If you think of South Africa, spirituality might not be top of mind – yet the entire continent has a magical energy of its own, from the Cradle of Mankind to the diversity of animals in the wild and the melting pot of religions and cultures. In South Africa, three religions enjoy widespread belief: Christianity, Hinduism and Islam. In addition, there is a sizeable Jewish community, small pockets of Buddhist sanctuaries, and not to forget the oldest belief of them all – the animistic faith of worshipping mother earth amongst the San Bushmen.
Modern South Africa is described as the Rainbow Nation since it comprises many different ethnic groups – and with them come all sorts of intriguing spiritual practices and sacred sites. These include lovely heritage churches, Muslim kramats (burial sites), the largest mosque in the Southern Hemisphere, places of spiritual energy and even ancient ritual sites of the San, dating back to prehistoric times.
Christianity is well rooted across the country with some historic and architecturally intriguing churches from various denominations. Those who like to find time during their vacation to attend church might find it uplifting to attend one of the gospel driven services that are popular amongst African Christians.
St Georges Cathedral, in the heart of Cape Town, is one of the oldest churches in Southern Africa, dating originally from 1834, although the present stone building was erected in 1901. It’s an important site, with its Coptic cross alleged to be 1000 years old. Interestingly, the first ever black bishop was Bishop Tutu, who rose to fame denouncing apartheid and leading peaceful mass resistance from here. Later going on to become an archbishop, he is known around the world as a moral leader and deserved Nobel Laureate. A good time to attend is the evensong choral service at 7pm on Sundays. We suggest staying at the Mount Nelson, which is located a mere 10 minutes walk from the cathedral.
However, wherever you are in South Africa you will find a dedicated tradition of Christianity with services on Sundays across the nation, so that you’re never far from a church if you wish to attend a service. Many are lovely churches, be they Anglican, Dutch Reformed Church, or Methodist, with a lesser tradition of Catholicism. There are even services for Mormons, Seventh Day Adventists and other smaller faiths.
One of South Africa’s oldest and finest synagogues is conveniently located within Cape Town’s Company Gardens. Founded in 1841, this Hebrew congregation is one of the oldest in the Southern Hemisphere. Affectionately known as the ‘Gardens Shul’, this great synagogue is well worth a visit and is an architectural wonder which rates as one of the finest in the world.
Located just across the gardens from the synagogue is the Jewish Museum, which is a moving tribute to South Africa’s Jewish community and one of Cape Town’s most iconic heritage experiences.
The Western Cape has a strong presence of Islam, practiced by the Malay ethnic group that arrived from Southeast Asia more than two centuries ago. There are quite a few interesting Mosques to be found in Cape Town, and the colourful Bo Kaap neighbourhood is particularly worth a visit. The Masjid-ul-quds is one of the most important places of worship in the city and tours in Cape Town by local guides are regularly given. Even more intriguing are the holy burial sites scattered across the region. Known as kramats or mazaars there are more than 30 near Cape Town, with Signal Hill containing at least four. If you want to visit Cape Town to explore the city’s hidden kramats, we suggest staying at Cape Town Hollow Boutique Hotel.
Visitors with a pious Islamic background might want to take the effort to seek out a number of burial sites for important Sheikhs found in Cape Town, such as Sheikh Yusuf of Macassar in the dunes near Macassar Beach, or that of the last Malaccan Sultan Sheikh Abdurahman Matebe Shahnat, exiled from the Malay Peninsula during colonial rule. It lies at the gate to Klein Constantia. Another is that of Sheikh Sayed Abdurahman Maturu of Jafet on Robben Island.
In Durban, where there is a substantial population of people from South Asia, stands the giant Jumma Musjid Mosque.
These are mainly found in Durban, which supports a large population of immigrant Indians. There’s the Temple of Understanding and the Sri Ambalavanar Alayam Second River Temple (national monument) located in this coastal city, facing the Indian Ocean. Of particular interest to the general visitor however is the museum dedicated to Mahatma Gandhi. It’s located in Satyagraha House in Johannesburg where he lived in 1908 and 1909 during his 20 year tenure in South Africa. Not only is Satyagraha House a museum, but it cleverly offers a guesthouse for visitors wanting to soak up the peaceful surrounds of this heritage site.
San Rock Art Sites
The Khoisan are the oldest surviving culture in Africa and have their own animistic belief which this small group of nomadic people continue to practice. Over the centuries they have left behind some impressive San rock art paintings which allude to their beliefs, including mythical tales, worship of life through the environment around them and ancestor worship. We suggest staying at Cleopatra Mountain Farmhouse, nestled in the Drakensberg and much loved as a romantic gourmet getaway.
The rock art is best seen in the Kamberg area of the Drakensberg. Rituals for rain and bounty are still performed, many surviving in the present day belief of native Africans who might attend a Christian church one day and visit a witch doctor (Nganga) the next. In short, the continent is possessed by deep-seated spiritual beliefs, thought to reside in all sorts of everyday objects – from particular animals to various plants.
Another spiritual place to visit in South Africa is the Buddhist Retreat in Ixopo in Kwazulu Natal. If you want to experience the ultimate seclusion for meditation, this Buddhist retreatis a gem. A number of groups practice new age gatherings at festivals remotely, in locations reckoned to be pulse points of energy on the planet. These are somewhat esoteric however and tricky to come by.
Wherever you are on this continent, with the wide open spaces and the oldest of mankind’s roots, you will feel uplifted by something magical in the rugged landscape and timeless earth.