South African Genealogy

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. The questions and answers were kindly provided by Steve Hayes and amended by Arnold Greyling as more online resources became available and others disappeared.

Where is the best place to begin?

Decide your research goals, you may want to research your own ancestors or maybe a family in South Africa. If you want to research your ancestry start with yourself and work backwards. If you want to research a complete family a good starting point may be the “stamvader” i.e. the first person of the family to arrive in South Africa but it may sometimes also be convenient to start with a specific person and work backwards.

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 at: The eGGSA branch of the Genealogical Society of South Africa. You will find lots of resources and links to resources on this site. A good starting point is Introduction to South African Genealogy

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 searching.

The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints (LDS, Mormons) has microfilmed a large part of the South African archives and has now scanned the microfilm and made it available online at: Family Search

To find out how to find the scanned records once you found a reference on the National Archives websites have a look at: South African estate files available on FamilySearch

If you do a search for a specific name remember that spelling of names and surnames were flexible in the 17th and 18th centuries. Searching for e.g. Greyling you should consider also trying: Greylingh, Greiling, Gryling, Grylingh Greilingh, Grijling, Grijlingh, Kreiling, Greijling and Greijlingh. Follow a similar strategy when you search for other surnames.

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 shippinglists 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 fragmentary.

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. 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.

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 certificates are expensive. They take along 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, see:

The good news is that the eGSSA has done a lot of work to make church records available online via their BDM project, have look at Birth, Marriage and Burial Registers. The LDS has also scanned some of the birth records, find out how to access them at eGSSA Birth, Marriage and Death Records along with links to many other sites.

How do I get a mariage 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 custody.

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 filmed by the LDS Church.

Before about 1895 in many places marriages were only recorded in church registers.

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 certificates 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 1860-1880?”

But general requests for look ups in church registers without mentioning a particular denomination, time and place are unlikely to get a useful response

In some cases the eGSSA website may help.

Where can I find military records?

Documentation Centre of the SANDF

Department of Defence DOCUMENTATION CENTRE Private Bag X289 Pretoria 0001 South Africa

Email: [email protected]
Tel 012-322-6350 ext 227
Fax 012-323-5613

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:

What Should I do Next?

Go to: The eGGSA branch of the Genealogical Society of South Africa and browse around.

Join the genealogy mail lists at where the friendly members are always ready to help: