Religion in South Africa

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The Groote Kerk in Cape Town is the oldest existing church in southern Africa
Hindu festival Holi celebrations in South Africa
St. Mark's Anglican Cathedral, George, South Africa
Mint coloured Mosque in Cape Town.

South Africa is a secular democracy with freedom of religion. Many religions are represented in the ethnic and regional diversity of the population, with Christianity overall being dominant.


The African Traditional Religion of the Khoisan and Bantu speakers during apartheid were succeeded in predominance by Christianity introduced by the Dutch and later British settlers. During apartheid there was sustained persecution of African Traditional Religion and forced conversions during that era.[1]

In 1930 the majority of Afrikaners were Calvinists.

Islam was introduced by the Cape Malay slaves of the Dutch settlers, Hinduism was introduced by the indentured labourers imported from the Indian subcontinent, and Buddhism was introduced by both Indian and Chinese immigrants.

Judaism in South Africa came about some time before the discovery of the Cape of Good Hope, by the participation of Jewish astronomers and cartographers in the Portuguese discovery of the sea-route to India. They assisted Bartolomeu Dias and Vasco da Gama who first sailed around the Cape of Good Hope in 1488 and 1497 respectively. However, Jewish settlers only began to arrive in numbers from the 1820s.

The Bahá'í Faith was introduced in 1911 and grew after Bahá'ís from Canada, the United States and Germany settled in the country.[2]

The socially marginalized African Traditional Religion adherents have become more publicly visible and organised in a democratic post-apartheid South Africa and today number over 6 million, or approximately 15 percent of the population.[3]


South African Christian bodies

The Census 2001 provided the most recent national statistics for religious denominations.[4][5][6]

The Census 2011 form did not include any questions about religion due to low priority.[7]

A 2012 Win-Gallup International Religiosity and Atheism poll indicated that the number of South Africans who consider themselves religious decreased from 83% of the population in 2005 to 64% of the population in 2012.[8]

A 2015 study estimated some 6,500 believers in Christ from a Muslim background residing in the country.[9]

Census Information[edit]

Religion[6] Denomination 1996 2001
Adherents % Adherents %
Christian churches Subtotal 30,051,008 75.5 35,765,251 79.8
Dutch Reformed churches 3,527,075 8.9 3,005,698 6.7
Zion Christian churches 3,867,798 9.7 4,971,932 11.1
Catholic churches 3,426,525 8.6 3,181,336 7.1
Methodist churches 2,808,649 7.1 3,305,404 7.4
Pentecostal/Charismatic churches 2,204,171 5.5 3,422,749 7.6
Anglican churches 1,600,001 4.0 1,722,076 3.8
Apostolic Faith Mission 1,124,066 2.8 246,190 0.5
Lutheran churches 1,051,193 2.6 1,130,987 2.5
Presbyterian churches 726,936 1.8 832,495 1.9
iBandla lamaNazaretha 454,760 1.1 248,824 0.6
Baptist churches 439,680 1.1 691,237 1.5
Congregational churches 429,868 1.1 508,825 1.1
Orthodox churches 33,665 0.1 42,251 0.1
Other Apostolic churches 3,517,059 8.8 5,609,070 12.5
Other Zionist churches 2,159,257 5.4 1,887,147 4.2
Ethiopian type churches 800,897 2.0 880,414 2.0
Other Reformed churches 386,456 1.0 226,495 0.5
Other African independent churches 229,038 0.6 656,644 1.5
Other Christian churches 1,263,914 3.2 3,195,477 7.1
Non-Christian religions Subtotal 1,369,986 3.4 1,676,391 3.7
Other non-Christian religions 193,830 0.5 269,200 0.6
Islam 553,585 1.4 654,064 1.5
Hinduism 537,428 1.4 551,669 1.2
African Traditional Religion 17,085 0.0 125,903 0.3
Judaism 68,058 0.2 75,555 0.2
Uncertain/none Subtotal 8,385,603 21.1 7,378,137 16.5
No religion 4,638,897 11.7 6,767,165 15.1
Not stated 3,746,706 9.4 610,971 1.4
All Total 39,806,597 100 44,819,778 100


Post-apartheid South Africa's Constitution guarantees the right to freedom of religion, belief and opinion among other freedoms. 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 democracy.[10][11]

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 solemnising 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.[12]

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.[13] In 2007 the South African Law Reform Commission received submissions from the South African Pagan Rights Alliance and the Traditional Healers Organisation 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.[14][15]

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[16]

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.[17][18]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Richard Elphick, T. R. H. Davenport, Christianity in South Africa: A Political, Social, and Cultural History (1997),
  2. ^ National Spiritual Assembly of the Bahá'ís of South Africa (1997). "Bahá'ís in South Africa — Progress of the Bahá'í Faith in South Africa since 1911". Official Website. National Spiritual Assembly of the Bahá'ís of South Africa. Retrieved 2008-03-29. 
  3. ^ Wallace, Dale (2006). The Construction and Articulation of a Pagan Identity in South Africa: A Study of the Nature and Implications of a Contested Religious Identity in a Pluralistic Society (PhD). University of KwaZulu-Natal. Retrieved 2 November 2012. [dead link]
  4. ^ "Table: Census 2001 by province, gender, religion recode (derived) and population group.". Census 2001. Statistics South Africa. Retrieved 2009-04-27.  Select all 26 religions, click "Continue".
  5. ^ Religion codes in the 2001 census data
  6. ^ a b Census 2001: Primary Tables: Census '96 and 2001 compared. Pretoria: Statistics South Africa. 2004. pp. 25–28. ISBN 0-621-34320-X. Archived from the original (PDF) on 20 December 2014. Retrieved 1 December 2014. 
  7. ^ "Census 2011 Frequently Asked Questions (FAQ)". Retrieved 22 October 2012. 
  8. ^ "Fewer religious people in SA – survey". 10 August 2012. Retrieved 2 November 2012. 
  9. ^ Johnstone, Patrick; Miller, Duane (2015). "Believers in Christ from a Muslim Background: A Global Census". IJRR 11: 14. Retrieved 6 December 2015. 
  10. ^ "Chapter 9 – State institutions supporting constitutional democracy". Archived from the original on 4 September 2012. Retrieved 2 November 2012. 
  11. ^ "Investigation and Conflict Resolution (ICR)". Retrieved 2 November 2012. 
  12. ^ Civil Union Act 17 of 2006[dead link]
  13. ^ Witchcraft Suppression Act 3 of 1957
  14. ^ "Sapra Appeal for legislative reform". 10 July 2007. Retrieved 2 November 2012. 
  15. ^ Department of Justice and Constitutional Development. "Current Investigations: Progress Report; Project 135: Review of witchcraft legislation". Retrieved 2 November 2012. 
  16. ^ "South African Law Reform Commission Thirty Eighth Annual Report 2010/2011" (PDF). Retrieved 2 November 2012. 
  17. ^ "crl rights commission continues with the consultative community hearings on the possible review of public holidays". 26 June 2012. Retrieved 2 November 2012. [dead link]
  18. ^ "Fight over religious holidays". Retrieved 2 November 2012. 

Further reading[edit]

  • Stephen Offutt, New Centers of Global Evangelicalism in Latin America and Africa (Cambridge University Press, 2015) focuses on El Salvador and South Africa. online review