This entry looks at the UFO religions in South Africa. In particular, Ninian Smart’s seven dimensions of religion have been applied to render what is a broad although limited phenomenon intelligible.
A General Outline
UFO religions emerged in the West during the second half of the twentieth century when public interest in space travel and extraterrestrial life became prevalent (1). UFO religions garnered further notoriety following controversies surrounding the 1997 Heaven’s Gate incident involving several dozen deaths by suicide and the 1998 emergence of Chen Tao whose prophecies declared humanity’s impending salvation through soon-to-visit flying saucers (2). Many of these interests can be found in South Africa, notably in two individuals who have spearheaded the local UFO movement: Christo Louw and Credo Mutwa. Christo Louw manages a small organization, South Africa’s UFO Resource (SAUFOR), which he founded in Cape Town in 1997 (3). SAUFOR encourages citizens to report evidence of UFO sightings to their group and they also demand the government releases secret UFO files supposedly in its possession. Since its establishment, SAUFOR has absorbed strong religious sentiments not uncommon in UFO religions studied in North America. Controversial Zulu shaman and author Credo Mutwa (1921-2020) has influenced the local UFO movement, of which he was a big supporter, even though extraterrestrials were never the sole motif incorporated into his broad mythical worldview. Mutwa brought together concepts taking inspiration from several sources, including New Age ideologies, African Traditional Religion, Zulu culture, and more. Chidester maintains Mutwa’s inventive exchange of motifs seeking to affirm indigenous authenticity contributed to the production of different forms of folk religion in South Africa (4). Whether he was a fake or authentic, Mutwa inventively reshaped elements of African folk religion in ways not many can claim to have done before. Although Louw and Mutwa are the major proponents of South Africa’s marginal UFO movement, several other groups, most of which are defunct, have adopted contributing roles. The UFO Research Association of South Africa still survives but attaches no religious significance to extraterrestrial phenomena.
The Dimensions of South Africa’s UFO Religions
Doctrinally, SAUFOR uses the Bible because it is “our best example of Truth” (5). It is highly regarded and used in support of several extraterrestrial narratives embraced by the group. The Bible’s prophecies are indisputably accurate and, despite its ancient authorship and origin, bears accurate details of what modern science has recently discovered in genetics and natural law. Louw claims there to have been regular Earthly visitations from extraterrestrial beings from other dimensions, which finds support in the science of an infinite universe yielding infinite possibilities (6). These beings have genetically modified humans as demonstrated in Genesis 6 of the Bible where the “sons of God” came down to take wives among the “daughters of men” (v. 1-4). Extraterrestrials visit Earth to experiment on humans, although they are benign. Mutwa’s doctrine is more elaborate as it posits a system of extraterrestrials, or “fiery ones”, some benign and others harmful (7). These beings are a part of Zulu myth, legend, and tradition, and keep watch of the Earth. The Muhondoruka is an alien of violence. The white-faced, green-like Mutende-ya-ngenge cuts humans up and reassembles them. Other aliens are good: the Mvonjina are messengers of the gods that bring knowledge to humanity. The Nafu, Mbembi, and Sikasa are also benign and have occasionally mated with African women. Influenced by David Icke, famous for his views on shape-shifting lizards ruling the world, Mutwa came to view the Chitauri as a shape-shifting reptilian race who have set themselves up as gods over humanity.
Narratively, Mutwa is at the center of his stories. He speaks of abduction and experimentation, and he has witnessed unusual phenomena, including strange vehicles, spaceships, and a falling star (8). In Zimbabwe, Mutwa was adducted for three days and taken to a metallic room where extraterrestrials prodded him. He was forced into intercourse with a female member of this extraterrestrial race. Such stories of exceptional encounters have thrust Mutwa into the limelight landing him invitations to address conferences, including the Conference on Extraterrestrial Intelligence held in Australia in 2001. Christo Louw does not claim such direct experiences with extraterrestrials but instead archives stories of UFO sightings in South Africa (9). The Bible is an integral component of this narrative dimension as it contains references to extraterrestrials who have made contact with human governments since the beginning of recorded time. This feeds into the group’s suppression narrative, which posits that this revelatory part of the Bible has been suppressed by powerful persons throughout history (10). The Bible has therefore been treated like the UFO intelligence documents that governments have kept suppressed and hidden. A popular biblical story is of the prophet Ezekiel and his visionary description of a fiery chariot powered by angels. Supposedly a spaceship, this chariot is a cherished biblical proof demonstrating the existence of extraterrestrials and their contact with humanity (11).
