Freedom of religion in South Africa

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South Africa is a secular democracy with freedom of religion.



The preamble to post-apartheid South Africa's Constitution of 1996 contains references to God in the form of a multilingual evocation asking for God's protection and blessing.[1] Dutch theologian Johannes van der Ven describes this text as a "rhetorical petition prayer".[2] The Constitution nevertheless enshrines the right to freedom of religion.

Chapter 2 of the Constitution of South Africa, the Bill of Rights, contains a number of provisions dealing with religious freedom. Section 9, the equality clause, prohibits unfair discrimination on various grounds including religion and requires national legislation to be enacted to prevent or prohibit unfair discrimination. Section 15 states that everyone has the right to freedom of conscience, religion, thought, belief and opinion. This section also allows religious observances in state and state-aided institutions, provided they follow public authority rules, they are conducted on an equitable basis and attendance is free and voluntary; and provides for the recognition of religious legal systems and marriages that are not inconsistent with the Constitution. Section 31 protects the right of persons belonging to a religious community to practise their religion together with other members of that community, and to form, join and maintain voluntary religious associations.[3]

Various other provisions of the Constitution relate to religion and religious freedom. Sections 185 and 186 provide for a commission for the promotion and protection of the rights of cultural, religious and linguistic communities.[4] In addition, human rights such as the right to human dignity,[5] the right to freedom of expression[6] and the right to freedom of association[7] relate indirectly to the protection of religious freedom. The right to freedom of expression does not extend to hate speech based on various grounds including religion.[6]

The constitutional right to freedom of religion is not absolute. In his keynote speech at the public endorsement ceremony of the South African Charter of Religious Rights and Freedoms in Johannesburg on 21 October 2010 Deputy Chief Justice Dikgang Moseneke stated:

Most of the provisions of the charter may appear uncontroversial, and yet as a sitting justice of the Constitutional Court moments may present themselves when I may be duty-bound to proffer judicial opinion on the remit or impact of one or more of its provisions, if they were to be formally enacted, or if a justiciable dispute about its enactment should arise. I am thus honour-bound to keep an open mind on the constitutional appropriateness of its provisions.

Every right guaranteed in the Bill of Rights may be limited by a law of general application. Thus the right to religious freedom is not absolute. Its scope may be limited by other rights or by a law in pursuit of a legitimate government purpose.
We have opted for a secular state which is enjoined to observe strict neutrality among religious tendencies. This duty indeed extends to the right not to believe or hold or observe any religion.

Where religious rights are at odds with other constitutional guarantees or a legitimate government purpose, the conflict must be weighed carefully, keeping in mind that in our constitutional democracy the constitution is supreme and there is no hierarchy of rights. All rank equally. We all have the right to be different.
—Dikgang Moseneke, "The right to differ religiously". The Sunday Independent  – via HighBeam Research (subscription required). 24 October 2010. Retrieved 18 March 2014. 

Equality Act[edit]

Pursuant to Section 9 of the Constitution, the Equality Act of 2000 prohibits unfair discrimination on various grounds including religion.[8][9] The Equality Act does not apply to unfair discrimination in the workplace, which is covered by the Employment Equity Act.[10]

South African Human Rights Commission[edit]

The South African Human Rights Commission (SAHRC) is a chapter nine institution inaugurated in 1995 to support constitutional democracy. The SAHRC investigates complaints about unfair discrimination and assists members of the public with cases heard in Equality Courts.[10][11][12]

CRL Rights Commission[edit]

The Commission for the Promotion and Protection of the Rights of Cultural, Religious and Linguistic Communities (CRL Rights Commission) is a chapter nine institution established in 2004 to support constitutional democracy.[13]

Religion in schools[edit]

National legislation and policies governing religion in public schools relate to Religion Education, religious observances in schools and school dress codes:

  • The National Policy on Religion and Education adopted in September 2003 provides for Religion Education, i.e. education about diverse religions, which does not promote any particular religion in the public school curriculum.[14] Religion Education is covered in the Life Orientation subject.[15]
  • In accordance with Section 15 of the Constitution, religious observances are permitted in public schools provided they are conducted on an equitable basis which acknowledges religious diversity and attendance is free and voluntary.[16][17]
  • The Department of Basic Education's National Guidelines on School Uniform adopted in February 2006 state that a school's dress code should accommodate religious and cultural diversity.[18][19][20][21]

Legislative reforms[edit]

The new Constitution did not result in immediate reform of discriminatory legislation infringing on the right to religious freedom. Various legislative reforms have taken place or have been initiated since 1994 as a result of lobbying by disenfranchised groups.

