Traditional African Religions in South African Law

Traditional African Religions in South African Law

by Tom Bennett (Editor)


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ISBN-13: 9781919895383
Publisher: University of Cape Town Press
Publication date: 09/01/2011
Pages: 304
Product dimensions: 6.00(w) x 8.90(h) x 0.70(d)

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Traditional African Religions in South African Law

By T. W. Bennett

Juta and Company Ltd

Copyright © 2011 UCT Press
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-920541-23-1


African Traditional Religion in Pluralistic Africa: A Case of Relevance, Resilience and Pragmatism

N M Nyaundi

Thoughts about religion

Religion is as universal as language, and, in one form or another, is found in all human societies. Indeed, because of its universality, it is one of the most examined social activities. In this chapter I show that religion is relevant, resilient and pragmatic, and I argue that this view applies to all religions.

The concept of 'religion' is notoriously difficult to define. Disagreements about its meaning often begin with a debate about the etymology of the term, as the original word may give a clue as to how 'religion' is to be understood. In this regard, scholars differ as to whether it is the Greek – theosbeia (reverence for God) – or the Latin – religare (to bind together) – that best conveys the connotations.

Although definitions continue to proliferate, no single attempt can be considered conclusive or sufficient. One reason for this failure is that scholars have emphasised in their definitions the aspects of religion relevant to their discipline. Another reason is the problem of capturing the essence of a complex subject in a definition that is expected to be no more than a few lines long.

Definitions concentrating on the relationship between religion and society have been particularly numerous, among them: religion is no more than an 'opium of the people' (Karl Marx); religion is the 'feelings, acts and experiences of individual men in their solitude' (William James); religion is 'a unified system of beliefs and practices relative to sacred things' (Emile Durkheim); and religion is the 'universal obsessional neurosis of mankind' (Sigmund Freud). Contemporary American sociologists Charles Y Glock and Rodney Stark consider religion to be 'one variety of value orientations, those institutionalized systems of beliefs, symbols, values, and practices that provide groups of men with solutions to their questions of ultimate meaning' .

The multidimensional nature of religion is apparent in the fact that what is religion to one person is not religion to another. Where one believer reveres the Holy Bible, another looks to the Bhagavad Gita; when a third reveres the Quran, a fourth looks to the Zend Avesta. Consider, too, the various manifestations of religious observance: the African who dons special sacred regalia during prayer at a shrine; the Hindu who, for puja, burns incense in a dedicated corner of the house; the Muslim who lies prostrate at a busy airport during one of the five daily sessions of prayer; the Christian who goes to the confession box to open her heart to the priest. These are all dimensions of the same phenomenon.

Durkheim underscored the reality of religion by contending that it is a self-existent and firmly grounded phenomenon because it answers real human needs. His argument goes something like this: 'religion is not founded on illusions; feelings of religion answer something which is real.' Another commentator who noted the enduring need of religion for humanity and society was Jules Michelet (1798-1874), a French historian and moralist, who wrote a famous essay on the religious philosophy of the people. He affirmed the dominance of religion over history in his comment that: 'Catholicism would die, Christianity would die, but men would still be religious.'

In the sociology of religion, the religious phenomenon is regarded as something close to a living organism, albeit one that has defied the passage of time. Religion is believed to be as old as humanity, and, for their adherents at least, the different faiths are regarded as eternal institutions. Religion is alive when a person is born; it accompanies that individual through his or her lifespan and it remains when that person dies. Thus social scientists conceive of religion as a transcendent preoccupation, in the sense that it is a never-ending and timeless activity.

Although scholars may have different approaches to the subject, they are generally agreed on the place of religion in society: it has a prominent position in all cultures, and has a perpetual attraction, which all individuals and all cultures accommodate without prompting. Social life depends on symbols of communication, which may differ from one culture to another. Religion is one of a group of symbols cutting across all cultures. In this sense, it is a social arrangement that serves to integrate society, for it is a force that energises cultural symbols to emit the meaning they are expected to portray, making it a system of authoritative beliefs about the world.

As a social phenomenon, religion has the capacity to exert and to position itself. Sociologists of the subject capture this feature in the Latin term, sui generis, which implies that religion can exist in its own right. It is a power that cannot be wished away. One well-known commentator on the authenticity of religion, the German theologian Rudolf Otto (1869-1937), stressed the indisputable place of religion in society, and contended that it is an irreducible actuality. He said that religion is as much a matter of fact as the reality of humanity itself.

It is in this way that religion supplies the same social function irrespective of denomination. We may notice that the feeling enjoyed by a Christian after listening to a stirring sermon from a favourite preacher is the same as that experienced by a Muslim after an articulate discourse from a popular imam, and the same as that experienced by an African after pouring a libation to the ancestors. Moreover, religions all share the common function of regulating society and individuals in a distinctive manner. Because of the promises and sanctions in religion, the believers are socialised to restrain themselves from engaging in self-destructive or anti-social behaviour. And, because religion shapes the thoughts and actions of believers, many people who might otherwise have become thieves, muggers, rapists or fraudsters refrain from so acting because of the religious teaching against crime.

