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TRC Final Report

Page Number (Original) 60

Paragraph Numbers 10 to 28

Volume 4

Chapter 3

Subsection 1

African Traditional Religion

10 African Traditional Religion in South Africa is at a significant disadvantage when placed alongside more highly organised institutions. Often dismissed as ‘culture’ rather than religion (based on the early settler view of Africans as religious ‘blank slates’), African Traditional Religion often lacks centralised and acknowledged leadership and regulatory bodies to give it identity. It is, indeed, often represented by black Christian theologians rather than traditional religions themselves. It nevertheless represents a vibrant cluster of practices that are part of the lives of many Africans, including those who attend Christian churches.

Christian churches

11 Although Roman Catholicism arrived in South Africa with the Portuguese explorers, Christianity in South Africa was established predominantly in Protestant churches (or denominations). The Dutch Reformed Church and the Moravians represented early settler and missionary Christianity respectively. The white Lutheran churches were established with the arrival of German and Scandinavian settlers. Groups that would coalesce into the so-called English-speaking churches date from the nineteenth century onwards. Ironically, the majority membership of these churches is black and does not use English as its first language. These include the Church of the Province (Anglicans), the Methodist Church of Southern Africa (Methodists), the Presbyterian Church of Southern Africa (Presbyterians) and the United Congregational Church of Southern Africa (United Congregationals). The Roman Catholic Church (Catholics) is usually grouped with these.

12 Black churches (not included in the English-speaking churches) comprise the black mission churches, historic black churches and African-initiated (or indigenous) churches. Unlike the converts of the English-speaking churches, the converts of the Afrikaans Reformed Churches, some other mission churches and certain missionary societies were formed into separate churches – always under the watchful eye of the white missionaries. The black churches within the Afrikaans Reformed church traditions are discussed below. The Scottish missionaries established the Bantu Presbyterian Church (today Reformed Presbyterian Church). The Swiss established the Tsonga Presbyterian Church (now the Evangelical Presbyterian Church) and the American Board of Missions was responsible for the emergence of the Bantu Congregational Church. The latter church went into union with the Congregational Church to form the United Congregational Church of Southern Africa in 1967 and the Reformed Presbyterian Church is planning to unite with the Presbyterian Church of South Africa, although the Evangelical Presbyterian Church is not part of that union. The origin of the American Methodist Episcopalian Church is to be found in the rejection of racism in the post-Civil War period in the United States of America and was first established in South Africa in the latter part of the nineteenth century.

13 Perhaps the most significant emergence of black churches came with the advent of the African Initiated Churches. The causes were the lack of black representation in the leadership of the established churches, coupled with white paternalism, class assertion and cultural hegemony. The largest of these is the Zion Christian Church, best known for its annual gathering at Moria. Also prominent (and especially strong in KwaZulu-Natal) is the Ibandla lama Nazaretha or Shembe church, which strongly reflects Zulu culture.

14 African Initiated Churches have, at times, been regarded as inward looking and disinterested in political participation. This is not, however, always the case. The Council of African Initiated Churches unites across a number of bodies and has been politically engaged. It is also connected to other churches through its membership of the SACC.

15 The Afrikaans Reformed Churches were widely identified with Afrikaner nationalism and held to be complicit in apartheid. The largest of the group is the Nederduitse Gereformeerde Kerk (Dutch Reformed Church). The others include the Nederduitsch Hervormde Kerk, the Gereformeerde Kerke and the Afrikaanse Protestante Kerk. Of these, only the Dutch Reformed Church made representations to the Commission. Located within the Dutch Reformed Church’s ‘family’ are three mission churches: the Nederduitse Gereformeerde Sendingkerk (Coloured), the Nederduitse Gereformeerde Kerk in Afrika (black) and the Indian Reformed Church. In 1994, the Nederduitse Gereformeerde Sendingkerk and Nederduitse Gereformeente Kerk in Afrika amalgamated as the Uniting Reformed Church of Southern Africa (Uniting Reformed Church). Negotiations for inclusion of the white Dutch Reformed Church and the Indian Reformed Church were ongoing at the time of the hearings.

16 Like the Afrikaans Reformed Churches, the Apostolic Faith Mission was segregated along racial lines. A Pentecostal church, the Apostolic Faith Mission drew many of its members from the Afrikaans Reformed Churches. Pentecostal and charismatic religion in South Africa is also represented by a number of other groups, organisations and movements, including the International Fellowship of Christian Churches. Membership of these groups is growing fast, particularly (though not exclusively) in white suburbs.

17 Other churches with strong constituencies were also established, including Lutheran churches. Some evangelicals have remained in these churches, although there are also denominations that are explicitly conservative in doctrine and ethos. Many of these churches were represented at the hearings and in submissions - either directly or through the Evangelical Alliance of South Africa (Evangelical Alliance).

