Secular Society

Atheists in Post-Apartheid South Africa

Atheists in Post-Apartheid South Africa: Discrimination and Progress

A paper presented by Rick Raubenheimer, President, on behalf of the South African Secular Society (SASS) at the Conference on Religious Freedom in South Africa, “Freedom of Religion or Belief in a Democracy”, at The University of Johannesburg (UJ), 11-12 April 2024.  Kindly address all correspondence in this regard to the President of SASS at



 1.1 Introduction

Good morning, Ladies and Gentlemen.

May I start by getting a sense of my audience?  Please raise your hand if you know what an atheist is – thank you.  I’m glad to see there are so many.  You are educated people.

I am reminded of the couple introducing themselves, and she tells him, “I am a vegan. Do you know what a vegan is?”  He replies, “Of course! I’m a great fan of Star Trek!”

If there’s anybody here who thinks that an atheist is a space alien from the planet Athia, please put down your hand.

Now I have a more difficult question. If you identify as an atheist and you are willing to admit it in public, please raise your hand. Thank you.  I seem to be the only one!

1.2          Body

1.2.1         What is Atheism?

Atheism is a lack of belief in the existence of gods.

Simply put, if I ask you, “Do you believe in any gods?” and you answer “No”, you are an atheist.

The late media personality and author, Eusebius McKaiser, styled himself as an agnostic, but an atheist towards the Christian god.  So, I rather like to phrase the question as “Do you worship any god?”  Because the behaviour of the agnostic is no different from that of the atheist.  You wouldn’t catch an agnostic worshipping at churches, mosque, synagogue and temple, just to hedge his bets!

And then there are other labels: Secularist, freethinker, non-religious, anti-theist, skeptic, unbeliever, Apostate, Humanist, godless, Naturalist, Bright, nones (who tick the “none” box for Religion – not “Nuns”!), Laist (Lay, as opposed to Clergy).  Not all are compliments.

Of these, Humanist is probably the most important.  Atheism is a bit of a one-trick pony, since it is just a negative.  We don’t have a term for people who don’t collect stamps, or don’t play hockey: As Sam Harris says “Atheism is nothing more than the noises reasonable people make in the presence of unjustified religious beliefs.”  Humanism, on the other hand, is a positive, life-affirming philosophy, a moral code.

1.2.2         Who Are We?

Census 2022 records atheists and agnostics each as 0.1% of the population.  Those with “no religious affiliation” form 2.9%. –Probably including closeted atheists and agnostics!  (Source: Table 2.10: Percentage of population by religious affiliation/belief.)  But Community Survey 2016 (also from Statistics South Africa) lists “No religion” at 10.9%.

An 8-percentage point drop from 2016 to 2022 seems hardly credible. Clearly, how you ask the question, and how you choose your sample, make a big difference to the answer.

Either way, non-believers are a small, yet significant, number of South Africans. For comparison, both above sources list 0.1% of the population following Judaism.

1.2.3         My History

Today is my Birthday!  I am 71.  You may ask how I got here?

I was born –at a very early age– to a Jewish mother and a freethinking father from an Afrikaans family.  I encountered religion at school: the Christian National Education of the Apartheid government.  My father died when I was 8.  My mother then brought me up Jewish, I had a bar-mitzvah and was officially Jewish at school and during my year’s compulsory military service.  During that time, I also went to my fellow students’ churches and was exposed to many kinds of Christianity.  At Wits I learned Transcendental Meditation.  I practiced it for 7 years and then moved on to other varieties of meditation.  That also exposed me to eastern thought.  Having tried the “I am” training, homoeopathy, rebirthing, astral travel, etc, in 2010 I came out as an Atheist.  I’m now President of the South African Secular Society. SASS for short (not to be confused with SASSA, the South African Social Security Agency).

Organising Atheists is like herding cats. So, I am chief cat-herder.

1.2.4         Apartheid History

Historically, the Apartheid era entrenched religious governance. This included so-called “Christian National Education”, which pushed one religion into schools. It enforced religious practices through legislation. Such as the Prohibition of the Exhibition of Films on Sundays and Public Holidays Act of 1977.

1.2.5         New Constitution

With the advent of democracy in 1994, the new South African Constitution came into force in 1996. It features the Bill of Rights in Chapter 2. Its Section 9 prohibits unfair discrimination based on religion, conscience, and belief.

That also implies lack of belief. Let us then talk of lack of belief.

The Bill of Rights should protect the non-belief of both Agnostics and Atheists.

Atheists in Post-Apartheid South Africa
A wide variety of questions were asked.

1.2.6         Focus

Despite the Constitution, is there discrimination against atheists in South Africa? That is the focus of this paper.  Some exist in legislation and practices inherited from Apartheid.

Despite the title of my paper, I want to look at the positives first.

1.2.7         OGOD Case

Section 15(2) of the Constitution says that religious observances may take place at state and state-aided institutions if they are conducted in an equitable manner and that attendance is free and voluntary. The Schools Act makes a similar provision for religious observance provided that it is in line with the Constitution.  Some State schools have relied on this to profess a Christian ethos, espouse what they call “Christian values”, and hold Christian religious services.

The Organisasie vir Godsdienste-Onderrig en Demokrasie (OGOD) took six public schools to the Gauteng High Court in Case No: 29847/2014.  In the judgement on 27 June 2017, a full bench of judges declared that it offends section 7 of the Schools Act, 84 of 1996 for a public school –

(i) to promote or allow its staff to promote that it, as a public school, adheres to only one or predominantly only one religion to the exclusion of others; and

(ii) to hold out that it promotes the interests of any one religion in favour of others.

