African Religion

Contemporary African religious custom embraces many different belief systems: African Traditional Religion (ATR) and the African Independent Church movement. Some individuals and families embrace a combination of these two belief systems, while others may be exclusively traditionalist or Christian or Muslim.

Many Africans who practise African Christianity include African customs, rituals and beliefs as the cultural basis of their religion. There are 4 000 African independent churches. The largest is the Zionist church and it has very strong links with the Old Testament as well as with New Testament teachings.

It is estimated that there are about 70 million practitioners of African Traditional Religions) in sub-Saharan Africa.
The origin of the African belief system can be traced to people’s responses to different situations and experiences and thus can change with time. African Traditional Religion (ATR) is believed to have evolved through the believers’ interactions with nature. They view the entire universe as a living system; trees, rocks, rivers and soil are all filled with a living spirit. Although many African ethnic groups are clan-based, there are certain striking similarities such as belief in a supernatural being, the One living God who is all- powerful, ever-present, unchangeable, and everlasting. The One living God is served by spirits, and ancestors, and may be approached directly or through these intermediaries.

Like most indigenous religions, African religions do not have a named and known founder or sacred texts. Because the rules are not in written documents there are no uniform teachings. The religion is preserved through the memory of the elders, and is based on oral traditions transmitted by word of mouth and passed from one generation to the next. Many African ethnic groups have their own understanding of what is sacred. However, the elders are the final trusted authority and followers believe in the guidance of their ancestor’s spirits.
The place of worship is at the individual’s dwelling, or at a group of trees, or a shrine which may be set up at or near a mountaintop, a deep cave, a forest, or a fast-flowing river. Africans are presumed to adhere to their traditional religions by virtue of their birth, so no conversion is required in order to belong.

Although African religion recognizes a Supreme God, followers do not worship him or her directly as they do not feel worthy enough. Therefore, they ask the ancestors to communicate on their behalf. Ancestors are projected as a source of moral authority and ancestor worship is an extension of a belief in, and respect for elders. They are the guardians of family affairs, traditions, ethics and activities because they are closer to God, and are therefore able to petition on behalf of the living. They are called upon in times of great hardship and need, like drought or epidemic that may threaten the entire community.

Ancestors are part of every major event such as weddings, births and deaths. During these events an offering is usually made to honour and thank the ancestors. A cow, sheep or chicken is slaughtered and the ancestors are called to receive the offering and bless the gathering.

Followers of ATR pray to various secondary deities as well as to their ancestors. These secondary gods also serve as intermediaries between humans and God. There are spiritual leaders, priests or pastors in most ATRs. In the Zulu culture there are mystics or sangomas (traditional healers) that are responsible for healing and ‘divining’ – a kind of fortune telling and counselling. These traditional healers have to be called by ancestors. They undergo strict training and learn many skills, including the use of herbs for healing. The traditional healers advise in all aspects of life – physical, psychological, spiritual, moral, or in legal matters.

Religion is the source of ethics and moral values and it teaches how life is to be lived, how relationships are to be shared, and how the individual can contribute to society. The concept of Ubuntu lies at the heart of the African religion and implies that a person is only a person through his/her interaction with other people. Ubuntu is about caring for others, acting kindly towards other, being hospitable, compassionate and fair, and above all, having sound morals. The community is the most important part of a person’s life. What concerns the individual concerns the community, and vice versa. The ‘other’ is important in the construction of the ‘self’ and the ‘self’ needs the approval of the ‘other’.

In the new South Africa religion and spirituality are used to create greater understanding and harmony rather than to divide people as was done in the past. The country that had emerged from two centuries of colonialism and apartheid was deeply divided by race, class, culture and religion. Ubuntu emphasises responsibility, between individuals, people and society and we are all responsible for creating our togetherness.

Rituals often occur according to the life cycle of the year such as herding and hunting rituals which mark the rhythm of agriculture and of human life. There are craft rituals, and rituals on building new homes, on the assumption of leadership, etc.

Male Initiation: Initiation involves circumcision and counselling on the responsibilities of adulthood. It generally takes between 2 weeks and a month. Ideally, it takes place in the mountains or a forest (near a river) in specially built huts. New blankets are issued before the initiates set off and when they return. A goat or sheep is slaughtered to mark the completion of initiation

Rainmakers: The environment and nature are infused in every aspect of ATR as nature is responsible for providing people with their daily needs. All aspects of weather, thunder, lightning, rain, etc. may become amenable to control. ‘Rainmakers’ are believed to be capable of bringing about or stopping rain by manipulating the environment e.g. by burning particular kinds of woods or otherwise attempting to influence the movement of clouds.
Drumming and dancing: During certain rituals some deities go into a trance-like state, sometimes uttering messages from the spirit that need to be interpreted for the audience. In parts of Africa this is usually induced by drumming and dancing.

Animal sacrifice: the ritual of animal sacrifice marks special events: birth, initiation, weddings, and funerals. The ancestors require that the slaughter takes place at the home of a family member.

Regrettably, since colonial times, traditional African religions have been misunderstood and have been subjected to most negative stereotyping. Traditional African religious beliefs were described by missionaries, colonialists, and apartheid supporters as ‘primitive’, ‘savage’, ‘heathen’, ‘pagan’, ‘tribal’, and nothing more than magic and superstition – or at best, ancestral worship. Such sentiments are insulting and demeaning and they have been rejected by many historians and anthropologists who have studied African Traditional Religions (ATR).
People in our country follow many spiritual traditions and religious faiths, and within our new South Africa freedom of religion is entrenched in our Constitution. Everyone is free to follow any faith, or not to follow one at all. Respecting people from all religions and learning about their religions will create greater understanding and harmony rather than to divide people as was done in the past.

South Africa is called the rainbow nation because of its variety of people, cultures and religions. The people follow many spiritual traditions and religious faiths. In South Africa the constitution protects freedom of religion. Everyone is free to follow whatever faith they want to, or not to follow one at all.