Institutionally, SAUFOR is a small group of several members, including founder, Christo Louw, and a specialist in abduction experiences, freelance investigators, and a story editor. There is no central creed or institution that must be embraced by members of this group or its community, although one certainly needs to believe in the existence of extraterrestrial life and its contact with humanity. Mutwa is represented by the Credo Mutwa foundation, which promotes discussion on African Spirituality and the empowerment of communities. Mutwa, however, was critical of institutionalized religions claiming them to be an evil scheme of the Chitauri, who gave it to humanity as through it they can divide and conquer the human race.
Mutwa’s Ethical dimension evidences concern for human exploitation, crime, environmental degradation, illness, and extraterrestrial denial (12). He attributes humanity’s lack of progress, leading increasingly to its self-destruction, as a result of ignorance produced by its skepticism concerning extraterrestrials. Knowledge of this reality is lacking or deficient because “These creatures [the Chitauri] then took away the great powers that human beings had” (13). These include the ability to speak only through the mind, moving objects with the mind, to see into the future and the past, and to travel to different worlds. It is humanity’s ethical obligation to remove these evil extraterrestrials because only through this can humanity draw nearer to God. The Chitauri stand between humanity and God.
Regarding Ritual, the local UFO community participates in an annual UFO conference supported by SAUFOR and Mutwa. This conference, which drew fifty attendees in 2006 at the University of Cape Town, engages several pertinent areas from how to report a UFO sighting to international developments within the wider UFO community. Although these events are promoted to bring the reality of UFO’s and extraterrestrials into the public’s consciousness (14), public awareness has also been pursued via media interviews. Members of SAUFOR travel across South Africa for research purposes and Mutwa traveled internationally to give speeches and lectures in Australia, the United States, Japan, and elsewhere.
There are stories from Mutwa suggestive of a deep Experiential dimension to his religious reality. Mutwa tells of numerous encounters with alien beings, including once eating their flesh (15). This produced within Mutwa shamanic-like experiences of altered states of consciousness and feelings of harmony and transcendence. This no doubt produced feelings of fear and attraction: fear at the extraterrestrial’s transcendence and mysterious, otherworldly nature, and attraction to the experiences of harmony brought on by consuming their flesh. One can imagine the excitement overcoming members of SAUFOR when a new report comes in from a claimed eyewitness of a purported UFO sighting. The group quickly follows up on any lead, not unlike a news journalist pursuing the latest headline.
UFO conferences, which feature an array of items such as books, posters, and figurines, underpin the Material dimension. SAUFOR had plans to produce a newsletter that would circulate among members and the public (16). The newsletter was initially planned as a strategy to counteract public and news media ridicule the group claims to receive. It is impossible to determine what came of this newsletter or if it ever got off the ground. Mutwa was expressive in his use of material objects. He wore a bronze object around his neck and when asked what it is during a conference in Japan revealed it to be a sign for the extraterrestrials so that when they visit earth they will know the right person to talk to (17).
Unconventionality of UFO Religions
UFO religions and groups are generally seen as unconventional traditions deviating from social norms in every Western country they can be found. Narratives of encounters with extraterrestrials, including abductions, strike many as unbelievable when research conducted by NASA and SETI has yet to produce evidence of such beings (18). This explains Mutwa’s controversial reception. Many South Africans viewed him as a fake, fraud, or charlatan. This perception was cultivated not only because of his extraordinary claims of extraterrestrial abduction and visitations, but also due to his failed predictions of the future and his complicity with the apartheid regime. Negative public reception also reflects in SAUFOR’s criticism of the media it maintains reports negatively on UFO groups, which encourages ridicule (19). This unconventional status is also a source of motivation for UFO groups. Convinced of the Truth of extraterrestrials, spaceships, saucers, Earthly visitations, and direct extraterrestrial-human contact, SAUFOR will “vindicate the sacrifices of a few who dared to publish in defiance of authority” (20). Authority here is likely government officials, doubtful academics, and skeptical laypersons who reject the group’s claims. Vindication will occur when incontrovertible evidence of extraterrestrial existence and their contact with humanity is obtained and presented for all to see.
