DEPARTMENT OF HOME AFFAIRS
This government department acts as Registrar of births, marriages and deaths. Approximate commencing dates for the official registration of births, marriages and deaths in the various provinces is as follows:
Cape: Births 1895; Marriages 1700; Deaths 1895
Natal: Births 1868; Marriages 1845; Deaths 1888
Transvaal: Births 1901; Marriages 1870; Deaths 1901
Orange Free State: Births 1903; Marriages 1848; Deaths 1903
The Department DOES NOT have certificates prior to these dates.
The public has no direct access to the records held by the Department of Home Affairs in Pretoria. The facilities and records of the Department of Home Affairs are not open to the public or researchers. There is no index for perusal by the public. The public may submit applications for copies of birth, marriage and death certificates. Two types of certificates are available - an abridged certificate and a full certificate. For genealogical purposes, always request FULL certificates, as they contain more details. Within South Africa, application can be made at any Department of Home Affairs office. To apply for certificates from outside South Africa one must do so through the nearest South African Embassy, Consulate or High Commission. There is a charge associated with obtaining copies of these certificates. The Department of Home Affairs should not be your first choice when researching South African births, marriages or deaths for family history purposes. The Department is not attaining an acceptable level of service to the public, and most importantly, South African certificates are not as useful to family history research as in other countries. Rather try other sources first. The South African National Archives has some marriage and death registers older than 20 years, for some areas of the country, although the issue of official certificates can only be done by the Department of Home Affairs. The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (LDS) / Mormom Church, through its genealogical department, has microfilmed a number of South African civil registration records, which can be consulted at their Family History Centres. Not all Centres have the microfilms in stock - they may have to be ordered from the country's main Centre or from Salt Lake City, Utah.
MASTER OF THE SUPREME COURT
These offices hold Estate files, which contain a death notice, a last will and testament, and the liquidation and distribution account. The purpose of the Master's Office is to administer the liquidation and distribution of the estates of deceased persons; administer trust property given under the control of any person by a deceased person; administer the property of minors and persons under curatorship; administer derelict estates, and to regulate the rights of beneficiaries under mutual wills made by any two or more persons. There are four provincial offices and one office presided over by an Assistant Master at Kimberley, whose area of jurisdiction is that of the Griqualand West Local Division of the Supreme Court.
The provincial offices are at the seats of the provincial divisions of the Supreme Court: Pretoria in the Transvaal; Bloemfontein in the Orange Free State; Pietermaritzburg in Natal; and Cape Town in the Cape Province.
The Master's Office keeps information filed regarding every estate within his jurisdiction, and, with certain exceptions, any person may at any time during office hours inspect any document and have a certified copy made of any document on payment of the relevant fees. If the estate has not yet been wound up, the public do not have access to that file. Not all deceased persons have estate files. Estate files are not opened for those who owned little or no assets. The documents give information about the deceased including personal details, those of his/her spouse(s), children and other beneficiaries. Addresses often also give clues about where to find relatives of the deceased, while wills are valuable for signatures. It must be noted that the death notice is a legal document which is filled in after the death of a person. If correctly completed, it contains full names of the deceased, place and date of birth, names of deceased's parents and his /her children's names.
Commencing dates for the estate files kept at the various Master's Offices are:
Cape: 1962 onwards
Grahamstown (Eastern Cape only): 1962 onwards
Natal: 1975 onwards
Transvaal: 1977 onwards
Orange Free State: 1951 onwards
Kimberley: 1957 onwards
The above dates change as information is passed on to the Archives for storage.
Before the above dates the Estate files are kept in the relevant Archives. Since 2004, the Pretoria Master's Office has only handled estates for the provinces of Gauteng, Mpumalanga and North West Province. Since January 2004, Limpopo province has had its own Master's Office. Mpumalanga province was set to get its own Master's Office in 2005 or 2006.
