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Religious groups in South Africa

About 80% of South Africa's population describes themselves as being Christian. Religious minority groups are Hindus (1%), Muslims (1%) and Jews (0.2%).

Freedom of worship is guaranteed by the Constitution, and official policy is of non-interference in religious practices.

About 17 000 people (1996 census) describe themselves as having African traditional beliefs. Because the traditional religion of the African people has a strong cultural base, the various groups have different rituals, but there are certain common features. A supreme being is generally recognised, but ancestors are of far greater importance. They are regarded as being links with the spirit world and the powers that control everyday affairs. These ancestors are not gods, but because they play a key part in bringing about either good or ill fortune, maintaining good relations with them is vital and they have to be appeased regularly by a variety of ritual offerings. While an intimate knowledge of herbs and other therapeutic techniques as well as the use of supernatural powers can be applied to the benefit of the individual and the community, some practitioners are masters of black magic, creating fear among people.

Most Indians retained their Hindu religion when they originally came to South Africa. Today, some two-thirds of South Africa's Indians are Hindus.

The Muslim community in South Africa is small, but growing strongly. The major component are the Cape Malays, who are mainly descendants of Indonesian slaves, as well as 20% of people of Indian descent.

The majority of the small Jewish community are Orthodox Jews.

Buddhism is barely organised in South Africa. The number of Parsees has decreased, while there is a small group of Jains in Durban. The Baha'i faith is establishing groups and temples in various parts of the country.

Baha'is of South Africa

In many cases the Christianity brought to South Africa by European missionaries has been Africanised. African traditions were not wiped out, but were blended in to create a unique mix of Christianity. The largest grouping of Christian churches is the African Independent Churches, with the Zion Christian Church being the largest of these churches in South Africa (and the largest church overall). The largest Christian gathering in South Africa occurs twice a year at Zion City, Moria, near Polokwane in Limpopo at Easter and for the September festival. In 2005 more than 3 million of the faithful gathered at Zion City for worship.

The Nederduitse Gereformeerde (NG) family of churches in SA represents some 3.5 million people (1996 census).

In recent years the Roman Catholic Church has grown strongly in numbers and influence (about 3.4 million people, 1996 census).

Other established churches in SA include the Methodist Church, the Church of the Province of Southern Africa (Anglican), the various Lutheran and Presbyterian churches and the Congregational Church. Together with others they form the nucleus of the South African Council of Churches.

The largest traditional Pentecostal churches are the Apostolic Faith Mission, the Assemblies of God and the Full Gospel Church, but there are numerous others. Many of them enjoy fellowship in groups such as the Church Alliance of South Africa, and operate in all communities.

Also active in South Africa, among the smaller groups, are the Greek Orthodox, Russian Orthodox and Seventh Day Adventist churches.

A number of charismatic churches have been established in recent years. The daughter churches of the charismatic churches, together with those of the Hatfield Christian Church in Pretoria, are grouped in the International Fellowship of Christian Churches.

The Shembe, members of the Nazareth Christian Church

The Shembe are disciples of a Christian sect founded by Bishop Isaiah Shembe in 1910 near Durban. Annually, thousands of Shembe, who are members of the Nazareth Christian Church, converge on the Ebuhleni village (in Inanda, a township north of Durban). From the Ebuhleni village the Shembe undertake a pilgrimage walking 80 kilometres barefoot, with their possession carried on their heads, for 3 days three sheets of rain and heat. Their destination - a holy mountain at Ndwedwe in the Valley of a Thousand Hills in Kwazulu-Natal. The holy mountain is called Nhlangakazi.

The religion is a mixture of the Old and the New Testaments together with traditional Zulu culture. The code of conduct for the Shembe involves no alchohol or smoking. Most Shembe men keep their beards. The Shembe regard Saturday as being their Sabbath, and do no cooking on Saturdays. The current leader of the Shembe is Mbuso Vimbeni Shembe, who is 73 years old. The Shembe encourage polygamy. The lobolo paid for a bride depends on her virginity. Sex and even courtship before marriage are frowned upon. Sex is not allowed, even between married couples, in January, July and October.


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