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Q. How do I research a South African ancestor?
A. Start by searching for your ancestor in the National Archives of South Africa databases, which index death notices, estate files, property records and other documents. You may find your ancestor’s name, birthplace, parents’ names, age, occupation, spouse(s), children, residence, place and date of death, and whether he or she owned land.
The index provides a code for the repository in South Africa that holds the original record. Estate files, for example, are at the national archives or the Master of the High Court (Master’s Office), depending on the death date. Pre-1959 Cape Province estate files are at the national archives; you can request to see the full document by contacting the archives. The Master’s Office doesn’t have a searchable online database, but some post-1950 Cape Town death index transcriptions are available at e-Family.
Civil registration of births, marriages and deaths began at different times in South Africa’s provinces—see South African Genealogy for a list. Full registers are available through the Home Affairs archival group at the national archives, but they aren’t online.
Church records are the primary source for vital information prior to civil registration. Each denomination has its own archives, so you need to know where your ancestor lived and what church he or she attended to avoid the dreaded needle-in-a-haystack scenario. The most prominent denominations in the 19th century were the Dutch Reformed and Anglican churches—Ancestry24 has contact information for many churches’ archives. You can see a full list of records available to subscribers.
The closest you’ll get to census records in South Africa are the few voters’ rolls at the national archives. They’re useful but not entirely representative, because only property owners could vote. South Africa doesn’t have official passenger records, either. The ones you’ll find were likely harvested from newspapers by researchers and typically include the names of only first-class passengers. If you know when your ancestor arrived in South Africa, you can search the shipping section of newspapers published at the time. These are on microfilm at the National Library of South Africa; you can search the transcribed lists at Genealogy World.
Along with Ancestry24, you should check out South African Genealogy. The Family History Library holds microfilm of South African church records, civil registrations and many other resources, so be sure to visit your local Family History Center to rent films.
South African documents are usually in English, or bilingual in English and Afrikaans. Visit South African Genealogy for a basic guide to genealogy terminology.
From the September 2009 Family Tree Magazine