The State of South African Religion Pictured in Three Brief Encounters

Within 24 hours, from Sunday afternoon June 20th until Monday morning June 21st, I met three different men—two black and one white—who summarized neatly what I have observed from reading history, conversing widely, and studying Scripture for the last 17 years. The names are changed, and the dialogue translated and summarized after the fact, but it is as near as a careful yet fallible memory can afford.

2:00 PM Sunday afternoon

A well-dressed Tsonga man walking home from church accepted my offer for a ride.

Seth: It looks like you are coming from church. What did you learn today?

Man: What?

Seth: What did you learn at church? Did you learn anything?

Man: Oh, yes, we learned to take ourselves seriously.

Seth: Here is my Bible. Can you show me what verse the pastor used to teach such a doctrine?

After time and further conversation the man was unable to recover the source of the honey he had tasted.

Seth: Where will you go when you die?

Man: To Heaven with God.

Seth: How do you know?

Man: I have lived a good life.

Seth: Anything else?

Man: No, that is it. If a man lives a good life, he will go to Heaven.

Seth: What did you forget?

Man: ?

Seth: You are not a Christian. Do not be angry with me, but you forgot something, and when I tell you, you will immediately know It. But the fact that you cannot think of It now tells me that It is not in your heart. It cannot come out of your mouth because your mind and love do not return to this one Great Thing. Would you like to try again? How do you know when you die you will go to Heaven? What have you forgotten? Will God let you into Heaven by your good life?

After time, and some fruitless attempts with nothing more than, “Ku hanya swinene,” (to live well), I replied.

Seth: You forgot Christ. You said nothing of His death for sinners, His prayers for you right now, or His Second Coming. He is not in your heart. I love you and want to help you, but your religion has blinded you.

Man: Oh, pastor! You are a true pastor! When can we talk again?

Seth: I am here on Fridays and Sundays.

At this point, we had arrived at the pick up point for the handful of adults and the tons of children. During the end of our conversation, they had loaded the vehicle. So I asked them, “Do you know that man in the suit who is walking away from us?”

Different voices: Yes, he lives near us. He claims to be an apostle. At their church, they are always shouting and prophesying.

Seth: Which church?

One of the women: The very large church that everyone knows right on the road. 

10:00 AM Monday morning

As an Afrikaans man replaces my battery in an empty watch shop, we spoke together for 10 minutes or so.

Seth: So, do you have any kids?

Man: No, but we have been together for 18 years now.

Seth: You said ‘been together’ not married. Does that mean you have a girlfriend?

Man: Yes.

Seth: Why do you not marry her?

Man: There are a lot of problems that come with marriage.

Seth: Do you read your Bible? [Looking back, I wish I had said, ‘There are greater problems that come with living with your girlfriend,’ but since this is an account of what happened, I will record what I remember, not as I wish I would have spoken.]

Man: I’ll tell you about my dream. My girlfriend and I were walking through these streets when suddenly it was bombed. Black clouds started filling the sky, and I just held her and prayed, ‘Guide us through this.’ I prayed in the dream the way we do at our church with the exact same words. I take that dream to mean that God will guide me.

Seth: Could the dream have come from Satan?

Man: No, Satan could never have sent a dream like that.

Seth: How do you know?

Man: Because I felt in my heart that this was from God. Satan could never produce feelings like that.

Seth: Just yesterday, I preached about the temptations that Satan will bring from John 14:30. In that sermon, I quoted from an old preacher named Richard Baxter who listed 94 ways that Satan tempts men. I only listed 20 of Baxter’s ways. But one of them was to give men a false confidence. Do you think that Satan could give a man confidence in order to deceive him?

Man: No, my dream was true. And it guided me. That’s the way God speaks to me.

The church he mentioned has a large building near the center of town.

11:30 AM Monday Morning

As the exhaust is repaired on my 4×4, Cameron and I greeted a Venda man waiting with us.

Man: How do you know Venda?

Seth: Oh, I don’t know Venda. I am a Tsonga.

Man: [Speaking Tsonga] Where did you learn Tsonga?

Seth: I lived for nine years in a Tsonga village, and even now I am trying to plant churches among the Tsongas.

Cameron: Mi njhani?

Man: [Very pleased] Hi pfukile, n’wana nga! Mi njhani?

Cameron: Hi pfukile.

Seth: Where are you from? How many children do you have?

Man: I have 4 children in marriage and 8 children outside of marriage.

Seth: Have you taught them all the way to be saved?

Man: They go to their own churches.

Seth: Do you read your Bible?

Man: I have not read my Bible for 20 years. You see, I believe that God is there, but who am I to speak to Him? I will talk to my ancestors, and they will speak to Him for me.

Seth: This subject interests me greatly. Can you tell me what you know so that I can learn?

We spoke for a few minutes.

Seth: I have seen that many Tsongas go to church, and the majority would claim to be Christian. But from your experience, how many of the Tsongas are true Christians? When I say ‘true Christian’ I mean someone who does not fear witchcraft or voodoo and does not follow traditional religious practices.

Man: Very few. Almost no Tsongas are Christian in that way. Even my children who go to church, they still do what I do. They think the way I think.


These brief dialogues represent the main lessons and the precise wording (as best I can reassemble) from each of the conversations, but more was said. Further and more importantly, these are only single leaves in the forest. They illustrate a great number of car rides, purchase interactions, and first time meetings. I doubt there are many sociologists who in their course of any particular study have personally interviewed more people than I have over the years on this one issue of conversion. And my findings from that one 24-hour period fit the previous data.

  1. Very few Tsongas learn anything about Biblical doctrine or the way of salvation at their religious gatherings which they call churches.
  2. The Afrikaaners commonly have a vague religious connection to the church, but they think in unbiblical ways and live in direct opposition to the most basic of Christ’s commands.
  3. Most Africans still fear witchcraft and voodoo, and they still practice the worthless traditions they received from their ancestors.
  4. It is far more common to find lost South Africans both black and white than to find true Christians.
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