Religion may not be objective reality but it certainly is an activity whose meaning for the faithful cannot be gainsaid or overstated. Sociologists regard it as one of the most powerful and deeply felt forces in society. As such, it is a highly significant component of social structure whose influence shapes inter alia relationships, dietary habits and perceptions of reality.

For the individual believer religion is a powerful force which may be manifested silently, audibly or loudly and outrageously. It is practised for various different reasons: by the trader to implore the deity for success in business, by an athlete to guarantee stamina at the track or by a student to invite success during an exam. In sum, religion is an expressive activity whose manifestation may be found in sacred dance, monastic quiet, ritual song, poetry and pilgrimage.

In this chapter, I proceed from the premise that religion, whatever it may be and wherever it is practised, is the same, because it has the same function for the believer. With this understanding, I now consider a particular religion, African traditional religion (ATR).

The Euro-American view of African traditional religion

In a recent groundbreaking work on Africa, the authors note that: 'It is fair to say that African religions have been subjected to the most negative stereotyping of any religious tradition.'

What I refer to as the Euro-American view is drawn from pioneering studies completed by anthropologists, ethnologists, explorers and missionaries. The study by English anthropologist Edward Burnett Tylor (1832–1917), Primitive Culture (1871), established a particular view of the development of religions by popularising the idea that religion originated with animism, a belief that natural objects have souls. Tylor formulated a classification of religious beliefs, beginning with animism and then progressing to ancestor worship, polytheism, and finally monotheism. Traditional African religious beliefs were consigned to the lower categories, and were described by various derogatory terms, inter alia, 'animist', 'primitive', 'savage', 'heathen', 'pagan' and 'tribal'.

Following from Tylor, a number of studies worked on the assumption that religions could be divided into those of a higher order and those of a lower order. An example of this may be found in the work of the Scottish anthropologist Sir James George Frazer (1854–1941), who surmised that religion featured as the second development in a sequence: magic, religion and science. African religious beliefs were said to fall into the category of magic.

The denigration of African religious beliefs may be one of the enduring legacies of the 19th-century Euro-American mentality, which saw Africa as devoid of the light of Christ, and therefore 'dark'. The expression 'dark Continent' was, in fact, coined during the 19th century at a time when much of Africa was unexplored and unknown to most Europeans, and therefore 'dark' in their thinking. However, what may have started off as a harmless epithet, without condescending sentiments, later came to have insulting and demeaning connotations.

When Christian missionaries arrived, the mood was already strongly opposed to ATR. At home, in Europe and North America, opinion was fixed, so that missionaries arrived in Africa with their minds set against a religion which was perceived as satanic and vain. ATR had no chance of proving its legitimacy.

When colonial governments were established in Africa, they worked with the understanding that ATR was a non-religion. Administrators, settlers, fortune-seekers and other foreigners did not seek actively to suppress ATR, but they paid it little or no regard. The interest of those prepared to study the subject lay in rituals and ceremonies, which, to the outsider, appeared exotic. Many surveys of the so-called major religions of the world omitted ATR from the list, and thus excluded the entire African continent from the religious map of the world. Although erroneous, the error is still perpetuated by certain contemporary and otherwise well-informed students of religion.

Certain church historians of Africa thought that, because pioneer Christian missionaries saw none of the trappings of Euro-American religion (bells, cathedrals and clerical collars), Africa could have no religion. Thus Adam Chepkwony notes with regret that, whenever ATR was included in a book about world religions, it was not accorded the status of a bona fide religion. It was sidelined and labelled a 'primitive form of religion', one that was irrational, and to be considered useful only for comparison with rational beliefs. Although such thinking has since been generally repudiated, the renowned Africanist, Bolaji Idowu, writing in the 1970s, described how easily African religious beliefs were dismissed and noted the hidden resistance to treating them with respect. He said that the world 'still has to be convinced that there is an indigenous religion of Africa and that, by right, it deserves the name of religion'.

What is African traditional religion?

African traditional religion comprises the indigenous faiths of Africa whose origins and founding are not clearly understood. As with the term 'religion', there is no generally accepted definition of ATR, although a number of attempts have been made. Few African languages have a single word that is equivalent to the term 'religion', although they may have expressions which describe the experience. Absence of that crucial term, however, is a possible reason for the lack of a definition.

Two experts on the subject, Idowu and Mbiti, indicate the complexity of the matter. Many thought that Idowu's work of the early 1970s produced a definition, since the title of his book – African Traditional Religion. A Definition – suggests this. The nearest Idowu came to a definition, however, is a list of five characteristics. These were: belief in God, divinities, spirits, ancestors and the practice of magic and medicine.

