Resistance and Change—Religion in the Middle: Assessing the Role of Religion in Social Transformation in South Africa

P. Pratap Kumar


South Africa has been on a rollercoaster of change since 1994 when democracy was inaugurated after centuries of colonialism and decades of apartheid. Nevertheless, resistance to changes in society came from the unlikely places of religious institutions and publics. During colonialism and apartheid government religion, particularly Christianity has been implicated in the service of the two oppressive systems that prevented the progress of African indigenous people and the non-white people who settled in South Africa. The new democracy guaranteed constitutional protection to all religious groups from being discriminated on the basis of their religious values and beliefs. Two important new developments in Durban raise questions whether constitutional provisions are sufficient to protect people from being discriminated on the basis of religious orientations. These two incidents happened in Durban—one relates to the objections raised by White community to the planned construction of a mosque by local Muslim community in Durban North residential area: the second relates to the senior police official demanding that Hindu police officers remove the red string that they wear on their arms as mark of their religious belief. This paper will examine closely the two episodes as well as some past historical instances of religious discrimination to understand the role of religion in social transformation in South Africa. The deployment of religion in social transformation in South Africa both negatively and positively will be analysed. The paper, while identifying three important resources available to South African society in dealing with the issues of religious conflict, it particularly emphasizes the Gandhian approach to the issue.

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