n African Human Rights Law Journal - The freedoms of religion and culture under the South African Constitution : do traditional African religions enjoy equal treatment? : focus : the foundations and future of law, religion and human rights in Africa

Volume 8, Issue 2
  • ISSN : 1609-073X
  • E-ISSN: 1996-2096



This article is concerned with traditional African religions, in particular the belief system of the Pondo people of the Eastern Cape Province in South Africa, in terms of the rights to equal treatment and freedom of religion under that country's 1996 Constitution. The authors begin by describing a ceremonial animal sacrifice performed by a former executive member of South Africa's ruling African National Congress in 2007. This ritual brought to light a strong tendency to confound traditional African religions with culture. Although it is apparent that religious beliefs are treated with greater respect than cultural practices, any supposition that culture is less important than religion is not only alien to traditional African societies, but also contrary to the equality provisions in the Constitution. The paper argues that, as a consequence of being consistently overshadowed by the main monotheistic religions in Africa, Christianity and Islam, traditional religions receive far from equal treatment. Hence, instead of being treated equally, as dictated by the Constitution, traditional religions are perceived as incidents of culture, and are subjected to an implicit value judgment: that they are somehow inferior to 'true' religions, which the West would characterise as monotheistic. Full realisation of the freedoms of religion and culture requires that one be distinguished from the other. In proposing a method to do so, it is argued that culture is broader than religion, for it embraces everything that marks humans as social beings, whereas religion is not a necessary requirement of social life. In framing the argument for equality in the context of culture, the authors argue that constitutional protection of religion is best attained through the symbiosis of community and culture. In this way, the right to culture and, by extension, faith, is exercised through the identity of the group.

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