Further, it is not uncommon for some Christians to demonize extraterrestrials (21). At the very least, these traditions have come to present Christianity with theological questions, a number of them unprecedented and some of which can feel threatening. Many Christians are aware that extraterrestrials raise additional questions on matters of faith, such as on original sin, salvation from sin through Christ, God’s purpose and place for human beings, and more. Other Christians do not find extraterrestrials necessarily problematic to their faith (22). Some members of UFO religions reject conventional Christian family and middle-class values, and despise religious institutions, particularly the Catholic Church (23).
- Lewis, James. 1998. Encyclopedic Sourcebook of UFO Religions. New York: Prometheus. p. 355.
- Saliba, John A. 2006. “The Study of UFO Religions.” Nova Religio: The Journal of Alternative and Emergent Religions 10(2):103-123. p. 104.
- Louw, Cristo. 2006b. “Homepage of South Africa’s UFO Resource.” Accessed 21 April 2020. https://www.oocities.org/saufor/
- Chidester, David. 2002. “Credo Mutwa, Zulu Shaman: The Invention and Appropriation of Indigenous Authenticity in African Folk Religion. Journal for the Study of Religion 15(2):65-85. p. 80-81.
- Cooper, Timothy. 2001. “Suppression of Extraterrestrial Knowledge and the Translation of the Bible Conspiracy.” Accessed 21 April 2020. https://www.oocities.org/saufor/otherpapers/bibleconspiracy.html
- Alfreds, Duncan. 2011. “Take UFOs seriously, SA group urges.” Accessed 21 April 2020. https://www.news24.com/SciTech/News/Take-UFOs-seriously-SA-group-urges-20110126
- Chidester, David. 2002. Ibid. p. 76-78.
- Chidester, David. 2002. Ibid. p. 77-78.
- SAUFOR. 2006. “SAUFOR XPLoReS 20060520 Port Shepstone Incident.” Accessed 21 April 2020. https://www.oocities.org/saufor/sorted/20060520_PortShepstone.html
- Cooper, Timothy. 2001. Ibid.
- Cooper, Timothy. 2001. Ibid.
- Chidester, David. 2002. Ibid. p. 79.
- Dowbenko, Uri. 2009. “Reptilian Revelations Out of Africa.” Accessed 23 April 2020. https://www.newdawnmagazine.com/articles/reptilian-revelations-out-of-africa
- Louw, Cristo. 2006a. “2006 World UFO Day – 2nd annual ‘Unbind Your Mind’ conference, Cape Town, South Africa, 1 July.” Accessed 21 April 2020 https://www.oocities.org/saufor/sorted/2006_UnbindYourMind.html
- Chidester, David. 2002. Ibid. p. 77.
- Louw 2006b. Ibid.
- Chidester, David. 2002. Ibid. p. 66.
- Saliba, John A. 2006. Ibid. p. 117.
- Alfreds, Duncan. 2011. Ibid.
- SAUFOR. “Suppression of Extraterrestrial Knowledge and the Translation of the Bible Conspiracy.” Available. https://www.oocities.org/saufor/otherpapers/bibleconspiracy.html
- Partridge, Christopher. 2004. “Alien Demonology: The Christian Roots of the Malevolent Extraterrestrial in UFO Religions and Abduction Spiritualities.” Religion 34(3):163–189.
- Lewis, James. 1998. Ibid. p. 359-370.
- Palmer, Susan. 2005. “Aliens Adored: Raël’s UFO Religion.” Nova Religio: The Journal of Alternative and Emergent Religions 9(1):117-118.