The Civil Union Act, which came into effect on 30 November 2006, legalised same-sex marriage and also allowed for the legal designation of religious marriage officers without any religious restriction in accordance with the Constitution. Previously, religious marriage officers could only be legally designated as such "for the purpose of solemnizing marriages according to Christian, Jewish or Mohammedan rites or the rites of any Indian religion" in accordance with the Marriage Act. In accordance with section 5 of the Civil Union Act, any religious organisation may apply to the Department of Home Affairs for designation as a religious organisation and when designated as such must formally nominate suitable candidates from within their organisation to be designated by the Department of Home Affairs as religious marriage officers for the purpose of solemnising marriages according to the rites of that religious organisation.[22]

The Witchcraft Suppression Act of 1957 based on colonial witchcraft legislation criminalises claiming a knowledge of witchcraft, conducting specified practices associated with witchcraft including the use of charms and divination, and accusing others of practising witchcraft.[23] In 2007 the South African Law Reform Commission received submissions from the South African Pagan Rights Alliance and the Traditional Healers Organization requesting the investigation of the constitutionality of the act and on 23 March 2010 the Minister of Justice and Constitutional Development approved a South African Law Reform Commission project to review witchcraft legislation.[24][25]

One of the SALRC's other new projects, the review of witchcraft legislation, will support the constitutional guarantee to freedom of religion, but will also serve to protect vulnerable groups. It is mostly women advanced in age that are persecuted as witches by communities holding traditional beliefs. These innocent victims are vulnerable to a double degree: as women and as older persons.

—South African Law Reform Commission Thirty Eighth Annual Report 2010/2011[26]

The Christian holidays of Christmas Day and Good Friday remained in post-apartheid South Africa's calendar of public holidays. The CRL Rights Commission held countrywide consultative public hearings in June and July 2012 to assess the need for a review of public holidays following the receipt of complaints from minority groups about unfair discrimination. The CRL Rights Commission stated that they would submit their recommendations to the Department of Home Affairs, the Department of Labour, various Portfolio Committees and the Office of the Presidency.[27][28][29] The CRL Rights Commission published its recommendations on 17 April 2013, including the scrapping of some existing public holidays to free up days for some non-Christian religious public holidays.[30][31]

