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South Africa-Historical Background

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African Religions

The earliest southern African religions, those of the Khoisan peoples, were more complex than early missionaries often recorded. Their beliefs and practices were substantially eroded by contacts with Europeans. Exceptional records of Khoisan rituals were made by a German linguist, Wilhelm Bleek, during the 1870s and the 1880s. Some traditional Khoisan beliefs have been preserved through oral histories, and some religious practices are still observed in remote areas of Botswana and Namibia.

Many Khoisan peoples believe in a supreme being who presides over daily life and controls elements of the environment. In some Khoisan belief systems, this god is worshiped through rituals or small sacrifices. A second, evil deity brings illness and misfortune to earth. This dualism between good and evil pervades other areas of Khoisan thought about the nature of the universe. Some Khoisan belief systems maintain that a person should never attempt to communicate with the beneficent deity, for fear of provoking his evil counterpart, and some believe that spiritual beings simply ignore humanity most of the time.

Traditional Khoisan religion also included numerous mythic tales of gods and ancestor-heroes, whose lives provided examples of ways to cope with social conflicts and personal problems. Also important was the use of dance and altered states of consciousness to gain knowledge for healing an individual or remedying a social evil. Healing dances are still among the most widely practiced religious rituals in South Africa, even in the 1990s, and are used in some African Independent churches to heal the sick or eradicate evil.

For many Khoisan peoples, the sun and the moon were gods, or aspects of a supreme deity. The cycle of religious observance was, therefore, carefully adjusted according to the cycles of the moon. Seventeenth- and eighteenth-century observers in the Cape Colony noted the importance of ritual dances and prayers during the full moon each month. Khoisan legends and myths also refer to a "trickster" god, who could transform himself into animal or human forms, and who could die and be reborn many times over. The praying mantis, a predatory insect with large eyes and other features characteristic of animal predators, figures in San myths and folktales in a role similar to the clever fox in European folktales. Khoisan herdboys still use mantises to "divine" the location of lost animals, and in Afrikaans, the mantis is referred to as "the Hottentot's god."

Bantu-speaking peoples brought an array of new religious practices and beliefs when they arrived in the first millennium A.D. Most believed in a supreme being, or high god, who could bestow blessings or bring misfortune to humans. More influential in their spiritual life, however, was a group of ancestral spirits--a different pantheon of spiritual beings in each community. These spirits could communicate with and influence the lives of the living, and they could sometimes be influenced by human entreaties. The male head of a homestead was usually the ritual leader, responsible for performing rituals, giving thanks, seeking a blessing, or healing the sick on behalf of his homestead. Rites of passage, or rituals marking major life-cycle changes such as birth, initiation, marriage, and death, were also important religious observances, and rituals were used for rainmaking, strengthening fertility, and enhancing military might.

Zulu and Xhosa religions generally sought to placate male ancestral spirits, often with libations of beer or offerings of meat, and to seek their guidance or intercession. Ancestral spirits were almost uniformly benevolent; evil was generally attributed to witches or sorcerers, who might overpower or bypass a spiritual protector or ancestor. Ancestral spirits occasionally caused minor illnesses, primarily as a warning against religious neglect or misdeeds.

Most Bantu religious systems had no priesthood, or officially recognized mediator between the material and the spiritual worlds. Rather, they believed that political leadership was accompanied by religious responsibility. For example, a chiefdom or kingdom relied on the chief or monarch for physical and spiritual survival. Particular importance was attached to the status of the diviner, or sangoma , however; the sangoma underwent rigorous training to acquire the extensive knowledge and skills necessary for divination and healing.

Bantu religions usually avoided any claim that rituals performed by human beings could influence the actions of the supreme deity, or high god; rituals were normally intended to honor or placate lesser spiritual beings, and sometimes to ask for their intervention. The high god was a remote, transcendent being possessing the power to create the Earth, but beyond human comprehension or manipulation. Ancestors, in contrast, were once human and had kinship ties with those on earth, and they were sometimes amenable to human entreaties.

Many Bantu societies have historical accounts or myths that explain the presence of human society on earth. In many cases, these myths affirm that human beings first emerged from a hole in the ground, that they were plucked from a field or a bed of reeds, or that they were fashioned from elemental substances through the efforts of a supreme deity. Death originated in the failure of human beings or their messengers, such as a chameleon who was sent to relay a divine message of immortality, but who delayed and was overtaken by the message of death.

Such widespread myths not only provide an account of the origins of the human condition, but they also describe appropriate behavior for coping with a complex world. For example, a Zulu myth tells of the creation of both black and white human beings, the assignment of the black people to the land and the white people to the sea, and the provision of spears for black people and guns for whites. Many of life's conflicts arise, it is believed, when people defy the divine plan.

Scholars have reported that during the rapid acculturation of the nineteenth century in southern Africa, new myths and legends arose, attributing greater and greater power to traditional gods. In this way, new events and displays of power were incorporated into existing belief systems. Others have suggested that the upheaval of the nineteenth century provided fertile ground for Christian and Muslim missionaries, whose teachings of a Supreme Being presiding over the entire world provided reassurance of a divine order in a changing environment. In this view, the new world religions drew converts based on their appeal as an explanation of changing circumstances.

Data as of May 1996

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