South Africa: present day issues with perceptions of African traditions and people

Errors in terminology that keep us from progressing forward


In this piece I want to look at the way African traditional ways of life have been discredited and misunderstood in the imagination of foreigners and how this has affected the public’s imagination. I want to state that although there is freedom in South Africa, there is no equality, and this is especially so with White people. Traditional African ways of life still continue to be treated at the bottom rung of the social ladder. Key definitions that characterise African tradition and religion are still very problematic and incorrect if not offensive.

It is now 66 years since Apartheid was first passed as official policy, 24 years since the unbanning of political prisoners from Robben Island and 20 years after democracy in South Africa. With the recent passing of former president Nelson Mandela, all South Africans had the chance to reflect on the enormous strides taken towards equality in the last 70 years or so, notwithstanding struggles prior to the years leading up to the formation of the ANC as a voice for Black South Africans. Despite the numerous disagreements voiced by disparate bodies of people, the achievements are quite notable achievements.

However, I am one of those people that are never really easily satisfied by what I see around me. I have my qualms about present day South African society. I have no doubt that political freedom was achieved for marginalized people in South Africa, especially Blacks in South Africa, but equality is another story. I was speaking to my brother the other day about the plight of Black people in South Africa, historically and presently. I couldn’t help but notice that past injustices are still present day injustices towards Black people. We were looking at the meaning and value of totemism for example. Totemism is the belief in a special kinship or relationship between an animal or plant and a group of people. In many societies a clan will be represented by that plant or animal in the sense that when people call out their clan names the plant or animal is also called out. Clan names are important in Black South African traditional culture in the sense that people define and identify themselves through their clan names and relationships between people are inferred through their clan names. The totem therefore becomes a part of a person’s identity. The totem animal or plant is also of ritualistic or ceremonial significance meaning that it may be killed, eaten or used only during certain rituals. In some societies however, the animal is sacred and may not be killed at all.

Early missionaries often mistook totemism for animal worship. While writing this piece I went online and looked for some definitions of totemism. I found a definition in the Catholic Encyclopedia on It read " Totemism constitutes the group of superstitions and customs of which the totem is the center…Maus says it does not exist in all savage races of our day (Annee sociologique, IV, 1899-1900)…The phenomena of totemism was first bought to the knowledge of the civilized world by the Jesuit missionaries to North America in the seventeenth century“. I found this definition downright racist and offensive and I advise anyone to read the full definition on their website. Superstition?, Savage races? Civilized world? I looked up "superstition” in the same encyclopedia and it read “to stand in fear of the deity…there are four species of superstition which include improper worship of the true God, Idolatry, Divination and vain observances which include magic and the occult”. So it is clear that the same missionary sentiments that were held hundreds of years ago about totemism are still shared by people today. Totemism is still reduced to superstition, a vain observance of the occult and savagery.

Missionaries and other writers at the time were ignorant of the coexistence between the animal and plant world and that of the humans. Herbert Spencer classed totemism under animal worship. He missed the point.The plants and animals that were totemic symbols for the different clans were to be protected and revered by the members of the clan. They were also to be revered by members of other clans who knew of the animal’s relationship to another clan. They could not be hunted during certain periods in some societies. Totemic symbols also extend to people’s relationships across a variety of locales. In the research that I do I have been to places for the first time where I have found relatives just by calling out my clan name and my totem. I have been welcomed in these societies even though they did not know me initially.

These days we are called to practice nature conservation whereas we have been practicing it in the form of totemism for centuries. Totemism has been described as a heathen, primitive traditional practice in the Western public imagination. It became associated with magic and animal worship, mistaken for idolatry. It has not been given the credit it deserves as a strategy of natural conservation. The prohibition of the killing of certain plants and animals was an effective way of conserving these animals even if it was not within the field of geography or natural or biological science. These were prohibitions that contributed to the harmonious existence of nature. Now this discrediting and misunderstanding of Africans and other ‘primitive’ cultures does not end there. It extends to the conceptions we have of African traditional religion specifically. We are still doing traditional societies an injustice today by the names we use to describe them and their belief systems. Certain terms are a giveaway to how African traditional practices are still conceived of today.

