South African genealogy - frequently asked questions
- If you are a newcomer to South African genealogy, you may have a
lot of questions. Here are some answers to some of the most
frequently asked questions:
WHERE'S THE BEST PLACE TO BEGIN?
If you're asking this on the Internet, presumably you have access
to a web browser, and one of the best places to begin with South
African genealogy is right here:
WHERE CAN I FIND SOUTH AFRICAN CENSUS RECORDS?
The short answer is: You can't. South African census returns are
routinely destroyed after statistical information has been
abstracted, so South African genealogists don't use them.
WHAT DO SOUTH AFRICAN GENEALOGISTS USE THEN?
One of the best places to begin is the records of deceased
estates. These usually have a Death Notice, which should (but
sometimes doesn't) give you the names of the parents, spouse and
children of the deceased, or if the deceased was unmarried, the
names of brothers and sisters. They have the wills, if any
(except in the Cape, where wills and estate accounts have been
filed separately from death notices in the older estates), and
the estate accounts. The older ones are in the archives and have
computer indexes, and you can search the indexes on the web here:
but be sure to read the introduction and explanatory text before
WHERE CAN I FIND SOUTH AFRICAN SHIPPING LISTS?
First, they are not a good place to start looking. They are
incomplete, and all over the place. If you want to know if some
relative went to South Africa and died here, look in the deceased
estates, not the shipping lists. In most cases, shipping lists
are a last resort, or a means of providing "filler" information
to round out the family history. Secondly, if you do want to try
shipping lists, you need to know where your ancestor came from,
and roughly when. If the answer is Germany 1859, the shipping
lists have been published (Werner Schmidt-Pretoria, _Deutsche
Auswanderung nach Sued-Afrika im 19 Jahrhundert_). Some other
shipping lists have also been published, but they are
If you are looking for ancestors who emigrated to Southern Africa
in the period 1890-1925, one possible source is _South Africa_
magazine. This was published in London. The Johannesburg Public
Library and the National Library in Tshwane have incomplete runs.
The US Library of Congress has a fairly complete collection. You
could try other libraries too. They published lists of passengers
embarking at British ports for South Africa, and embarking at
South African ports for the UK (and sometimes other places).
_South Africa_ magazine is a useful source, if you can find it,
as it also has birth, marriage and death announcements, and other
personal news, usually of the richer members of society.
Some of these have been transcribed by Ellen Stanton, and can be
Some other passenger lists and other useful stuff are available
WHERE CAN I FIND WILLS OR PROBATE RECORDS?
With the deceased estates. See:
I did a search on the archives: what do the funny things like
DEPOT and VOLUME mean?
See the warning above: Be sure to read the introduction and
explanatory text before searching. If you didn't, go here now:
HOW DO I GET A BIRTH CERTIFICATE?
With some difficulty. First, to apply for one, you need to know
the information you probably want to get from the certificate.
That's Catch 22. Catches 1-21 are almost as bad. Birth cer-
tificates are expensive. They take a long time to get. The
indexes are not open to the public so you can't ask someone else
to look them up. For more information, and applications forms,
The good news is that the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day
Saints (LDS, Mormons) has microfilmed some of the registers, so
that if you want the information in the register, as opposed to
an official certificate, you can try there.
If you want to know what the LDS has, go to their web site:
Click on LIBRARY, click on FAMILY LIBRARY HISTORY CATALOGUE,
click on PLACE NAME enter South Africa
Click on Civil Registration Click on HERE right at the bottom so
you have a printable copy.
HOW DO I GET A MARRIAGE CERTIFICATE?
Marriage certificates are of little use to genealogists in South
Africa. They do not give the names and occupations of parents.
They are as difficult to get as birth certificates.
For more information on getting marriage certificates see:
Your best chance of seeing a marriage certificate, however, is if
the couple got divorced, and you find a copy in the divorce
records. SOME divorce records are in the archives, and you can
find them here:
The archival references to divorces will sometimes speak of
"illiquid cases" or "opposed applications", and sometimes there
will be both. Make sure you order the right ones. They can be
quite useful. Sometimes you can really get the dirt on your
ancestors from these things - private detectives' reports on how
many times they committed adultery, where and with whom, for
example. Also, names and ages of minor children and who got the
If you still want a marriage certificate (or birth certificate),
you need to apply to the Department of Home Affairs, Private Bag
X114, Pretoria, 0001. Before they can issue a certificate, they
usually want to know the kind of information you probably hope to
get from the certificate. Marriages were registered nationally
from 1923 to 1976, and after 1994. Between 1976 and 1994 some
"homeland" marriages may have been registered separately. Before
1923 registrations were in the different provinces, and before
1910 in the different colonies. Before 1902 it was in the
different republics and colonies. You still apply to the same
place, but bear in mind that older registers are kept in the
archives, and for a certificate to be written they have to be
transferred from the archives to the Department of Home Affairs
and then returned. This can take a long time.
Also check the information above under "Birth Certificates" on
how to find out if any of the marriage registers have been
filemed by the LDS Church.
Before about 1895 in many places marriages were only recorded in
The situation is a lot more complex than described above, and the
complexities are things you can ask about on the list, but the
general description should give you some idea of the kind of
questions that might be worth asking.
WHERE CAN I FIND CHURCH RECORDS?
With difficulty. There are well over 8000 separate religious
denominations in South Africa, and many people change
denominations 3 or more times during their lives. People move to
a new town, and join a new denomination or religion, or become
agnostics or atheists. The records of these denominations are all
over the place too. Some of the older and larger denominations
have centralised their records, but most have not. They are kept
in local churches and can be damaged or destroyed by damp, acid
paper or ink, insects, mice, fire or flood, or simply being
tossed out in an over-zealous clean-up. Some of the smaller
denominations keep very poor records. Forged marriage cer-
tificates are common, especially in rural areas. If you know what
denomination your ancestors were, and where they were living,
when children were born or they were married, you can ask some
specific questions on the SA Genealogy list like "Where are the
Wesleyan Methodist Registers for Colesberg in the period 1860-
But general requests for look ups in church registers without
mentioning a particular denomination, time and place are unlikely
to get a useful response.
WHERE CAN I FIND MILITARY RECORDS?
Department of Defence
Private Bag X289
0001 South Africa
Tel 012-322-6350 ext 227
The more info you can give the faster they can find details.
They have card indexes for military personnel who served in WWI
and WWII (a separate index for each war). These give the service
number, which can be used to find fuller service records.
WHERE CAN I LOOK UP THE PHONE NUMBERS OF LIVING RELATIVES?
Turn your web browser to:
it's the on-line phone book.
WHAT IF MY FAMILY WERE IN OTHER PARTS OF AFRICA?
Try asking on the African Genealogy mailing list -- see:
WHAT SHOULD I DO NEXT?
Go to: http://home.global.co.za/~mercon/sagen.htm
and follow the links!
This FAQ file is maintained by:
Last Updated: 5 December 2009
Suggestions for additions or improvements are welcome.