Churches, of which the prominent Zion Christian Church (ZCC) is one example.6,8,25,26

  1. Woods, L. 2008 Handbook of World Religions. 1st Ed. Barbour Publishing, Inc.: Uhrichsville, Ohio, USA
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  6. Roy, K. 21 April 2020. An overview of South African Church History. Langham Publishing.
  7. The Constitution of the Republic of South Africa, 1996. Act 108 of 1996. ISBN 0-620-20214-9
  8. Schoeman, W.J. 2017 South African religious demography: The 2013 General Household Survey. Hervormde Teologiese Studies, Vol 73 (2).
  9. Giliomee, H. & Mbenga, B. 2007 Nuwe geskiedenis van Suid-Afrika. 1ste Ed. Tafelberg: Kaapstad
  10. Illustrated history of South Africa. The real story. 1989 2nd Ed. Reader’s Digest Association South Africa (Pty) Ltd.: Cape Town
  11. Traditional African religions.
  12. San religion.
  13. Religion and beliefs of the San.
  14. Brown, W. 2002. NG Kerk: Waarvandaan. (In Hofmeyr, G., red. NG Kerk 350. LuxVerbi.BM : Wellington
  15. Gemeentegeskiedenisargief. ‘n Oorsig van die geskiedenis van die NG Kerk, sy gemeentes en predikante.
  16. Coertzen, P. 2002. 1842. Nuwe ‘wetten en bepalingen’ en ‘n nuwe naam. (In Hofmeyr, G., red. NG Kerk 350. LuxVerbi.BM : Wellington
  17. Lutheran Church. Cape Town History. A tourist guide.
  18. Mahida, E.M. 1993 History of Muslims in South Africa: A Chronology.
  19. Günther, U. 19 July 2018. Islam in South Africa. Muslims’ contribution to the South African transition process and the challenges of contextual readings of Islam. Al Mesbar Studies & Research Center, Dubai, United Arab Emirates.
  20. Smit, J.A. 2015. J.T. van der Kemp and eighteenth century coded subjectivity. Journal for the Study of Religion. Vol 28 (2).
  21. Cabrita, J. & Erlank, N. 2018. New histories of Christianity in South Africa: Review and introduction. South African Historical Journal. Vol 70 (2).
  22. Van der Watt, P.B. 1989. Die Nederduitse Gereformeerde Kerk 1652-1905. NG Kerkboekhandel 1988 (Edms) Bpk : Pretoria
  23. Bingle, P. 2002. 1859. Die Gereformeerde Kerke in Suid-Afrika. (In Hofmeyr, G., red. NG Kerk 350. LuxVerbi.BM : Wellington
  24. Bhana, S. 1987 Indentured Indians in Natal, 1860 – 1902. A Study based on Ship’s Lists. South African History Online.
  25. Christianity in South Africa.
  26. Zion Christian Church (ZCC).