Primitive religion

Primitive religion has been a popular term used to describe African religion in a variety of historical texts. The Concise Oxford Dictionary defines primitive as early, ancient, old-fashioned, simple, rude, original. One of the definitions contained in the Random House Webster’s Dictionary for primitive is simple or crude. Primitive derives from the Latin word primus denoting that which comes before something. African religions can be called primitive in the sense that they are old or ancient. But primitive as used to describe Africans has come to mean simple, crude, rude and base. It is synonymous to backwards. However when we look at African religions and ways of life, there is nothing simple about them. Also if primitive means ancient, of the ages, it should not exclude wise. But it does. The word primitive today denotes backwardsness. Also there are many other ancient religions that are not described as primitive even though they are very old. Chinese religion is called ancient but not primitive. Jewish and Islamic religions are also very old but they are not called primitive.

Pagan, Heathen

African religion and African people have been described as pagans and heathens. Pagan and heathen are defined as one thing in the Random House Webster’s Dictionary meaning a people who observe a polytheistic religion. It is a great mistake to apply this to African religion. In traditional Nguni religion we observe Umvelinqange, the Great Creator, the Supreme Being. The KhoiSan also observe a Great Creator, Tsui//goab. In no way are these religions polytheistic. Therefore in that sense they are not heathen or pagan. But because Christianity and white missionaries mistook practices such as totemism and animism, which is the belief that all living things have a soul, as animal worship, Black people were purported to worship animals as their gods. The Random House Webster’s Dictionary defines pagan as a person who is not Christian, Jew or Muslim. But are the Vedic religions considered pagan or heathen, or Chinese religions?

Ancestor worship

Christianity has always failed to grasp the difference between reverence and worship. Reverence means deep respect, acknowledgement. Worship involves the deification of something. In the same way that totemism and animism were confused with animal worship, so has ancestral reverence been confused with ancestral worship. Ancestral reverence is a deep concept and cannot be dealt with in the detail that it warrants here. However, in African tradition, people are respected even after death. They live on in our memories, we keep them alive in our memories through all the things that we do. We do not act in ways that they would not have appreciated while still alive. They bring our families together and keep them together whenever we have ceremonies to remember them. We do not sacrifice animals to them. They are not demons, as some of my Christian friends have purported.


A word still in common parlance today that owes its existence to the attitudes of early missionaries and anthropologists is witchdoctor. The witchdoctor is purported to be someone who uses magic to heal someone. The Random House Webster Dictionary has witchcraft as the practice of sorcery, and below that is witchdoctor, defined as a person in some societies who practices magic to cure illness. In traditional Nguni society there is no such thing as a witchdoctor, a person who uses magic to cure illness. There are traditional healers or herbalists who use herbs to heal illnesses. There are however, diviners, people who use divination methods to divine causes of illness and to diagnose illnesses. They may use parts of animals in their cures because these are believed to possess special properties but these are by no means magical properties. The funny thing is that parts of plants and animals have always been believed to have special healing properties amongst other cultures and religions but practitioners who have such beliefs in these cultures or religions are by  no means called witchdoctors. Witchdoctor is a derogatory term used to demean. It is part and parcel of the belief that African religions and people are primitive, debased, sinister and without God. African traditional healers are still discredited in South Africa even though there are people who still use their services 

Although we may want to believe that change has occurred in the last 20 years in South African and African societies, it is only on the surface. The words I have analysed here are words that are found in most of the dictionaries we use today. Nothing has changed about them. They are still problematic and derogatory in how they define words used to describe African traditions, religions and peoples. There is no reason why some people should still be defined as savage in 2014. If writers as prolific as Herbert Spencer are still being used to define African traditional practices in the incorrect and derogatory manner that they do then that is a serious problem. Although the dictionaries in question do not say which people are for instance heathen, pagan or primitive, those words have been used to describe African religious practices and people. Traditional African ways of life are still misregarded, marginalized and not given due credit for their values and contributions to society. The worst thing is that Black people hold these very same beliefs about their traditions as well. This is a huge problem for all people.

When people consult the dictionary and other texts to look for words like pagan, the derogatory definitions they find there are the ones they will associate with African religions. And it means that as long as incorrect words such as pagan, animal worship, ancestor worship are used to define African religion in place of totemism and ancestor reverence, traditional practices will exist in the bottom of society. Because as much as there are many more similarities than differences between African religions and other world religions, these are overlooked and only the incorrect aspects of African religion, paraded as differences, are highlighted. So although we say that there is freedom and equality in South Africa there is no equality because traditional practices are still disregarded, discredited and devalued. Insurance policies and medical aid schemes for instance have made it clear that there is no place for traditional African medicine in South African society by excluding them in their policies.

 *special thanks to the National Open University of Nigeria for some of the terms analysed in this piece

 Dumisa Sofika

Brother Eleyejah