Atheists in Post-Apartheid South Africa
The conference lasted for 2 days.

1.2.8         Examples of Equality

My group, the South African Secular Society (SASS), is registered with the Dept of Social Development as an NPO (non-profit organisation) (non-prophet too!)

We conduct legally binding atheist weddings for both heterosexual and same-sex couples.

We were registered as a “religious organization”, which is somewhat demeaning.  It allows us to designate marriage officers under the Civil Union Act.  Our first Marriage Officer was designated in 2018.  We now have 22 Marriage Officers around the country who performed 180 marriages in 2023.

1.2.9         But Then Again…

When we were trying to register, it took us three tries because the Department of home Affairs kept moving the goalposts. This might be an example of discrimination, or it might be inefficiency, or just standard practice!  After I wrote my DHA exam to be designated, it took them nine months to designate me, probably the longest!  Another three candidates apparently had their scripts thrown away. Again, these might be examples of discrimination but, to be fair, we usually get a designation through within two months of the exam.  One of those whose scripts were “lost”, rewrote 2 years later and was designated within 10 days!

Our SARS Registration as a PBO has been stalled for 2 years – inefficiency, or discrimination?

1.2.10      Municipal Property Rates Act

Other examples arose since the demise of Apartheid. The Municipal Property Rates Act (6 of 2004) is one. It prohibits municipalities from levying rates on property used for religious purposes. Thereby, it forces non-believers to subsidise believers.

  1. (1) A municipality may not levy a rate—

(i) on a property registered in the name of and used primarily as a place of public worship by a religious community. including an official residence registered in the name of that community which is occupied by an office-bearer of that community who officiates at services at that place of worship.

1.2.11      Other Examples of Discrimination:

Even the National Anthem, and the Constitution itself, contain references favouring religion.

To re-frame this for theists, imagine if you were asked to show your patriotism by singing a National Anthem praising Sant?  Or Satan: How would that feel?

1.2.12      New Marriage Bill – Problem Clause

I mentioned the Civil Union Act. This came about because religious authorities were not willing to have the Marriage Act amended to include same-sex couples. For some years, the Department of Home Affairs has been working on a comprehensive act to replace the old Marriage Act, the Civil Union Act, and the Traditional Marriages Act. There is now a bill before Parliament to this effect.

While the new Marriage Bill seems largely sound, we have one big problem with it, which we need rectified before it passes into law:


Existing marriage officers

  1. (1) Any person who, in terms of the Marriage Act, has been designated as marriage officer shall continue to be a marriage officer until his or her designation expires or is revoked by the Director-General for any valid reason.

Anyone else spot the problem?

We’re designated in terms of the Civil Union act, not the Marriage Act.

1.3            Other Examples

I did a snap survey, totally unscientific of course, and turned up examples of discrimination and problems:

Atheists in Post-Apartheid South Africa      Atheists in Post-Apartheid South Africa

Atheists in Post-Apartheid South Africa      Atheists in Post-Apartheid South Africa

1.4            Conclusion & Proposals

We are happy to report that there is progress in getting equal rights (and equal rites) for atheists.

Nevertheless, there is much work to be done.  SASS is helping parents of children who are subjected to religious indoctrination at state schools.  We give them supporting material to send the principal and the school governing body.  If they fear victimisation, we will write to the school and the Department of Education.

Last year we got the authorities running an old-age home in the W Cape to stop a group that was trying to coerce vulnerable resident to convert.

Our Marriage Officers are offering the option of a non-religious wedding to all couples, particularly gay ones who are spurned by religion, or until 20 October 2022 could be refused by DHA officials.

As we have the finances, we will take legal action on the more egregious of the problems listed earlier.

We take every opportunity to call for the rights of the non-religious, such as at this conference.  So that atheists are regarded as equal members of the South African community, and no longer as space aliens!


2.1            What is Atheism?

Atheism is a lack of belief in the existence of gods (paraphrased from Wikipedia).  Agnosticism is the view that the existence of the divine is unknown or unknowable. (Ref: Wikipedia).

2.2            Attitudes towards Atheism

See also: Discrimination against atheists

Statistically, atheists are held in poor regard across the globe. Non-atheists seem to implicitly view atheists as prone to exhibit immoral behaviors.[207] In addition, according to a 2016 Pew Research Center publication, 15% of French people, 45% of Americans, and 99% of Indonesians explicitly believe that a person must believe in God to be moral. Pew furthermore noted that, in a U.S. poll, atheists and Muslims tied for the lowest rating among the major religious demographics on a “feeling thermometer“.[208] Also, a study of religious college students found that they were more likely to perceive and interact with atheists negatively after considering their mortality, suggesting that these attitudes may be the result of death anxiety.[209]

Atheism. (2024, March 28). In Wikipedia.

2.3            Understanding the OGOD Judgment – GroundUp

2.4            South African National Anthem

Nkosi Sikelel’ iAfrika

(God Bless Africa)
Maluphakanyisw’ uphondo lwayo,
(Raise high Her glory)
Yizwa imithandazo yethu,
(Hear our Prayers)
Nkosi sikelela, thina lusapho lwayo
(God bless us, we her children)

Morena boloka setjhaba sa heso,
(God protect our nation)
O fedise dintwa le matshwenyeho,
(End all wars and tribulations)
O se boloke, O se boloke setjhaba sa heso,
(Protect us, protect our nation)
Setjhaba sa South Afrika – South Afrika.
(Our nation South Africa – South Africa)