Country Listing

South Africa Table of Contents

South Africa

The Arrival of Christianity

Religion and politics were inextricably interwoven as soon as the Portuguese navigator Bartholomeu Dias (Diaz) erected a limestone pillar and Christian cross at the Cape of Good Hope in the year A.D. 1488. Religious missionaries did not arrive in any significant numbers for more than a century, however. In 1652 the Dutch East India Company established a resupply station at the Cape, based largely on the experience of Jan van Riebeeck, who had survived a shipwreck off the coast of the Cape in 1648 and who later became the governor of the Cape Colony. Dutch Reformed Church missionaries reported in 1658 that Khoikhoi slaves in the area attended their mission services (and were rewarded with a glass of brandy after the sermon).

Religious reforms swept through the Netherlands in the early seventeenth century, and the Calvinist Synod ruled in 1618 that any slave who was baptized should be freed. In the Cape Colony, however, farmers who depended on their slaves refused repeated entreaties from the church authorities in Europe to free these slaves. Instead, the slaveowners banned religious instruction for slaves, so none could be baptized.

The London Missionary Society sent large numbers of missionaries to the Cape Colony in 1799, and soon after that, the Glasgow Missionary Society and the Wesleyan Methodist Missionary Society arrived, along with missionaries from the United States, France, Germany, and Scandinavia. Most missions placed a high priority on literacy and Biblical instruction, but as the Industrial Revolution swept through Europe and the United States, the evangelical message increasingly emphasized the spiritual benefits of productive labor. Missionaries also promoted European values and occupations as well as the possession of material goods unrelated to spiritual salvation, such as European clothing, houses, and tools.

Many Western missionaries mistakenly believed that southern Africans had no religion because of the differences in their faiths. Africans often denied the existence of a single, supreme being who could be influenced by prayer on behalf of humans. They appeared to confirm the missionaries' suspicions that they were "godless" by performing ritual oblations to lesser spiritual beings and ancestors. The absence of a priest or minister, or any type of church, was interpreted as further proof of the lack of spiritual beliefs, even among those who had strong beliefs in an array of spiritual beings and forces.

A few African leaders took advantage of the missionaries' presence to enhance or to reinforce their own political power. For example, the nineteenth-century Sotho King Moshoeshoe I claimed that Christian teachings only validated rules of behavior he had long advocated for his subjects. The Xhosa chief, Ngqika, rewarded local missionaries when their prayers appeared to bring much-needed rain. Sotho, Tswana, and others sought the protection of Christian missionaries during the mfecane and the related upheaval of the first part of the nineteenth century. The term Mfengu was originally applied to these displaced people who settled around Christian mission stations, but over time, the Mfengu came to be recognized as a relatively cohesive ethnic group.

The relationships among indigenous African leaders, missionaries, and European settlers and officials were always complex. Missionaries whose efforts were frustrated by local chiefs sometimes sought government intervention to weaken the chiefs' power. Government officials relied in part on the influence of missionaries in order to convince indigenous Africans of the validity of European customs. At times, however, missionaries objected to official policies that they considered harmful to their followers, and they were criticized by government officials, as a result, for interfering in official matters.

In the 1830s and the 1840s, British officials in the eastern Cape Colony tried to eliminate the Xhosa practice of witch hunts, which were increasing in response to the turmoil in the region and were spreading fear through many religious communities. The British also abolished traditional economic practices, such as the Xhosa custom of paying lobola , or bridewealth given by the family of a groom to that of his bride. But abolishing an element of traditional culture almost always resulted in an array of unforeseen cultural consequences, and this was especially true when the practices being eliminated were central to a group's social organization, as was the lobola .

By 1850, the Xhosa were enraged by the British presence. A leading Xhosa healer and diviner, Mlangeni, organized an army to confront the British and promised supernatural assistance in this effort, as long as the Xhosa people sacrificed all of their yellow and dun-colored cattle to counteract the evil spell that had engulfed them. A brutal frontier war ensued, and the rebellion was suppressed in 1853.

The Xhosa defeat was made even more bitter when a chiefly adviser, Mhlakaza, convinced many people of a prophecy brought by his niece, Nongqawuse, telling of an end to British domination and the redemption of the Xhosa if they would first kill all their remaining cattle and destroy their food stocks. In 1856 and 1857, thousands of Xhosa responded to the prophecy; more than 400,000 cattle were sacrificed. After the prophecy failed, more than 40,000 people died of starvation, and almost as many were forced to seek work in the colonial labor market.

Data as of May 1996

Country Listing

South Africa Table of Contents