Civil registration

This guide was last updated in 2010

With the arrival of Jan Van Riebeeck (founder of Cape Town) in 1652 came the Dutch, who were unsurpassed in their record-keeping.  

The earliest civil records in South Africa started in 1700 in the Cape with marriage registrations, while births and deaths weren’t recorded there until 1895. The latter are in the form of certificates and are not searchable online, but can be manually searched in the Cape Town Archives and for more recent years, the Department of Home Affairs.

For Natal, births were registered from 1868, marriages 1845 and deaths 1888. Transvaal has births from 1901, marriages 1870 and deaths 1901. Orange Free State covers births from 1903, marriages from 1848 and deaths from 1903. Each of these provinces houses its own records in its own repositories.

As well as medical death certificates, there are also death notices (from 1834 onwards), which informed the Master of the High Court, whose office has jurisdiction over the estate, whether the deceased had assets and whether they left a will. These can be easier to track down than death certificates. A good place to start is the National Automated Archival Information Retrieval System (NAAIRS). More information is available here

There are no census records for South Africa. The nearest to a census return is the voters’ list, which was documented every year from 1853. These records include initials and surnames and, in the bigger towns, first names and occupations.

WATCH OUT: Death notices may have been filled in by a distraught relative or a neighbour who did not know the deceased particularly well. Though they can be useful, they can contain errors. If you use a death notice, always try to back up any information with official certificates.

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