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South Africa - People

Language Number of
% of total
IsiZulu 10 677 315 23.82%
IsiXhosa 7 907 149 17.64%
Afrikaans 5 983 420 13.35%
Sesotho sa Leboa 4 208 974 9.39%
Setswana 3 677 010 8.20%
English 3 673 206 8.20%
Sesotho 3 555 192 7.93%
Xitsonga 1 992 201 4.44%
SiSwati 1 194 433 2.66%
Tshivenda 1 021 761 2.28%
IsiNdebele 711 825 1.59%
Other 217 291 0.48%
TOTAL 44 819 777 100%
* Spoken as a home language
Source: Census 2001
Prior to 1991, South African law divided the population into four major racial categories: Africans (black), whites, coloreds, and Asians. Although this law has been abolished, many South Africans still view themselves and each other according to these categories. Black Africans comprise about 80% of the population and are divided into a number of different ethnic groups.

The country's black majority still has a large number of rural people who lead largely poor and simple lives. However, blacks are increasingly moving to cities and becoming urbanised and westernised, and usually speak English or Afrikaans in addition to their native tongue, which could be one of nine black languages with official status since 1994. These include the Nguni languages, Zulu, Xhosa, Ndebele and Swazi, and the Sotho languages, which include Tswana, Sotho and Northern Sotho. There are also the Venda language and the Tsonga language. There are cultural differences as well between speakers from the two language groups.

Whites comprise 9% of the population. They are primarily descendants of Dutch, French, English, and German settlers who began arriving at the Cape of Good Hope in the late 17th century. The white minority lead lifestyles similar in many respects to those of whites found in Europe, North America and Australasia, with sport being immensely popular. Coloureds are mixed-race people primarily descending from the earliest settlers and the indigenous peoples. They comprise 9% of the total population. The mixed-race Coloureds are, culturally speaking, much closer to whites, especially Afrikaans speakers, whose language and religious beliefs they share, than they are to black South Africans, despite suffering huge discrimination under apartheid. Asians are descended from Indian workers brought to South Africa in the mid-19th century to work on the sugar estates in Natal. They constitute about 2.5% of the population and are concentrated in the KwaZulu-Natal Province.

Education is in transition. Under the apartheid system schools were segregated, and the quantity and quality of education varied significantly across racial groups. The laws governing this segregation have been abolished. The long and arduous process of restructuring the country's educational system is ongoing. The challenge is to create a single, nondiscriminatory, nonracial system that offers the same standards of education to all people.

South Africans represent a rich array of ethnic backgrounds, but the idea of ethnicity became highly explosive during the apartheid era, when the government used it for political and racial purposes. Whites in South Africa often attributed the recent centuries of warfare in the region to the varied origins of its peoples, rather than to the increasing economic pressures they had faced. Government officials, accordingly, imposed fairly rigid ethnic or tribal categories on a fluid social reality, giving each black African a tribal label, or identity, within a single racial classification.

Apartheid doctrines taught that each black population would eventually achieve maturity as a nation, just as the Afrikaner people, in their own view, had done. Officials, therefore, sometimes referred to the largest African ethnic groups as nations. The government established language areas for each of these and, during the 1950s and 1960s, assigned them separate residential areas according to perceived ethnic identity (see fig. 10). Over the next decade, portions of these language areas became Bantustans, and then self-governing homelands; finally, in the 1970s and the 1980s, four of the homelands--Transkei, Bophuthatswana, Venda, and Ciskei--were granted nominal "independence" (see fig. 11). Although the independent homelands were not recognized as separate nations by any country other than South Africa, people assigned to live there were officially "noncitizens" of South Africa.

Apartheid policies also empowered the government to remove black Africans from cities and to preserve the "ethnic character"of neighborhoods in the African townships that were created, legally and illegally, around the cities. Many township neighborhoods were given specific "tribal" designations. Township residents generally ignored these labels, however, and reacted to the divisiveness of the government's racial policies by minimizing the importance of their ethnic heritage, or disavowing it entirely. A few South Africans embraced the notion that ethnicity was an outdated concept, a creation of governments and anthropologists, invoked primarily to create divisions among people of a particular class or region.

