South Africa

South African Secularity

Religious Fragmentation

Constitutionally, South Africa is a secular state while more than 90% of the population claims to be affiliated to a world religion, mostly Christianity but also minority religions such as Islam, Hinduism and Judaism. Major parts of the African followers of Christianity, however, also adhere to beliefs and practices that broadly fall within the purview of African traditional religion and ritual practice. The religious landscape is further fragmented by histories of colonialism, racial segregation, forced internal migration and international migratory movements creating communities with particular religious and cultural orientations.

The Political Context of Secularity

The secular nature of the South African state is the result of a constitutional process whereby political elites sought to institutionalize principles of non-discrimination and equality after the end of apartheid. The provision of equal rights with regards to religious freedom is, in this sense, a corollary of the struggle for political liberation from state-sponsored racism.

Preliminary Analytics

At the same time, however, religion is highly present in public life and the very question of what constitutes and comes to be defined and authorized as religion is a matter of intense debates. These debates must be interpreted in the context of what can be seen as the three most important discursive frames structuring self-understandings, worldviews and practices in South Africa: secular modernity, world religions, and African (neo-) traditionalism (traditional healers – chieftaincy – African traditional religion/witchcraft)(A. Swidler). Within this triangular interpretive matrix, each of these frames works to throw the other ones into sharp relief and to generate the meanings through which practices and beliefs are understood and evaluated.

Religion, 'Tradition' and Secular Spheres in Public Debates

In recent years, there have been debates – for instance – on whether the governmental recognition of traditional healers within the national health system violates constitutional principles of non-establishment. What is at stake here are not only questions as to the social differentiation of religion and medicine but also questions regarding the terms on which traditional medical practice and African traditional religion are defined and differentiated, as well as by and for whom such definitions are recognized and authorized.

This project aims to explore these debates and to develop a more profound understanding of the ways in which they express how secular modernity, African traditionalism and Christianity are mutually constituted. These processes in turn open conceptual spaces for exploring the possibilities, limitations and controversies over the autonomy of fields such as law, science and medicine but also religion itself. The project is based on the analysis of literature and public media discourse as well as field research in Johannesburg and Cape Town.

Marian Burchardt
Church of New Life for all Nations


Max-Planck-Institut zur Erforschung multireligiöser und multiethnischer Gesellschaften
Dr. Marian Burchardt
Hermann-Föge-Weg 11
D-37073 Göttingen

Tel. +49-(551) 4956 - 113
Fax. +49-(551) 4956 - 170

Funded by

Staatsminiterium für Wissenschaft und Kunst