Of Angels and Ancestors: Christianity and traditional belief systems in 2014

By Vangile Gantsho (@Vangi22), with additional reporting by Panashe Chigumadzi (@panashechig)

Many Christians see this kind of ‘religious innovation’’ or syncretism as a betrayal of their pure truth and a corrupting element to the original religion. In most cases syncretism is not an equal marrying of belief systems, but rather substitution or modification of the central elements of a dominant religion by beliefs or practices from outside of the religion.


Photo credit: Drum magazine

It’s always such a balancing act: being black in a globalised society. It often feels as though we are the ones who keep letting go. Dating back to the missionaries, this global village has always seemed to consume black cultures and not necessarily incorporate them. One such example of this balancing act has been our relationship with God.

According to the 2001 Census, traditional African religion counted for 0.3% of the South African population and Christians accounted for 79.8%. Christian groups include the Zion Christian (11.1%), Pentecostal (Charismatic) (8.2%), Roman Catholic (7.1%), Methodist (6.8%), Dutch Reformed (6.7%) and Anglican (3.8%).

I come from a fairly ‘traditional-modern’ family, if that makes sense. We slaughter an animal to celebrate and to commemorate special life milestones, brew traditional beer, have ubhlanti (a kraal) that is a sacred place and in December, we will perform izila for my father who passed away in 2008. This ceremony is to acknowledge that the deceased has now crossed over and become an ancestor. Time frames vary from family to family, with many people usually conducting the ritual between six months and a year of the deceased’s passing.

My mother is a staunch Christian (Assemblies of God) woman. My father was more traditional and spiritual. I am deeply spiritual with a Christian foundation. Talking ancestors and angels often feels like having to choose between two truths I hold dear. On the one hand, prayer is specifically directed to God, on the other, I am guided and watched over by AmaYirha. They carry me on a path that fulfils a lineage. I am a part of something great.

Black people have traditionally had a living relationship with ancestors, and as a result, God. The two were never antagonistic in their connection until the church declared communication with ancestors to be heathen. And as soon as this happened, not only did it create a spiritual disconnect for black people who were now caught between what has always been a way of life and possible exclusion from this so-called heaven, it also alienated children from their parents. Children, with their more pliable minds, were taught that their parents were barbaric and that their cultural practices were unchristian and so began a cultural dispossession that has characterised black people’s place in society for centuries since.

Many professed Christianity in order to gain access to the benefits, such as education and health care, that often came with missionaries. Even the many who wholeheartedly converted to Christianity have times been reluctant to relinquish all of their traditional beliefs and practices.

For many generations, Christianity has raised a dilemma for Africans: Must we renounce our heritage in order to be Christian? Is there a way to integrate both, or must we lead a double life, professing the ‘word of the Lord’ at church on Sunday and then denying it on Monday?

Polygamy, for example, has led to conflicts. Some think that the church must take an unequivocal stand against it. Others are more tolerant, believing that the church should teach monogamy as the preferred form of relationship but should accept those who practice polygamy.

African indigenous churches were among the first to challenge Christianity as taught by missionaries and sought to find similarities between Christianity and traditional African religious and social values. The most prolific is the Zion Christian Church (founded 1924), headquartered in Moria, Limpopo and with an annual Easter pilgrimage that attracts between 4 and 5 million church members from across Southern Africa.

You might describe my family as also practising ‘syncretic religion’, that is, combining belief systems. Many indigenous churches and individuals have done this across the world for years in response to the dilemma posed by religions brought by colonizers, such as Christianity and Islam, to their heritage. Voodoo as practiced in parts of Africa and the Caribbean, for example, combines elements of Western African, native Caribbean, and Christian beliefs.

This doesn’t necessarily relieve the practisers of all tensions and conflicts between the belief systems. Christianity for example, has an exclusivist approach (for instance, the book of Exodus 20:4-5 reminds Christians that God is a ‘jealous God’) and more often than not, is the more dominant of the two beliefs.

Many Christians see this kind of ‘religious innovation’’ or syncretism as a betrayal of their pure truth and a corrupting element to the original religion. In most cases, syncretism is not an equal marrying of belief systems but rather a substitution or modification of the central elements of a dominant religion by beliefs or practices from outside of the religion.

The media can’t seem to get enough of the ‘modern sangoma’ trope. Articles abound on young urbanites who challenge the stereotype of older, said to be uneducated people from rural areas with their day jobs, ‘modern’ lifestyles and tech-enabled consultations. Part of those who are often spotlighted are entertainers such as Letoya Mangezi, Tshisa actor Bongani Masondo  and ‘tweleb’ Nokulinda Mkhize (@noksangoma).

There are an estimated 200,000 sangomas (a healer who diagnoses using bones) or inyangas (inyanga is a sangoma who specialises in muti) in South Africa, and up to 60% of the population consult traditional healers.

Traditional healers have often been given a bad rap by those who have sought to benefit from the desperation and at times, the ignorance, of those who seek their services. Those A8 flyers handed out at intersections, think “Want to increase penis size?” and “Want to get back your lover?”, have not helped.

The Traditional Healers Organisation trains and certifies traditional healers, but their attempts to lend them any credibility is undermined by their own administrational failures that don’t bring the kind of regulation seen in alternative medicines such as homeopathy. Health Minister Aaron Motsoaledi has been quoted as saying, “it’s clear that’s an area in South Africa that we need to control”.

However, traditional healers are increasingly gaining official recognition. According to an article in The Sowetan, Durban-based economist, Myles Mander, led a study four years ago that estimated the trade in traditional medicine to be worth nearly three billion rand each year. Last year, the country’s top court ruled that sick notes handed out by sangomas are valid and should be accepted by employers.

In my twenties, during one of my many emotional/spiritual ups and downs, my mother took me to a seer, perhaps the black equivalent of a psychic. At the time, I had seen psychologists, psychiatrists, preachers and family members. I cannot imagine what it took of my mother to take me to him.  She also called my great uncle and asked that he speak to my ancestors, AmaYirha, asking them to watch over me. What struck me, much later of course, was how this felt like a last resort. It felt like trying everything then calling home and asking for help.

Echoing the same sentiment, Lindokuhle Nkosi correctly asks in her Mahala article titled ’21st Century Sangoma’: “Yoga in the morning, acupuncture for healing; what is it about sangomas that discomforts us so?…Do we need Madonna to do for it what she did for Kabbalah? Maybe get Mandoza to jump up and down on Noeleen’s couch before we pay it any heed?”

This to me seems part of our colonial legacy: the tendency to look down upon our own. It is not to say that African traditional belief systems are, to borrow from Christian phraseology, the ‘alpha and omega’. Instead, I would hope that as we continue to define ourselves in this pluralist democracy of ours, we would allow ourselves the freedom to believe in whatever it is that speaks to us, and, more importantly, accord each belief system whether in the form of angels, ancestors or both, the respect and recognition that they deserve.


WATCH: TED Talent Search: Zoya Mabuto: ‘Using tradition to renegotiate Africa’s identity’ 



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  4. the bible was written by blacks and became lost in translation. just research the meaning of the word Elohim. that word caused the bulk of the misunderstandings in the good book. understanding it first and then reading the bible opens the eyes of the readers. I would mention maybe 2 verses. Gen 35 vs 1 – 10 & Gen 49 vs 24 – 29. reading these 2 scriptures after understanding the many meanings of the word unlocks the aftican context

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