The word "tribe" assumed especially pejorative connotations during the apartheid era, in part because of the distortions that were introduced by applying this concept to society. Technically, no tribes had existed in South Africa for most of the twentieth century. The term "tribe," in anthropology, is often defined as a group of people sharing a similar culture--i.e., patterns of belief and behavior--settled in a common territory, and tracing their ancestry to a common--perhaps mythical--ancestor. But none of South Africa's black peoples shared a common, ancestral territory; they had been uprooted and relocated by warfare, by the search for new land, or by government action. Few rural residents could trace their descent from an ancestor shared with many of their neighbors.

Then in 1993 and 1994, as the country emerged from the apartheid era, many South Africans appeared to reclaim their ethnic heritage and to acknowledge pride in their ancestry. The new political leaders recognized the practical advantage of encouraging people to identify both with the nation and with a community that had a past older than the nation. So the interim constitution of 1993 reaffirmed the importance of ethnicity by elevating nine African languages to the status of official languages of the nation, along with English and Afrikaans.

The most widely spoken of South Africa's eleven official languages in the mid-1990s are Zulu (isiZulu), Xhosa (isiXhosa), Afrikaans, and English (for Bantu prefixes, see Glossary). The others--isiNdebele, sePedi (seSotho sa Leboa), seSotho, seTswana, siSwati, tshiVenda (also referred to as luVenda), and xiTsonga--are spoken in large areas of the country (see fig. 12). Each of the eleven includes a number of regional dialects and variants.

Despite the diversity of these language groups, it is nonetheless possible to begin to understand this complex society by viewing language groupings as essentially the same as ethnic groupings. This is possible because, in general, most South Africans consider one of the eleven official languages, or a closely related tongue, to be their first language; and most people acquire their first language as part of a kinship group or an ethnically conscious population.

Nine of South Africa's official languages (all except Afrikaans and English) are Bantu languages. Bantu languages are a large branch of the Niger-Congo language family, which is represented throughout much of sub-Saharan Africa. Bantu languages are spoken by more than 100 million Africans in Central Africa, East Africa, and southern Africa. Four major subgroups of Bantu languages--Nguni, Sotho, Tsonga-Shangaan, and Venda--are represented in South Africa.

The largest group of closely related languages in South Africa is the Nguni. Nguni peoples in the country number at least 18 million. About 9 million Sotho (BaSotho) and 2 million Tswana (BaTswana) speak seSotho or a closely related language, seTswana. More than 2 million Tsonga and Shangaan peoples speak xiTsonga and related languages; at least 600,000 Venda (VaVenda) speak tshiVenda (luVenda).

Each of these language groups also extends across South Africa's boundaries into neighboring countries. For example, Nguni-speaking Swazi people make up almost the entire population of Swaziland. At least 1.3 million seSotho speakers live in Lesotho, and more than 1 million people in Botswana speak seTswana. Roughly 4 million speakers of xiTsonga and related languages live in Mozambique, and tshiVenda is spoken by several thousand people in southern Zimbabwe. Language boundaries are not rigid and fixed, however; regional dialects often assume characteristics of more than one language.

South Africa’s youthful population is gradually aging, as the country’s total fertility rate (TFR) has declined dramatically from about 6 children per woman in the 1960s to roughly 2.2 in 2014. This pattern is similar to fertility trends in South Asia, the Middle East, and North Africa, and sets South Africa apart from the rest of sub-Saharan Africa, where the average TFR remains higher than other regions of the world. Today, South Africa’s decreasing number of reproductive age women is having fewer children, as women increase their educational attainment, workforce participation, and use of family planning methods; delay marriage; and opt for smaller families.

As the proportion of working-age South Africans has grown relative to children and the elderly, South Africa has been unable to achieve a demographic dividend because persistent high unemployment and the prevalence of HIV/AIDs have created a larger-than-normal dependent population. HIV/AIDS was also responsible for South Africa’s average life expectancy plunging to less than 43 years in 2008; it has rebounded to 63 years as of 2017. HIV/AIDS continues to be a serious public health threat, although awareness-raising campaigns and the wider availability of anti-retroviral drugs is stabilizing the number of new cases, enabling infected individuals to live longer, healthier lives, and reducing mother-child transmissions.

