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Institute for Comparative Religion in Southern Africa (ICRSA)

Director:  Professor David Chidester                                

Launched in July 1991 with an inaugural lecture by Professor Ninian Smart (University of Lancaster; University of California, Santa Barbara), the Institute for Comparative Religion in Southern Africa (ICRSA) is a research unit of the University of Cape Town dedicated to the postcolonial study of religion and religions. In addition to developing resources for the study of religions and finding new ways to understand the study of religion from a southern African perspective, ICRSA has developed applied research projects in religion and public education by negotiating national policy, providing materials for teachers, conducting workshops, and participating in international research networks.

Since its beginning, ICRSA has pursued two major projects:

The Comparative Religion Project, which has produced a database on religions of South Africa, a three-volume annotated bibliography, a history of comparative religion in southern Africa, and case studies on the production of sacred space in southern Africa;

The Religion Education Project, which has produced a widely-distributed book on policy options, a teacher-training manual, and textbooks, and has conducted pilot projects in local schools and teacher-training colleges to develop new approaches and materials for religion education.


The Comparative Religion Project

Building on the preliminary mapping of the history of religions published asReligions of South Africa (Routledge, 1992), the Comparative Religion Project sought to provide resources for the academic study of South Africa religions. Driven by senior researchers Darrel Wratten and Judy Tobler, and supported by about ten research assistants over five years, ICRSA delivered three-volumes of annotated bibliography—African Traditional Religion in South Africa,Christianity in South Africa, and Islam, Hinduism, and Judaism in South Africa (Greenwood Press, 1997). Widely distributed and well reviewed, the annotated bibliographies represent a useful research base for ongoing investigations of the history of religions in South Africa.

At the same time, the Comparative Religion Project developed a critical analysis of colonial productions of the terms “religion” and religions” in South Africa. The result, Savage Systems: Colonialism and Comparative Religion in Southern Africa (University Press of Virginia, 1996), which received the American Academy of Religion Award for Excellence in Religious Studies, rewrote the history of the study of religion from a Southern African perspective.


Researchers within ICRSA are currently working on a long-term project, “Empire of Religion,” that will result in a sequel to Savage Systems. Researchers are working on a critical analysis of the implications of late-nineteenth century British scholarship on religion in the ideological legitimation of empire. With particular attention to Southern Africa, this book examines key figures in an emerging scientific study of religion, such as F. Max Müller, E. B. Tylor, and Andrew Lang, developed an imperial comparative religion.


The Religion Education Project

Beginning with a research project for the National Education Policy Investigation (NEPI), the Religion Education Project has engaged in policy research, pilot projects, teacher training, textbook production, and participation in international networks. The ICRSA report on policy options for the role of religion in South African public schools—Religion in Public Education: Options for a New South Africa, with Gordon Mitchell, Isabel Apawo Phiri, and A. Rashied Omar, 2nd. ed. (UCT Press, 1994)—provided a context for debates about teaching and learning about religion, religions, and religious diversity that culminated in the new policy for religion education incorporated in the Department of Education’sManifesto on Values in Education (2001) and Policy for Religion and Education (2003).

While focusing on South Africa, ICRSA participated in the formation of a network of researchers in the UK, Germany, the Netherlands, Norway, Namibia, and South Africa, which meets every two years for symposia on theory and practice of religion education. ICRSA researchers have published articles in the books growing out of those conferences and have also edited collections on theory and practice of interreligious and intercultural education:  Special Issue: “Interreligious and Intercultural Studies,” edited by David Chidester, Janet Stonier and Judy Tobler, Journal for the Study of Religion 11,1 (1998): 5-115;Diversity as Ethos: Challenges for Interreligious and Intercultural Education, edited by David Chidester, Janet Stonier and Judy Tobler (Cape Town: Institute for Comparative Religion in Southern Africa, 1999), andInternational Perspectives on Citizenship, Education, and Religious Diversity, edited by Robert Jackson (London: Routledge, 2002).

Based on pilot projects at four schools in the Western Cape, ICRSA researchers published innovative textbooks for teaching and learning about religions:  African Religion and Culture Alive, by Chirevo Kwenda, Nokuzola Mndende, and Janet Stonier (Via Afrika, 1997); Sacred Places, by Janet Stonier and Tracy Derrick (Juta, 1997); Festivals and Celebrations, by Janet Stonier, Nokuzola Mndende, A. Rashied Omar, Saraswathi S. Pillay, and Azila Reisenberger (Cape Town: Juta, 1996).


ICRSA Researchers

Over the years, ICRSA has provided employment, financial support, research training, and capacity building for over thirty postgraduate students. Many of these ICRSA researchers have gone on to achieve great things: Eleven have completed PhDs, seven are currently serving as university lecturers, while others are working in community-based NGOs, independent consultancy, or business, including one former ICRSA researcher who is now the CEO of a global market-research company. These human resources have been ICRSA’s greatest resources.