Twenty years ago, in 1994, democracy finally came to South Africa, the wealthiest and most powerful nation of sub-Saharan Africa. Most South Africans would agree that the subsequent years have been difficult, and levels of violence and poverty remain intolerably high. But the turn to majority rule was a massive political and moral achievement, to which Christian churches contributed mightily.
Beginning in the 1960s the antiapartheid cause featured centrally in Christian debates worldwide over political activism and the legitimacy of armed resistance to tyranny. Anglican archbishop Desmond Tutu became perhaps the best-known face of the antiapartheid movement.
Obviously, the churches that struggled against apartheid did so from a sense of religious obligation and not with any thought of advancing their own power or influence. But with 20 years of political freedom behind us, what can we say about the religious consequences of the revolution? Who were the winners and losers? And has religious radicalism faded from political life?
Even more than in most Global South nations, South Africa’s religious statistics remain fiercely contested. A fair consensus, though, suggests that while the country remains predominantly Christian, familiar mainstream denominations are much weaker than in most of black Africa. The most successful religious movements lie on both extremes of the spectrum: among highly charismatic faith-oriented healing churches and among secularists. In religious terms, the emerging South Africa looks at once thoroughly African and surprisingly European.
Mainstream churches—the squeezed middle—claim the loyalty of about a quarter of South Africans. About 7 percent of the population are Catholic, with another 20 percent belonging to the main Protestant churches—Methodists, Anglicans, Lutherans and Dutch Reformed.
Who are the nation’s other Christians?
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