NATIONAL ARCHIVES OF SOUTH AFRICA
There are archive repositories in Pretoria, Cape Town, Bloemfontein, Durban and Pietermaritzburg. They are responsible for the custody of the archives and other documents that have a bearing on the province in which they are situated. The National Archives in Pretoria houses the archives of central government departments and the Transvaal Archives Repository. The documents available at an Archives repository include: correspondence files, registers and other documents of government offices and the offices of local authorities that are, or were, located in the provinces concerned; photographs; maps; microfilms; and Estate files before the dates listed under The Master of the Supreme Court, for the various Provinces. Each Archives Repository has a library with books of a genealogical and historical nature, as well as microfilm readers.
In many instances photocopying restrictions apply to earlier estate files to prevent damage to them. Researchers can transcribe the details from the estate file. Microfilms are also available through Family History Centres of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints (Mormons).
Due to shortages of staff and funds, the Archive Repositories rarely reply to enquiries. To get copies of Archive documents, the best way is for someone to access them in person or using a genealogical researcher with extensive knowledge of South African records.
Death notices (note: not the same as death certificates) for the Cape started in 1834, Northern Cape 1871, OFS 1836, Transvaal 1873, and Natal 1840. The death notice is a legal document and forms part of the deceased's estate file, which also includes, where available, the last will, an inventory of the deceased's estate and the final liquidation and distribution account. Death notices are not available for every person who died, it usually depended on the size/value of the estate and/or other legal matters.
VERY IMPORTANT: The difference between a death notice and a death certificate in South African research:
Death Notice: First introduced in 1834. Completed soon after death, usually but not always, by next-of-kin. It is a legal document used to inform the relevant authorities of the death and is forwarded to the Master of the High Court, where it becomes the founding document in the estate file. If there is no estate the death notice will be archived. The Master of the High Court deals with deceased estates. On the current death notice form there are options to provide: date and place of birth; name of spouse(s) and children, including married names of daughters; date and place of death; place of residence; whether the deceased left property (moveable and immovable). The extent and accuracy of the information depends on the informant. The estate file remains with the High Court for a specified period, after which it is archived at the relevant archive depot.
Death Certificate: First introduced at the Cape in 1895. It must always be completed by someone who is considered legally competent to certify death, usually, but not always, a doctor. It is a civil document and is sent to and archived by the Department of Home Affairs. Usually the mortician obtains the original from the doctor and files it with Home Affairs and the official certificates are then issued. The mortician does this because he/she is the first person who requires it after the death - burial or cremation cannot take place without it. Once the original certificate has been lodged with Home Affairs, they issue official copies for a variety of uses - both legal and civil. A copy of the death certificate is often, but not always, found in the estate file. It does not include as much information as the death notice, but lists cause of death and sometimes, the place of burial.
CHURCH RECORDS (Baptisms, marriages and deaths)
Until 1778 the Dutch Reformed Church (Nederduitse Gereformeerde Kerk or NGK) was the only official church in South Africa. This church's records date from 1665. The next oldest church is the Lutheran Church with records dating from 1778. The Anglican Church records date from 1806. The Methodist Church dates from 1816, the Presbyterians from 1824, the Church of England from 1870 and the Catholic Church from 1837. The Nederduitse Hervormde Kerk has records from 1842 and the Gereformeerde Kerk (Dopper) from 1859.
Church records are the oldest records preceding the information available from the Department of Home Affairs. Some churches keep records of burials performed from the church or of persons buried on church property. Church Minute books can have varied information of genealogical interest, depending entirely on the situation. You can request copies of church register entries from the church but not all churches have a central repository and many are kept at parish level.
The NGK Archives are in Cape Town. The Methodist registers and English registers are kept at the Cory Library in Grahamstown. Wits University has many Anglican registers.
In the earlier days, most baptisms took place in the NGK as there was no English church established at that time. For example, in the NGK in Middelburg (Cape), you find nearly all the early English settlers such as Biggs, Gilfillan, Green, Bennie and Cawood, amongst others. In Grahamstown you find many Afrikaans baptisms in the Anglican Church of St. Michael and St. George. In the early days, many settlers were married in the Marriage Court and then in church.