Notable legal precedents[edit]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ "Constitution – 1996 – Preamble". Retrieved 20 March 2013. "May God protect our people. Nkosi Sikelel' iAfrika. Morena boloka setjhaba sa heso. God seën Suid-Afrika. God bless South Africa." 
  2. ^ van der Ven, Johannes A. (2003). "Religious Freedom and the Public Church". In Osmer, Richard R.; Schweitzer, Friedrich L. Developing a public faith: new directions in practical theology: essays in honor of James W. Fowler. St. Louis, Missouri: Chalice Press. pp. 189–202. ISBN 9780827206311. 
  3. ^ "Constitution of South Africa: Bill of Rights". Government of South Africa. Retrieved 18 November 2012. 
  4. ^ "Constitution of South Africa: Chapter 9: State institutions supporting constitutional democracy, Commission for the Promotion and Protection of the Rights of Cultural, Religious and Linguistic Communities". Retrieved 18 November 2012. 
  5. ^ "Constitution of South Africa: Bill of Rights: Section 10: Human dignity". Retrieved 18 November 2012. 
  6. ^ a b "Constitution of South Africa: Bill of Rights: Section 16: Freedom of expression". Retrieved 18 November 2012. 
  7. ^ "Constitution of South Africa: Bill of Rights: Section 18: Freedom of association". Retrieved 18 November 2012. 
  8. ^ "Promotion of Equality and Prevention of Unfair Discrimination Act 4 of 2000". DOJ&CD. Retrieved 30 March 2013. 
  9. ^ "Briefing Document: Equality Act and equality courts". DOJ&CD. Retrieved 1 April 2013. 
  10. ^ a b "Lodging a complaint in the Equality Court: Equality/Discrimination". DOJ&CD. Retrieved 30 March 2013. 
  11. ^ "About the SAHRC". SAHRC. Retrieved 30 March 2013. 
  12. ^ "Equality for all! It is our right (leaflet)". SAHRC. Retrieved 30 March 2013. 
  13. ^ "Investigation and Conflict Resolution (ICR)". Retrieved 18 November 2012. 
  14. ^ "National Policy on Religion and Education". Retrieved 20 March 2013. 
  15. ^ "National Curriculum Statement Grades 10-12 (General) Life Orientation". Department of Education. 2003. Retrieved 1 June 2013. 
  16. ^ "Constitution of South Africa: Bill of Rights: Section 15: Freedom of Religion, Belief & Opinion". Retrieved 18 November 2012. 
  17. ^ Jeenah, Na'eem. Ramadiro, Brian; Vally, Salim, eds. "Education Rights for Learners, Parents and Educators Book 5: Religion and Schools". Education Rights Project. Retrieved 20 March 2013. 
  18. ^ "National Guidelines on School Uniform". 23 February 2006. Retrieved 30 March 2013. 
  19. ^ a b Parker, Faranaaz (10 March 2011). "Pupil, school face off over dreadlocks". Mail & Guardian. Retrieved 30 March 2013. 
  20. ^ Parker, Faranaaz (23 January 2013). "W Cape school overstepped constitutional bounds". Mail & Guardian. Retrieved 30 March 2013. 
  21. ^ Jones, Michelle (25 January 2013). "Fez, scarf siblings back at school". Cape Times. Retrieved 30 March 2013. 
  22. ^ "Civil Union Act 17 of 2006". Retrieved 18 November 2012. 
  23. ^ "Witchcraft Suppression Act 3 of 1957". DOJ&CD. Retrieved 18 November 2012. 
  24. ^ "Sapra Appeal for legislative reform". 10 July 2007. Retrieved 18 November 2012. 
  25. ^ Department of Justice and Constitutional Development. "Current Investigations: Progress Report; Project 135: Review of witchcraft legislation". DOJ&CD. Retrieved 18 November 2012. 
  26. ^ "South African Law Reform Commission Thirty Eighth Annual Report 2010/2011". DOJ&CD. Retrieved 18 November 2012. 
  27. ^ "crl rights commission continues with the consultative community hearings on the possible review of public holidays". 26 June 2012. Retrieved 18 November 2012. 
  28. ^ "Fight over religious holidays". Retrieved 18 November 2012. 
  29. ^ "Hands off Christmas, protesters say". 10 November 2012. Retrieved 10 November 2012. 
  30. ^ "Recommendations: Public Holidays vs Religious/Cultural Holydays". CRL Rights Commission. Retrieved 23 April 2013.  Publication date per link to document from home page: "Investigation and Conflict Resolution Reports: The ICR Reports were launched on Wednesday 17 April 2013"
  31. ^ "Public holidays scrutinised (video)". eNCA. 29 April 2013. Retrieved 30 April 2013. 
  32. ^ "Judgment: Constitutional Court of South Africa: MEC for Education: KwaZulu-Natal and Others v Pillay". Southern African Legal Information Institute. 2007. Retrieved 1 April 2013. 
  33. ^ "Media Summary: Constitutional Court of South Africa: MEC for Education: KwaZulu-Natal and Others v Pillay". Southern African Legal Information Institute. 2007. Retrieved 30 March 2013. 

Further reading[edit]

External links[edit]