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South Africa: People, Population Trends, Legacy of Apartheid

Updated on April 3, 2014

South Africa's population of more than 47 million is one of the most ethnically complex in the world. The majority of the people are black and consist of diverse ethnic groups, including the Zulu, Xhosa, Ndebele, Swazi, Sotho, Tswana, Pedi, Venda, and Tsonga as well as a small number of Khoisan-speaking peoples (San and Khoikhoi) who live near the Kalahari Desert. Black South Africans constitute the majority in all areas of the country except for the Northern and Western Cape provinces.

The white minority is composed of primarily two distinct groups, the first being descendants of the original Dutch settlers who came in 1652 and who were subsequently joined by French Huguenot and German Protestant settlers. By the 19th century they came to be known as Afrikaners; they spoke a distinct language, Afrikaans, an adaptation of Dutch. The second group, English-speaking whites, began to settle in larger numbers from the 1820s onward. There are also many recent immigrants from the former Portuguese colonies of Angola and Mozambique and from southern and eastern Europe.

So-called Coloureds, or persons of mixed race, are descendants of whites, Africans, Malays, and others and live mainly in the Western and Northern Cape provinces and in the Gauteng province. They form the largest group in the city of Cape Town and are chiefly Afrikaans-speaking.


Asians originally came from India to Natal (KwaZulu-Natal province) in the middle of the 19th century as indentured laborers. Many chose to remain in South Africa, particularly in the city of Durban, at the end of their period of indentured service. They are themselves culturally and linguistically diverse, having originated from different parts of India, and include Hindus and Muslims and speak languages such as Tamil, Gujarati, and Hindi as well as English.

Official languages in South Africa number 11. Zulu is the primary language with the largest percentage of speakers, followed by Xhosa, Afrikaans, North Sotho, English, and Tswana. Other primary languages include South Sotho, Tsonga, SiSwati, Venda, and Ndebele. Although English is the mother tongue of less than 9% of the total population, it is increasingly the predominant medium of communication in the country and between South Africa and other countries.

According to the 2001 census, some 82% of the people are Christians. The largest proportion (more than 10 million) are members of African independent churches, of which there are more than 4,000; the largest is the Zion Christian Church. Other Christian churches with significant membership are the Dutch Reformed Church (6.7%), the Roman Catholic Church (7.1%), the Methodist Church (6.8%), and the Church of the Province of Southern Africa (3.8%), known from July 2005 as the Anglican Church in Southern Africa. Hinduism and Islam each constitute 1.5% of South Africans, and 0.2% adhere to Judaism. Some 15.1% of the people have no religious affiliation or decline to claim one.

According to official statistics, although women slightly outnumber men 51.2% to 48.8%, men outnumber women in five provinces where there is significant employment in agriculture, industry, or mining. Until December 1993 women's rights in South Africa were limited: husbands had marital power over their wives and their wives' property, and only fathers had guardianship rights over their children. These inequities were redressed with the repeal of the General Law Amendment Act and the passage of the Guardianship Act in 1994. Women who are subject to customary law, however, still do not have full legal capacity and are treated as minors. Customary law is based on indigenous law and practice; an African woman married under this system has no property rights and no recourse to the regular courts.

The different peoples of South Africa have varied and rich forms of traditional and contemporary cultural expression. Vibrancy and excitement are found in traditional African art, music, and dance as well as in contemporary creative writing, poetry, and theater. Prominent South African authors during the last half of the 20th century (and many of them continued to write throughout the first decade of the 21st century) are Nobel Prize–winning novelists Nadine Gordimer and J. M. Coetzee, Athol Fugard, André Brink, Alan Paton, Es'kia Mphaphele, Thomas Mofolo, Peter Abrahams, Zakes Mda, and Alex LaGuma. The censorship imposed during the apartheid era has been replaced by an invigorated freedom of expression in the arts and the press.


