Islam spreading in S Africa

Black South Africans, drawn to the Islam practiced by African immigrants, are converting in growing numbers and slowly changing the face of religious affiliation in the overwhelmingly Christian country.

“The numbers have gone up dramatically if you look at the census figures ... there is massive growth especially in the (black) townships,” said Dr Shamil Jeppie, an expert on Islamic history in Africa at the University of Cape Town. Immigrants from Central and West Africa, escaping poverty at home for life in the continent’s economic powerhouse, have brought with them a new “Africanised Islam” more in line with black South Africans’ identities than the religion practiced by followers with closer links to Asia.

“In the townships people see the confidence they bring. The confidence of the African Muslim,” Jeppie said. “There is going to be a different texture, (the balance of followers) is definitely going to change.”

Currently, some 650,000 South Africans or less than 2 percent, are Muslim. They are mostly members of the country’s Indian and Coloured (mixed-race) communities, the descendents of slaves and cheap labour shipped to South Africa by the former Dutch and British colonial rulers. Christianity - practised by 80 percent of the country’s 45 million population - is still the dominant religion amongst black South Africans.

But an estimated 75,000 Africans are now Muslim compared to fewer than 12,000 in 1991 during apartheid white rule, according to research by the Human Sciences Research Council, a government-funded institute.

Of those, 11 percent are black Africans and that group is expected to become the largest segment of the Muslim faithful within the next two decades. “The gap is closing and we are finding each other,” Sheik Thafir Najjar, head of Cape Town-based Islamic Council of South Africa, says of reconciliation since the end of apartheid in 1994.

“Under apartheid we were not allowed to share our cultures,” Najjar told Reuters. But in the end there were “a lot of similarities between African and Muslim cultures,” he added.

Najjar said the war on terrorism, led by the United States, had heightened curiosity among Africans about Islam. “What the policy of America has done has been to make people more aware and to show a greater interest in Islam,” he said.

Despite their growing numbers, Muslims in South Africa have generally maintained a low profile and operate within the political mainstream.