Migration to South Africa began in the second half of the 17th century when traders from the Dutch East India Company settled in the Cape and started using slaves from South and southeast Asia (mainly from India but also from present-day Indonesia, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, and Malaysia) and southeast Africa (Madagascar and Mozambique) as farm laborers and, to a lesser extent, as domestic servants. The Indian subcontinent remained the Cape Colony’s main source of slaves in the early 18th century, while slaves were increasingly obtained from southeast Africa in the latter part of the 18th century and into the 19th century under British rule.

After slavery was completely abolished in the British Empire in 1838, South Africa’s colonists turned to temporary African migrants and indentured labor through agreements with India and later China, countries that were anxious to export workers to alleviate domestic poverty and overpopulation. Of the more than 150,000 indentured Indian laborers hired to work in Natal’s sugar plantations between 1860 and 1911, most exercised the right as British subjects to remain permanently (a small number of Indian immigrants came freely as merchants). Because of growing resentment toward Indian workers, the 63,000 indentured Chinese workers who mined gold in Transvaal between 1904 and 1911 were under more restrictive contracts and generally were forced to return to their homeland.

In the late 19th century and nearly the entire 20th century, South Africa’s then British colonies’ and Dutch states’ enforced selective immigration policies that welcomed “assimilable” white Europeans as permanent residents but excluded or restricted other immigrants. Following the Union of South Africa’s passage of a law in 1913 prohibiting Asian and other non-white immigrants and its elimination of the indenture system in 1917, temporary African contract laborers from neighboring countries became the dominant source of labor in the burgeoning mining industries. Others worked in agriculture and smaller numbers in manufacturing, domestic service, transportation, and construction. Throughout the 20th century, at least 40% of South Africa’s miners were foreigners; the numbers peaked at over 80% in the late 1960s. Mozambique, Lesotho, Botswana, and Swaziland were the primary sources of miners, and Malawi and Zimbabwe were periodic suppliers.

Under apartheid, a “two gates” migration policy focused on policing and deporting illegal migrants rather than on managing migration to meet South Africa’s development needs. The exclusionary 1991 Aliens Control Act limited labor recruitment to the highly skilled as defined by the ruling white minority, while bilateral labor agreements provided exemptions that enabled the influential mining industry and, to a lesser extent, commercial farms, to hire temporary, low-paid workers from neighboring states. Illegal African migrants were often tacitly allowed to work for low pay in other sectors but were always under threat of deportation.

The abolishment of apartheid in 1994 led to the development of a new inclusive national identity and the strengthening of the country’s restrictive immigration policy. Despite South Africa’s protectionist approach to immigration, the downsizing and closing of mines, and rising unemployment, migrants from across the continent believed that the country held work opportunities. Fewer African labor migrants were issued temporary work permits and, instead, increasingly entered South Africa with visitors’ permits or came illegally, which drove growth in cross-border trade and the informal job market. A new wave of Asian immigrants has also arrived over the last two decades, many operating small retail businesses.

In the post-apartheid period, increasing numbers of highly skilled white workers emigrated, citing dissatisfaction with the political situation, crime, poor services, and a reduced quality of life. The 2002 Immigration Act and later amendments were intended to facilitate the temporary migration of skilled foreign labor to fill labor shortages, but instead the legislation continues to create regulatory obstacles. Although the education system has improved and brain drain has slowed in the wake of the 2008 global financial crisis, South Africa continues to face skills shortages in several key sectors, such as health care and technology.

South Africa’s stability and economic growth has acted as a magnet for refugees and asylum seekers from nearby countries, despite the prevalence of discrimination and xenophobic violence. Refugees have included an estimated 350,000 Mozambicans during its 1980s civil war and, more recently, several thousand Somalis, Congolese, and Ethiopians. Nearly all of the tens of thousands of Zimbabweans who have applied for asylum in South Africa have been categorized as economic migrants and denied refuge.

South Africa had an estimated 5.7 million people living with HIV by 2010, equaling about one in every five adults. There are about 1,400 new HIV infections and nearly 1,000 AIDS deaths every day. Approximately 450 million male condoms are distributed in South Africa every year but, with 16 million sexually active men and one of the highest HIV infection rates in the world, there are never enough, and condom use is still far from a social norm. Rape and crime are also endemic in South Africa. The country is struggling to combat the worst case of the HIV epidemic by convincing its population of the importance of safe sex.

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Page last modified: 22-12-2017 13:11:29 ZULU