John Mbiti contended that, although no brief definition would suffice for ATR, it was, for the believers, 'the normal way of looking at the world and experiencing life itself'. He went on to identify what he called 'some wrong ideas about African religion'. He rejected the argument that ATR is ancestor worship, superstition, animism, paganism, magic or fetishism, and argued that it 'is not constructed around magic'. According to Mbiti, the origin of the African belief system can be traced to people's response to 'situations of their life and reflect[s] upon their experiences'.

Unfortunately, much of the early history of ATR is lost, although it is believed to have evolved through the believers' interactions with natural phenomena. As such, it reflects the thinking of Africans in relation to the sacred, their beliefs and practices regarding the cosmos, their view of the world and the individual's place in it.

We cannot be entirely certain whether ATR is a unitary faith or a cluster of religions. In this respect, some scholars write about 'religions', not 'religion'. Of course, the many ethnic groups in Africa all have their own conceptions of religion, and it is wrong to make sweeping generalisations. Even so, there are certain striking similarities.

Belief in the supernatural is one significant point of convergence, and the main focus of this belief is a supernatural being who is one, but served by divinities, spirits, ancestors and ritual personalities. The supernatural is believed to be a being, not a principle. He is masculine with attributes such as omniscience, omnipresence, omnipotence, immutability and eternity. Idowu wrote:

[W]e find that in Africa, the real cohesive factor of religion is the living God and that without this one factor, all things would fall to pieces. And it is on this ground especially – this identical concept – that we can speak of the religion of Africa in the singular.

Worship is directed to the supernatural being, who may be approached directly or through intermediaries. The place of worship is at the individual's dwelling, a sacred grove or a shrine, which may be set up at or near an awe-inspiring natural phenomenon such as a tall tree, a mountaintop, a deep cave, a forest, a waterfall or the bank of a fast-flowing river. At sunrise or sunset, a prayer may be said in veneration of the supernatural or of the ancestors. This may take the form of a vocal petition, an animal sacrifice, an offering of farm produce or the pouring of a libation at a meal.

Mbiti remarked that Africans are 'notoriously religious'. Following from this statement, contemporary observers have said that, if Africans cannot find God, they will create a god. The contrast with people in Europe or North America is marked: there, valuable time is squandered on argument about the existence of God; in Africa, people argue about whether one God is enough.

ATR has its origins in a non-literate culture. What is known about the religion is preserved in the memory of the elders, and is transmitted by word of mouth. Because we have nothing on record about its past, we cannot be sure that what we know today is what the religion has always been or was even a hundred years ago. It is, of course, possible to refer to what was written in the past, but the record was compiled by non-Africans who had less regard for the authenticity of the beliefs than their adherents.

Africans are presumed to adhere to their traditional religions by virtue of their birth, so that belonging is more a matter of birthright than choice. No conversion experience is required in order to belong. While the fact of being born an African is generally the only qualification, with the proliferation of new religions in Africa, it has become less and less certain whether individuals should be assumed to be adherents of ATR.

ATR has no authoritative sacred texts (or scriptures) and, because rules are not enshrined in documents that can be used to ensure uniformity, it has no dogmatic teachings. The many ethnic groups each have their own understandings of reality and the sacred. Not only may adherents hold divergent views, but they are also sufficiently pragmatic about their beliefs to accommodate the realities of the moment. Thus ATR has a dynamism which allows it to change with the times.

It would be quite wrong, as Mbiti points out, to think of ATR as nothing more than magic, witchcraft and superstition, but it must also be accepted these beliefs are part and parcel of the belief system, indeed, inherent in the very fabric of African cosmology. Hence, many accept that a jealous neighbour can cause disfigurement to a healthy baby through magic, that through witchcraft a rival can use pieces of hair to make someone fail an examination or that a black cat crossing one's path is a bad omen that calls for cancellation of a journey. (The word widely used in West Africa to denote all these beliefs is in juju, which is commonly translated as superstition.)


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Table of Contents


Biographic details,
1 A Case of Relevance, Resilience and Pragmatism N M Nyaundi,
2 The Practice of African Traditional Religion in Contemporary South Africa Sibusiso Masondo,
3 Religion vs Culture: Striking the Right Balance in the Context of African Traditional Religions in the New South Africa Jewel Amoah,
4 Umkhosi Ukweshwama: Revival of a Zulu Festival in Celebration of the Universe's Rites of Passage Christa Rautenbach,
5 The Constitutional Framework for the Protection of Religious and Related Rights in South Africa Lourens du Plessis,
6 Recognition of African Initiated Churches for State Purposes: Doctrinal Opposition or Procedurally Correct? Willemien du Plessis,
7 Superstition and Religious Belief: A 'Cultural' Defence in South African Criminal Law? Kelly Phelps,
8 Witchcraft and the Constitution Nelson Tebbe in South Africa Michael Eastman,
10 Towards Harmony Between African Traditional Religion and Environmental Law Loretta Feris & Charles Moitui Tom Bennett & James Patrick,
Table of cases,
Table of Statutes,

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