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Research in South Africa


Map of South AfricaThe first permanent European settlement in South Africa was established in 1652 by the Dutch. The first British occupation of the Cape was in 1795. The Dutch had it back briefly in 1803 - British sovereignty of the area was recognized at the Congress of Vienna in 1815. Early official documents in South Africa were written in Dutch but after 1795 many documents were written in both English & Dutch. However from around 1810 documents were in English.



The National Archives:

The National Archives of South Africa is the main repository of documents pre 1956. Apart from early Colonial Government documents, there are also maps, photographs and other historical material relating to the Colony from its earliest settlement. The National Archives also holds wills, estates, divorces, inquests and death notices.

The National Archives has a number of repositories scattered throughout the country but there are six main repositories in the major centres:

  • Cape Town (Western Cape)
  • Pretoria (Transvaal)
  • Pietermaritzburg (Natal)
  • Durban (Natal)
  • Port Elizabeth (Eastern Cape)
  • Bloemfontein (Free State)


Each repository is responsible for archiving all documentation relating to the province in which it is situated.

The Department of Home Affairs

The Department maintains the records of births, marriages and deaths (BMDs) but the physical records are not accessible to the public for research purposes. To access information one must apply in writing to the Department of Home Affairs. (see below). As in the UK there are two types of certificates: a "short"/ abridged and a full certificate. Civil Registration began at different times in the various provinces:


Province: Births Marriages Deaths
Cape 1895 1700 1895
Natal 1868 1845 1888
Transvaal 1901 1870 1901
Orange Free State 1903 1848 1903


BIRTHS, MARRIAGES & DEATHS - (Civil Registration)

In South Africa The National Archives holds records of births marriages and deaths on behalf of the Department of Home Affairs. The Registration of births and deaths was made compulsory in 1894 beginning in 1895. Indexes and Registers are available up to the early 1970’s.

To start a search we need to know exactly which Magisterial District the event took place in before you can request the index. These indexes are not searchable electronically.

There is a closure period of 100 years relating to all Birth registrations. This period of closure is 20 years for Marriages & Deaths.

Death registers are not part of the Department of Home Affairs but belong to the Master of the High Court. These registers are also held by The National Archives once they have reached 50 years.

Note: A Death Notice should not be confused with a Death Certificate. The death certificate is issued by a doctor and only gives cause of death, address, age and, more recently, an identity number. Death Notices can provide you with the deceased persons name, age, place of birth, occupation, marital status, spouse's name, place of marriage, the names of the deceased person's parents, children's names and whether they are majors or minors.

Master of the Supreme Court

Sovereign Ancestry Lincolnshire - Africa page-1More recent documentation relating to deceased estates is housed at the Master's Office. Here are located death notices, wills as well as liquidation and distribution accounts for deceased estates.

As with The National Archives, each province has its own Master's Office repository and each has its own date of commencement.

Records start as follows:

  • Cape - 1958 onwards
  • Grahamstown - 1962
  • Kwa Zulu Natal - 1975
  • Transvaal - 1978
  • Orange Free State - 1951

Church Records

The earliest records are those of the Dutch Reformed Church, which date from 1660, and the Lutheran Church from 1784. Anglican Church records began around 1806 and Catholic records in 1820. The biggest problem in looking for church records is finding where they are now housed. Whilst quite a few churches are still custodians of their own registers, some are not even held in the Provinces in which the churches are located.

Catholic registers are generally not open to researchers so one should write to the diocese concerned for the relevant records.

Most Nonconformist registers are housed at the Cory Library in Grahamstown. They also hold some Jewish records.

Monumental Inscriptions

A project by the Genealogical Society of South Africa (GSSA) is underway whereby systematic transcriptions are being undertaken in all the major centres. They have already produced a CD which contains a broad range of material and another is in production. Details can be found on their website.

Passenger Lists

There are not many indexed lists of passengers travelling to and from South Africa. The exceptions are settler parties like the 1820 Settlers and Assisted Passage schemes which are very well documented. The South African Weekly Journal from 1889 published many 1st and 2nd Class passenger arrivals and departures.


Sovereign Ancestry Lincolnshire - Africa page 2

Assisted Passage Schemes (from UK)

Information on immigrants can be found at The National Archives in the section dealing with the Colonial Office correspondence.

Military Service Records

Records for UK soldiers serving in South Africa prior to 1910 will be found at the Public Records Office in Kew.

Information on locally raised regiments can be found at the National Archives of South Africa.

Information on military personnel dating from the formation of the Union Defence Force in 1912 can be found at the Documentation Centre of the Department of Defence in Pretoria. This includes information from personnel files, medical records as well as information on volunteers who fought in both World Wars.

Population Census Returns & Voters Rolls

Detailed census returns are not available as they are all destroyed.

The main substitute for census is the Voters Roll. There are drawbacks to using these however, as property ownership, age, race and income were just some of the exclusive criteria used to define electoral eligibility over the years, so your ancestor might not be represented.

The earliest Rolls date from around 1870 and are available at The National Archives.