Population Trends

While the population growth rate was expected to drop by the year 2005, by 2025 the size of the black population, whose birthrate is highest, was expected to double and the overall population to increase to 80 million, thus straining South Africa's natural and socioeconomic resources. The population growth rate among whites is less than 1%; however, it is still over 2.5% for black Africans and almost 2% for Coloureds. The teenage pregnancy rate is high and will result in a demographic shift to a younger population; the proportion of under-15-year-olds in the population is expected to increase dramatically. Infant mortality rates declined by almost 50% between 1960 and the mid-1990s. According to the Human Sciences Research Council, contraceptive use in South Africa compares favorably with other industrial countries. The percentage of adults living with HIV/AIDS was estimated to be 21.5%, or 5.3 million people, by 2003. The future course of the disease and its ultimate impact are not yet clear.

By the early 21st century, South Africa's overall urban population had increased to 53%, including over 90% of whites and Asians and over 80% of Coloureds. The majority of black Africans live in rural areas, although many still migrate from rural areas to work in the cities. Gauteng province is the most urbanized, at 96%. Other provinces with significant urbanization include Western Cape and Northern Cape. The lowest levels of urbanization occur in Limpopo and North-West provinces.

Until 1991, South African cities were officially segregated; efforts are, however, under way to create new local government structures to address the incorporation of black townships near Johannesburg, such as Soweto and Alexandra, with white suburbs. Johannesburg, with a metropolitan population exceeding 2 million, is the largest city in South Africa and the country's major industrial and financial center. Pretoria, the country's administrative capital, has a population of approximately 1 million, while South Africa's legislative capital, Cape Town, has nearly 2 million inhabitants in the city and surrounding areas. Other large metropolitan areas include the port city of Durban; Port Elizabeth, which is a leading industrial area; and Kimberley, the center of the country's diamond industry.

It is estimated that there are as many as 2 million illegal immigrants in the country from other parts of the continent. This poses a serious problem for the South African government because the majority of these immigrants are unskilled and compete with unemployed South Africans for jobs.

Legacy of Apartheid

For most of its history South Africa had been a racial tyranny in which a small white minority monopolized power. Institutionalized racism, or apartheid, created enormous disparities in health, education, housing, and other services. With the release of Nelson Mandela in 1990, events reached a momentum that outpaced even the most optimistic predictions for change. Four years of difficult political negotiations led to an interim constitution, the country's first nonracial democratic election in April 1994, and high expectations for immediate social and economic transformation.

Despite the political empowerment of the black majority and the repeal of apartheid legislation, however, South Africa remains two nations: white South Africa, which has a standard of living comparable to that of the world's most developed countries, and black South Africa, which, when measured by the United Nations Human Development Index, is among the poorest in the world. Unemployment, inferior education, and the lack of health care and housing in the black townships, rural slums, and squatter settlements are major problems facing the new government and must be addressed if discontent among black youth, rising crime rates, and township violence are to be resolved. The national housing backlog alone has been estimated at 3 million units. To satisfy the demand for new housing, hundreds of thousands of new construction workers will have to be trained and hundreds of millions of dollars invested.

Black unemployment remains astronomically high, as much as 50% in some areas, and will likely be exacerbated by the expected addition of approximately 10 million people to South Africa's labor force in the next two decades, according to the University of South Africa's Bureau of Market Research. Education and training offer a partial answer, but while black enrollments and opportunities are improving, almost 2 million school-age children do not attend school and the dropout rate among attendees remains very high.

Of immediate concern to the South African government is the high level of criminal violence. Even as political violence declines, the illegal drug trade, car hijacking, and other serious crimes such as murder are all on the increase. In addition, the continuing inadequacy of jobs, education, housing, and health services for the poor contributed to attacks aimed principally at black migrants from Zimbabwe, Mozambique, Malawi, and elsewhere erupted in 2008. The anti-foreigner violence reversed the flow that had brought an estimated 5 million migrants to southern Africa's economic powerhouse. South African troops were deployed to end the attacks, the first time they had been used to put down unrest since the end of apartheid. The latest difficulties reconfirm that the economic and social distortions created by apartheid must be redressed and the majority of citizens given an increased material stake in their country for the new, reinvented South Africa to succeed.


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