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  • Spiritual Life of Deaf People in South Africa
  • A. L. Smit (bio)

To date, no overview of the spiritual life of Deaf people has been available across the different religious affiliations in South Africa. Therefore, in this article I attempt to give a partial overview, informed by unpublished reports, personal observations, and the experiences of experts in this field over the past two decades in South Africa.

Religious Demographic Profile of South Africa

The most recent South African census (2001) showed that 79.8% of the population of 44.8 million was Christian. The African Independent Churches (31.8%), Protestants (25.5%), Pentecostal/ Charismatic churches (7.6%), Catholic churches (7.1%), and various other Christian groupings (7.8%) make up the Christian section of the population. The rest of the population is made up of adherents to Islam (1.5%), Hinduism (1.2%), African traditional beliefs (0.3%), and Judaism (0.2%), with other groupings claiming 0.6%. Those who indicate no religion constitute 15.1% (Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life, 2009; Statistics South Africa, 2005, pp. 24, 28).

Data on the religious demographic profile of the Deaf South African population of 453,104 (according to the 2001 Census; cf. Statistics South Africa, 2005, p. 51) are not available, but it can be assumed that it differs from that of hearing people because communication barriers make it difficult for Deaf people to fully participate in the religious groupings of their choice. Some of the groupings make special efforts to accommodate Deaf people using interpreters and different forms of visual communication, and they even designate religious functionaries for Deaf members of their grouping. However, limitations to Deaf members’ participation exist in religious rituals and leadership positions. To a large extent, Deaf members are usually seen only as the objects of religious care and instruction, and not as the subjects thereof. Consequently, it appears that the religious potential of Deaf people has to date been neither appreciated nor developed, and this is believed to have caused many Deaf people to look for alternatives or to become apathetic.

One of the alternatives is to start Deaf gatherings or churches. South African Deaf Christians who prefer Deaf churches and fellowships are members of 15 churches or fellowships in the provinces of Western Cape, KwaZulu-Natal, Eastern Cape, and Gauteng that are affiliated with the Deaf Ecumenical Forum of South Africa. However, these congregations account for only about 4,000 Deaf people and their families.

A number of Deaf South Africans are members of Jehovah’s Witnesses sign language congregations and sign language groups in various cities and towns across South Africa. A number of Deaf South Africans are Muslims. Al Waagah Madrasssah for the Deaf is an Islamic service provider for Deaf Muslims in Cape Town.

A trend among Deaf people is that preference is given to religious groupings that use sign language as their [End Page 514] communication medium and practice Deaf culture. Doctrine and dogma seem to play a secondary role in their choice.

Features of Deaf Culture

Some of the features of Deaf culture seem particularly pertinent to the spiritual lives of Deaf people (Siple, Greer, & Holcomb, 2004). (Although there are good reasons for the development of these features, their causes will not be discussed here.)


One of the main attributes of Deaf culture in South Africa, as is the case internationally, is the inclusion of all Deaf people. Deafness is a bond that transcends national boundaries, race, gender, and creed.


The Deaf community sometimes displays what some might label a jealous possessiveness toward specific cultural and language property, which it keeps away from the hearing (Lane, 1992).

Attitude Toward Hearing People in General

Many Deaf people express a negative attitude toward hearing people, seeing them as the oppressors. There is also the belief that the only difference between hearing and Deaf people is that Deaf people cannot hear.

Concept of God

Christian research done at various schools for the Deaf in South Africa indicated that little or no concept of God was formed in Deaf children as a result of the method and content of religious instruction. They did not show any understanding of the omnipresence...


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pp. 514-516
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