The first NGK parishes include:
1665 Cape Town
1854 Alexandria (Olifantshoek)
1861 Lady Grey
1878 Nieu Bethesda
1907 Port Elizabeth
1919 Sondagsrivier (Kirkwood)
1950 Uitenhage de Mist
1950 Uitenhage Oos
1950 Uitenhage Mosel
1959 Uitenhage Kanonheuwel
1966 Van Stadensrivier (St Albans)
* these were in Rhodesia. The registers are in Bloemfontein at the NGK Archives.
1865 Heidelbrg, Tvl
1866 Middelburg, Tvl
1888 Schweizer Reneke
1888 Piet Retief
1889 Nelspruit (Barberton)
1859 Weenen - from Pietermaritzburg
1894 Melmoth Eshowe
1921 Pietermaritzburg Wes
Cemetery offices keep records of tombstone inscriptions and burial registers. There are many rural or farm cemeteries outside the jurisdiction of municipalities. The Genealogical Society of South Africa is busy with an on-going Cemetery Recording Project by which it is hoped to document the headstone inscriptions of all the cemeteries in South Africa, including rural farm cemeteries. This information is indexed by cemetery, and is available at Archive Repositories; the libraries of the Universities of Cape Town, Pretoria, Port Elizabeth, Witwatersrand and UNISA; the Cory Library in Grahamstown; the HSRC in Pretoria; the South African Library; and the Transvaal Provincial Library. The indices are particularly helpful for children who died at a young age and for whom there is rarely a death notice. Burial registers rarely provide more information than the person's full names, his date of burial and his age at death. Burial registers only exist for cemeteries within municipal boundaries and are kept by the town council concerned. These registers are valuable when a person is buried in a grave that doesn't have a headstone.
South Africa is one of the few countries where census enumeration records are destroyed. Only statistics from each census are kept. The Archives in Cape Town have the Cape Colony Publications which contain census lists for 1875, 1891, 1904 and 1911 only - but do not specify names of individuals. Places of birth are mentioned pertaining to the number of people resident in different areas born outside South Africa. Blue books and statistical Registers, part of the archives of the Colonial Office (CO) cover the period 1821-1809.
The "Opgaafrollen" were taken for tax purposes in the Cape and cover the period from 1692 until about 1845.
The Orange Free State has census reports taken 31 March 1880, 1890 and 17 April 1904. These have information and statistical data on birthplaces, ages, education, religions, occupations and sickness and infirmities of the inhabitants. No information regarding relationships of individuals is given.
Old republican and colonial voters rolls of 1884, 1888, 1889, 1893, 1895, 1896, 1897, 1898, 1899, 1900 and 1907 are also available. These have surnames, first names, occupations and places of residence. Some post-1910 rolls are also available. Census and Tax Registers for the Transvaal are available for 1873 and 1890, 1904. A Johannesburg census was held on 15 July 1896.
Census and Tax records for South Africa as a whole are in the Department of Statistics, Pretoria.
Land ownership records (known as title deeds in South Africa) and deeds of transfer, are filed with the Deeds Offices in the relevant district. Land records were started in 1685. Marriage contracts and donations inter vivos are also kept at the Deeds Offices. These offices can be of assistance in locating farms.
The South African National Defence Force Archives have the Archives of:
- The Commandant General, Transvaal Republic 1881-1899
- Archives of the Military Governor, Pretoria, 1900-1902 (Records of the British Occupation forces, containing the names of those who died during the Anglo Boer War)
- Archives of the officer charged with gathering information concerning deaths among the Republican fighting forces and civilians, 1899-1902 (gives name of deceased, age, address and place of death)
- The particulars of all persons who served in the South African Armed Forces from 1910
These are available from the SANDF Documentation Centre. You need permission from the person concerned or from his eldest living relative to obtain information from these records. The Defence Force Archives are not open to the public, but you may write to obtain information.
