Migration and new religious diversities in South Africa

Peter Kankonde (MPI-MMG and ACMS, University of the Witwatersrand)
Lorena Nunez (Wits University)
Melekias Zulu (ACMS, University of the Witwatersrand)


This research project, using ethnographic methods of inquiry, investigates the politics of common sacred space construction, successive use, and new forms of religious ritual practices developing in the context of the new super-diverse South Africa. Since the formal end of Apartheid in 1994, South Africa has been experiencing the greatest wave of both internal and international migrations from different racial, ethnic, and religious backgrounds in the Country’s history. However, for millions of the new migrants who settle in South Africa’s urban settings, the urban context involves all sort of threats and increases their experiences of vulnerability and insecurity at the physical, material, and spiritual levels. In response, many people rely primarily on their religious beliefs as resources and undergo, sometimes simultaneously, different religious ritual cleansing practices as “technologies of the body” in order to prepare themselves to face these new threats. This is evidenced in a number of new shared sacred spaces that play the function of religious initiation to cities. Across all major South African cities like Johannesburg, Cape Town, Durban, etc., there have emerged new  places of worship in abandoned churches, warehouses, vacant land, private homes, backyards, etc. There are also numerous visible freelance prophets catering mainly to the religious needs of the migrant newcomers and transforming  religious landscapes of these cities. These new places of worship have not only diversified the range of religious offer practices, but are also causing many people to come into contact with one another, compete for space, or simply collaborate by sharing spaces or merging the religious ritual practices that they previously developed in different traditions and contexts.

This research project explores the dynamics of new ethnic and religious encounters resulting from new migration in diverse cities, and the consequences of these encounters through the lense religious ritual practices. This research project seeks to answer the following questions: How have various patterns of migrations impacted on the landscape of sacred spaces and what dynamics have informed the diversity of religious offers and ritual practices in South Africa at different periods of the country’s history? What are the politics of sacred space construction and succession in contemporary South Africa?  What are lay people’s religious trajectories and what attract them to particular forms of religious ritual practice? What are the dynamics informing instances of respect or transgression of boundaries of beliefs and ritual practices as people share the same space? What is the nature of religious sociability and new forms of connectivity emerging out of encounters and common use of sacred spaces? This project specifically looks at different Pentecostal, Islamic, Hindu, Zionist, and African Traditional Religions’ cases across greater Johannesburg, Cape Town, and Durban.