The Most Popular Religions in South Africa and the Population they Serve

There are many religions in South Africa that are currently being practiced by the over 58 million people who live there. These different religions thrive because South Africa, which is often called “the rainbow nation” boasts of a variety of people, cultures, and religions and is home to some of the greatest people to have emerged from Africa including Nelson Mandela. South Africa’s population of over 58 million people follow many spiritual traditions and religious faiths and they are greatly encouraged by the country’s constitution which protects freedom of religion. Therefore, everyone who lives in South Africa is free to follow whatever faith or religion they want to.

However, it is noteworthy that, even though there are different religions in South Africa, some religions are more popular than others. This is not surprising as this is the same case with diversity in religions all over the countries of the world.

Find Out All About The Most Popular Religions in South Africa 

We present you with the most popular religions taking center stage in South Africa, from Christianity to Islam and Hinduism, these religions have garnered followers over the years.

1. Christianity 

Quick Facts

  • Percentage Of Adherents: Records show that 79.8 percent of South Africans practice Christianity making the religion the dominant one in the country.
  • Christianity arrived in South Africa with settlers from Europe.
  • Many Christian churches in South Africa supported the oppressive reign of Apartheid and racial divisions but a few opposed it.
  • The Methodist church is the largest Christian denomination in South Africa.

Religions in South Africa
A Christian congregation commemorating the crucifixion of Jesus Christ.

How Christianity Got Into South Africa

Christianity is not the original or first religion in South Africa. It was shipped into the country. Before Christianity came into South Africa, there were other spiritual practices duly observed by the locals. However, Christianity spread into South Africa after settlers from Europe introduced it. The man recognized to have laid the groundwork for the introduction of Christianity in South Africa is Jan van Riebeeck, a Dutch navigator and colonial administrator who founded Cape Town. Jan van Riebeeck was Commander of the Cape from 1652 to 1662 when he was authorized by the Vereenigde Oost-Indische Compagnie (VOC, Dutch East India Company) to establish a post there that would be responsible for resupplying food as well as fueling ships traveling between the Netherlands and Southeast and South Asia.

Over the next 80 years, more Christian missionaries arrived in South Africa from all over the world including England, France, Scotland, United States, and the Netherlands, and began to translate the Bible into local languages. By the mid-19th century, Christianity had become so big in South Africa that many European denominations of Christianity had opened a branch mission in the country. Today, Christianity has taken over the southern African nation.

How Influential Has Christianity Been In South Africa?

There is no doubt at all that Christianity has played an important role in South African history. It played a big role during the reign of the Apartheid system that saw many black people racially segregated and abused. In fact, it is on record that many Christian churches in South Africa supported Apartheid. Interestingly, the Dutch Reformed Church (NGK), went as far as using Christian theology to make an argument providing theological support for the Apartheid regime. However, a few churches stood against the apartheid.

Christianity has spread like wildfire all over South Africa, overtaking the original traditional spiritual practices of the locals and attracting nearly 80% of the country’s entire population.

A Breakdown Of Christian Adherents In South Africa

As is the case everywhere else, Christians in South Africa do not all go to the same church. The Christian adherents in the country have different churches that they attend. We will now present you with a breakdown of Christian adherents in the country.

The 2001 Census in South Africa showed that Methodist Church had the most members with about 9.2% of Christians. This is followed by the Dutch Reformed Church with 8.4%. In third place is the Anglican Church with 4.8% followed by the Lutheran Church with 3.2%. The Presbyterian Church is next with 2.3% followed by Baptist with 1.9%.

2. Islam

Quick Facts

  • Percentage of Adherents: The record shows that about 1.9 percent of the total population of South Africa are Muslims.
  • Islam in South Africa grew in three phases.
  • The Nation of Islam has been established in South Africa.

Religions in South Africa
A mosque

How Islam Got Into South Africa

The introduction and growth of Islam in South Africa have been in three phases.

The first phase was around 1652 when the earliest Muslims were brought to the area as part of the notoriously involuntary migration of different kinds of people including artisans, slaves, political prisoners as well as political exiles from Africa and Asia. This lasted from 1652 to the mid-1800s.

The second phase of the introduction of Islam in South Africa was between 1860 and 1868 which saw the arrival of indentured laborers from British India who were shipped there to work in the sugar-cane fields in Natal. There was a pause after 1868 before this second phase continued from 1874 t0 1911. Many of the Indians transported to South Africa around this time were Muslims.

The third phase began following the end of apartheid in 1994 which was marked by a huge wave of African Muslims pouring into South Africa. Many of these people came from North Arica and many others also came from Asia. Some figures in recent times put the figure of these Muslim immigrants at approximately between 75,000 and 100,000. Today, Islam has grown considerably in South Africa. However, it is still in the minority as it has attracted only about 1.9 percent of the entire South African population.

A Breakdown Of Islam Adherents In South Africa

There are different sects in Islam and many of these sects are all present in South Africa. Records show most of the Muslims in South Africa belong to the Sunni sect of Islam. Sunnis make up a majority of the Islamic population in South Africa and continue to attract more Muslims today.

However, there are other South African Muslims who belong to the Shia sect of Islam. The Shia is the second most popular sect of Islam in South Africa. This is followed by the Ahmadiya sect. Muslims, who are of the Ahmadiya sect, are mainly in Cape Town.

How Influential Has Islam Been In South Africa?

Islam has been growing steadily, albeit slowly, in South Africa since the days of its introduction. In contemporary times, Muslims have tried to assert their influence in the country. In 1994, the first democratic elections were held in South Africa, two Muslim parties called the Africa Muslim Party and the Islamic Party took part. However, they both failed to win elective positions.