The Commonwealth War Graves Board has lists of casualties in South Africa, including South African deaths outside the country and British military deaths in South Africa.
The South African Archives have naturalisation records (taking on of South African citizenship) for some people, not all. These files contain the application for naturalisation. Details of birthplace, occupation, age, length of residence in South Africa and addresses are given. The naturalisation certificates are not included - those are applied for through the Department of Home Affairs or your nearest South African embassy.
SHIPPING AND PASSENGER RECORDS
The major port of entry by ship was Cape Town. The ports of Port Elizabeth, East London and Durban were also used. Finding these records for South Africa is not as easy as in other countries such as the USA, Australia and New Zealand. If the new settler went to South Africa as part of an emigration scheme (such as the 1820 British Settlers, the German settlers to Kaffraria, etc...), then these lists are easily available. It is usually easier to trace shipping and passenger records in the port of departure.
Ships’ passenger lists at the Public Records Office, Kew, London, UK, are stored under reference BT 27 Passenger Lists, Outwards, 1890-1960. These lists give the names of all passengers leaving the UK where the ship’s eventual destination was a port outside Europe and the Mediterranean Sea. Lists earlier than 1890 have not survived. Post-1890 lists have not been microfilmed, many of them are in fragile condition and searching them can be very time consuming. There are no indexes of names, and most lists are not alphabetical. The information given varies, but can include age, occupation, last address and proposed destination. They are arranged monthly by port of departure. To use them, a researcher must know at least the approximate date of departure and the port to have any realistic hope of finding a passenger’s name.
BT 32 Registers of Passenger Lists, date from 1906. They include names of ships for which passenger lists exist in BT 26 and BT 27. The entries are not complete, however; the earliest years have entries for a few ports only, and there are omissions. For readers hoping to find the name of a passenger in BT 26 or BT 27, they are of limited use and may be helpful only if the name of the ship is known. They do not include names of passengers or the destination of the ships entered in the registers.
Hamburg is the only European port for which complete passenger lists exist for the years 1850-1934. The lists document more than 5.5 million persons and include sailings to other European ports and to overseas locations in North America, the Caribbean, South America and Africa. Each passenger’s hometown (place of origin, not necessarily birthplace) is included. The lists are alphabetically arranged and indexed for 1850-1854 and 1855-1934. The Mormon FHL has microfilms.
A photographic archive of all Union Castle ships (not passenger records) exists at the South African Archives in Cape Town.
LIBRARIES & MUSEUMS
Many public libraries have phone books; Voters Rolls; newspapers and much more that can help. University libraries also contain sections of genealogical interest. Museums, especially specialist museums, hold information pertinent to particular cultures, fashions of the day, historical themes or eras.
FAMILY HISTORY CENTRES
These centres belong to the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints (Mormons). Since its foundation in 1894, the first Family History Library in Salt Lake City, Utah, USA, has become the largest of its kind in the world. Microfilming of world-wide records began in 1938 and continues to the present. Copies of the microfilms are sent to the various Family History Centres world-wide. While previous research can be very helpful, the information may be inaccurate or incomplete. Much of the information has been submitted by library patrons and has not been verified, so always evaluate the information carefully.
The main society in South Africa is the Genealogical Society of South Africa, which was established in June 1964 and has regional branches. It does not undertake research. The Society and its branches publish journals and newsletters. For those living outside South Africa, the virtual branch of the GSSA is useful.
The Genealogical Institute of South Africa was formed in 1998 and is a private research centre, accessible to the public at a fee.
The Huguenot Society of South Africa preserves the French Huguenot heritage in South Africa. It collects information about the Huguenots, arranges meetings and carries out genealogical research on Huguenot and related families.
The 1820 British Settlers records are mostly kept by the Albany Museum. The Genealogist is available to carry out research for a fee.