18 The Baptist Church has been in South Africa since the mid-nineteenth century. The two largest denominations are the Baptist Union and the Baptist Convention, which split from the Union in 1987.

19 The other main evangelical denomination at the hearings was the Church of England in South Africa (Church of England) which claims to be the original representative of Anglicanism in South Africa. Also notable in this camp are the Salvation Army and the Seventh Day Adventist church.

20 Many of the communities mentioned above are members of the SACC, including more conservative evangelical and charismatic churches, such as the Salvation Army and the International Federation of Christian Churches (which joined some five years before the Commission hearings). The Catholics joined in 1994, on the same day the Dutch Reformed Church became an observer member. Before the fall of apartheid, the SACC drew its members mainly from the English-speaking churches. Increasingly, as it was marginalised by the state and seen to identify with resistance movements (causing considerable tension with its older constituents), its membership became increasingly black.


21 Islam traces its origins in South Africa to the arrival of political prisoners and slaves at the Cape from the late seventeenth century. Conversion to Islam was widespread in the Cape, due to the exclusion of slaves from the Dutch church (the chief reason for which was insistence by the Dutch East India Company that Christianised slaves be manumitted). In this environment, Islam provided a political haven for slaves and ‘free blacks’ and provided them with basic religious rites they were denied by the church. In the early twentieth century, Indian traders who settled in the Transvaal and Natal also introduced Islam. Important class differences, expressed in theological distinctions, are rooted in these communities.

22 Formed in the Cape in 1945, the MJC was set up to promote unity amongst Muslims. Despite the leadership of Imam Abdullah Haron, who was killed in 1969, the MJC took an apolitical stance for many years. The emergence of the Muslim Youth Movement (MYM) of South Africa, the Pan Africanist Congress (PAC)-aligned Qibla and the United Democratic Front (UDF)-aligned Call of Islam created a stronger social and political consciousness amongst Muslims (and within the MJC). This often pitted them against the conservative Ulamas.


23 The Jewish community in South Africa descends from immigrants of Anglo-German and Lithuanian origins who arrived at various stages during the nineteenth century. The SA Jewish Board of Deputies (formed in 1912) and the SA Zionist Federation (1898) are its two main representative bodies. Originally, members of the Jewish faith in South Africa looked to the Chief Rabbi of Britain for spiritual leadership. Eventually, in 1933, synagogues in the Transvaal federated under a chief rabbi. In 1986, Cape and Transvaal groupings that had remained fairly independent up until then amalgamated. While members of the Jewish community made their greatest contributions to South African human rights as individuals, some organisations also played a role. During the last years of apartheid, Jews for Justice and Jews for Social Justice were important voices of protest. The Gesher Movement, formed in Johannesburg in 1996, aims “to serve as a Jewish lobby speaking with one independent voice, ‘to enlighten’ the Jewish community in the new South Africa, and to combat Jewish racism.”1


24 Seventy percent of the one million South African Indians are Hindu. The first Indians came to South Africa in 1860 to work as indentured labour, mainly on sugar plantations in Natal. After the term of their indenture ended, many stayed on as farmers - despite government attempts to repatriate them in the 1920s. The so-called ‘free’ or ‘passenger Indians’ arrived towards the end of the nineteenth century and set up trade and merchant businesses. Indians in South Africa are a very diverse group. They include four major language groups with distinctive (though sometimes overlapping) worship practices, religious rites, customs and dress.

25 From the turn of the century, various Hindu communities and religious institutions came together under the banner of a national body. The Hindu Maha Sabha was formed in 1912 as a forum for discussion of the religious, cultural, educational, social and economic welfare of the Hindu community. It embraces the four main language groups, temple societies and neo-religious organisations that subscribe to the views of Hinduism.


26 While some Buddhists came to South Africa from India and other Indians have embraced the religion since its arrival late in the nineteenth century, most South African Buddhists are white converts. Buddhism in South Africa does not have centralised structures, but is present in small organisations and centres. The first Buddhist society was formed in 1917 in Natal. Buddhism grew amongst whites through the work of Molly and Louis van Loon and others who travelled and learned its practices abroad. The Dharma Centre, representing the Zen tradition, was set up at Somerset West in 1984.

The Baha’i Faith

27 Although present in South Africa since 1911, the Baha’i Faith only began to grow in the 1950s. While committed to inclusivity, the South African Baha’i community worked to promote its black leadership. This was, as it said in its statement to the Commission, “a result of [its] great emphasis on spiritual, moral, and ethical aspects of community life”. The Baha’i faith places great emphasis on offering itself as a model for reconciliation, both racial and religious.

28 Throughout the hearings and in submissions, faith communities identified their role in South Africa’s past as ‘agents’ of oppression, as ‘victims’ of oppression, and/or as ‘opponents’ of oppression.

1 Milton Shain, ‘South Africa’, American Jewish Year Book, 1997 Eds. David Singer and Ruth R. Seldin (New York: American Jewish Committee, 1997), 422
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