The Africa Muslim Party and Peace and Justice Congress tried again in 2004 and failed. However, in 2007, another Islam-affiliated party Al Jama-ah was formed and eventually won its first seat in 2019 thus becoming the first Islam-affiliated party to do so in South Africa. In recent times, the Muslim community has combined modern education with Islamic training and has continued to grow especially among young people. It is noteworthy that the Muslim community in South Africa has managed to live in harmony with other faith communities in the country.

3. Hinduism

Quick Facts

  • Percentage of Adherents: Records show that about 1.1 percent of the total population of South Africa practices Hinduism.
  • South Africa has the second-largest concentration of Hindus in Africa after Mauritius.
  • The majority of Hindus in South Africa are Indian South Africans.

A Hindu religious ceremony

How Hinduism Got Into South Africa

There are different accounts of how Hinduism first got into South Africa. However, it is on record that Hinduism was introduced into South Africa when large numbers of Hindu Indians (as well as people of other religions) began arriving in the country during the 19th-century colonial era. Most of these Indians came into South Africa mainly as indentured labor while others came on their own as “free” immigrants.

In 1874, after a ban on indentured labor hiring in South Africa was lifted, British officials invited Hindu families in the northern Ganges basin and southern Tamil Nadu to South Africa promising them job opportunities and freedom to practice their Hinduism while working at the plantations. However, this was not to be as discriminatory laws ensured that many Indians were segregated. This was what led Mahatma Gandhi to kickstart his political and non-violent movement to bring Hindus together when he came to South Africa.

Following the end of apartheid, freedom to practice their religion has been more secure and Hinduism grew in leaps and bounds.

A Breakdown Of Hindu Adherents In South Africa

The majority of the Hindus in South Africa are Indian South Africans. In fact, 95.6% of Hindus in the country are Indian South Africans, and Asians. Other groups also practice Hinduism; it is on record that 2.9% of Black people are Hindus while 1% of Colored people practice Hinduism. Also, 0.5% of White people practice Hinduism.

It is noteworthy that even though Hinduism is found in various provinces of South Africa, the religion is primarily practiced in KwaZulu-Natal.

Has Hinduism Been Increasing Or Decreasing?

Hinduism has been on the decline in recent times. Today, it is reported that 1.1% of the total population of South Africa are Hindus. However, this figure is a decline from the 1996 census which showed that 1.4% of South Africa’s population practiced the faith. It is speculated that Hinduism may decline further as time goes on. This is mainly because of the conversion of Hindus by the Christian missionaries over the years.

4. African Traditional Religion

Quick Facts

  • Percentage of Adherents: Records show that about 0.3 percent of the total population of South Africa practices the African Traditional Religion.
  • African Traditional Religion includes belief in a variety of higher and lower gods.
  • Ancestors are believed to maintain a spiritual connection with their living relatives.
  • Traditions are oral rather than scriptural in African Traditional Religion.

Origin Of The African Traditional Religion

Since time immemorial, South Africans have practiced the African traditional religion. This was their original religion before the introduction of all the other forms of religion that came to their shores. It is almost impossible to tell when the native South Africans began to practice their religion as it has always been a part of them and has been handed down from generation to generation through oral tradition.

The Basics Of The African Traditional Religion

The African traditional religion is a set of traditional beliefs that include deep reverence to higher and lower gods, sometimes including a supreme creator or force. The religion also includes a belief in spirits including spirits of dead relatives as well as the veneration of the dead and the usage of magic to evoke miracles and also the usage of traditional African medicine to cure the sick and seek justice.

The adherents of the African traditional religion in South Africa often pray to various spirit gods and to their ancestors, paying reverence to departed friends and family. Gods, deities, or spirits are usually shown honor through the offering of libation or sacrifice. In South Africa, there are traditional healers who perform divination by reading the bones to see unseen things. Also, there are sacred or holy locations where the adherents of the African traditional religion go to practice their faith and worship the deities.

Has The African Traditional Religion Been Increasing Or Decreasing?

In recent years, the African traditional religion has been on the decline. This is mainly because of the conversion to Christianity and Islam over the years. At the moment, only about 0.3% of the South African population practice the religion.

5. Judaism

Quick Facts

  • Percentage of Adherents: Records show that about 0.2 percent of the total population of South Africa practices Judaism.
  • The South African Jewish community is highly organized and relatively affluent.
  • South African Jews are known for sharing a really high degree of ethnic group consciousness.

How Judaism Got Into South Africa

Judaism began to get registered in South Africa following increased European settlement in the country during the 19th century under the British Empire. Several Jewish men and women stormed South Africa during this time and started multiplying. Between 1880 and 1914, the Jewish community grew tenfold from about 4,000 to 40,000 people.

The population kept increasing and, during the Anti-Apartheid Movement, a number of Jews were very active in helping the movement witness actualization. Also, other Jews were successfully involved in the promotion of the extension of diplomatic military ties between Israel and South Africa’s white government.

Today, the number of Jews in South Africa has grown in leaps and bounds and they are renowned to be highly organized and relatively affluent.

A Breakdown Of Judaism Adherents In South Africa

In contemporary times, Jews are scattered around South Africa practicing Judaism, however, it is noteworthy that the Jewish community is now more concentrated in Johannesburg. It is reported that Johannesburg is now the largest center of Jewish life in South Africa with as many as 66,000 Jews live there.

Judaism is currently the smallest religion in South Africa with only 0.2 percent of the South African population practicing it and these are mainly Jews.

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