Race, Ethnicity and Language in South Africa
< previous topic: Introduction to South Africa
Race – and the related concepts of ethnicity and language – has been at the heart of South African history, politics, society, culture and economy since the European colonization. Although South Africa is by no means the most ethnically diverse country in the world, the country remains a complex mix of different races, cultural identities, languages and ethnic bonds.
Race and ethnicity became particularly explosive ideas during the apartheid era, when the government used it for political and racial purposes, although racially discriminatory policies and segregation had been in place long before the beginning of apartheid in 1948. The apartheid government created four official racial categories: black, Coloured, white and Asian/Indian.
Modern South Africa is a multiracial democratic society, which officially embraces its diversity. Symbolically, the image of the ‘Rainbow Nation’, popularized by Archbishop Desmond Tutu in 1994 and often used to describe the post-apartheid South Africa, is the most pregnant of a number of symbols used to promote the idea of a free, multiracial democratic society. Other symbols include the constitutional recognition of eleven official languages, the post-1994 flag and the country’s unique hybrid national anthem combining the traditional African song Nkosi Sikelel’ iAfrika with the apartheid-era anthem (Die Stem van Suid-Afrika).
The South African Constitution grants equal human, political and social rights to all individuals regardless of race, ethnicity or language; all adult South African citizens have the right to vote and hold office and Section 9.3 of the Bill of Rights states that the “state may not unfairly discriminate directly or indirectly” on grounds including race, colour, ethnic or social origin, culture or language. That being said, a subsection of the same section also states that “discrimination on one or more of the grounds listed in subsection (3) is unfair unless it is established that the discrimination is fair” and sections of the Bill of Rights and the broader Constitution also lay out that ‘the nation’ is committed to ensuring redress for past racially discriminatory policies.
However, hundreds of years of racial discrimination and segregation still cast a long shadow over South African society, politics, culture and economy and the full historical legacy of apartheid has not been washed away after twenty years of multiracial democracy. Race is still deeply ingrained in the South African psyche and culture. Like in the United States, South Africa’s major cities remain largely racially segregated, with ‘black neighbourhoods’ and ‘white neighbourhoods’. Interracial interaction, relationships and intermingling are far more common today than under apartheid, but many races still stick together and cultural activities are still tinted by race.
Apartheid’s racial categories, albeit recast on different names and referred to as ‘population groups’, are still officially used in statistical publications and census data. Official, mandatory registration and classification into racial groups has been replaced with racial self-identification. Government affirmative action policies such as Black Economic Empowerment (BEE) and Employment Equity make use of these official racial categorizations. These and other realities point to the continued difficulty of building an actual ‘Rainbow Nation’ or single South African nation.
According to the 2011 Census, 79.2% of South Africans (41 million) were ‘Black Africans’, 8.9% were Coloured (4.62 million), 8.9% were white (4.59 million), 2.5% were ‘Indian or Asian’ (1.29 million) and only 0.2% (280.4 thousand) who declared another race.
Since the creation of the Union of South Africa, the share of the white population in South Africa has declined significantly. In 1911, whites made up 21.6% of the population and numbered 1.116 million, against 3.491 million blacks or 67.5% of the population. In 1960, whites made up 19.3% while blacks made up 68% of the population (10.928 million blacks to 3.088 million whites). Censuses during the apartheid era are difficult to handle because they did not include the black residents of nominally ‘independent’ homelands, but the 1991 census reported that there were 5.068 million whites in the RSA outside the four nominally independent homelands. The white population declined as a result of the significantly higher birthrates of non-white groups, and, beginning in the late 1980s and hitting a peak in the 1990s, white emigration. In the 1996 census, the white population dropped to 4.434 million and dropped further in 2001 (4.293 million). The wave of emigration appears to have stemmed, because the white population grew by 0.66% between 2001 and 2011.
The most widely-spoken ‘home language’ (first language) according to the 2011 Census was isiZulu, spoken by 22.4% of the population or 11.6 million people. The other major languages were isiXhosa (15.8%), Afrikaans (13.2%), English (9.5%), Sepedi (8.9%), Setswana (7.9%) and Sesotho (7.4%).
Of the country’s eleven official languages, nine – all except Afrikaans and English – are Bantu languages. Bantu languages are a sub-branch of the Niger-Congo languages, and they are widely spoken throughout sub-Equatorial Africa, from South Africa to the Congos to Kenya and Tanzania. isiZulu, isiXhosa, siSwati and isiNdebele are Nguni languages, a sub-group of Bantu languages. Sepedi (Northern Sotho), Sesotho (Southern Sotho) and Setswana (Tswana) are Sotho-Tswana languages, another sub-group of the Bantu languages. Venda and Tsonga, the other two Bantu languages official in South Africa, form their own sub-groups within the Bantu/Southern Bantu languages.
Although only a small minority of South Africans – and merely 3% of blacks – speak English as their first language, in practice English is the hegemonic lingua franca of South Africa, in everyday life, education, business and politics. English has enjoyed a privileged status since the era of British colonization, although white minority governments after the 1920s pused for English/Afrikaans bilingualism, and the apartheid government sought to make Afrikaans the lingua franca alongside English. After the fall of apartheid, English, less tainted by the legacy of apartheid in the eyes of the black community than Afrikaans, reimposed itself as the single lingua franca, at the expense of Afrikaans (despite it remaining an official language) but also the newly-official Bantu languages. Many blacks seek to speak English – speaking English is highly valued as a sign of good education, and English is seen as the key to access to power and a more socially advantageous position. This perception has led to a certain disinterest in the fate of the Bantu languages.
The Constitution’s ambitious promises of multilingualism and commitment to affirmative action for marginalized Bantu languages have hardly been translated into actual practice. Even if the Constitution states that all levels of government must ensure the equality of the country’s eleven languages, the reality is that the bulk of government business is carried out in English. Many/most government publications are often available only in English, with only limited sections available in other languages. The government’s online portal (gov.za) seems to be available in English, or at least if it’s available in other languages, it seems mighty difficult to find links to it (the government’s services website, services.gov.za, is available in all languages). In Parliament, while MPs are entitled to speak in the official language of their choice, simultaneous translation is available only in English and Afrikaans. Most of the media is in English, including the leading newspapers and most programming on the state broadcaster, the South African Broadcasting Corporation (SABC). English is the dominant language of instruction, especially in secondary school, with Bantu languages being relegated to a minor role. Local schools often lack the resources to actually apply the official multilingualism policies. Similarly, governments, especially municipalities, lack the means and resources to turn official multilingualism into a reality.
In 2013, the Ministry of Basic Education announced that an African language – which includes Afrikaans – would be compulsory for all students from primary school until Matric (HS graduation). There have been concerns about whether the Ministry had the sufficient teachers, whether Afrikaans would dominate the choice as the first additional language and the feasibility of the policy.
Apartheid and its associated policies created a strict racial hierarchy whose effects are felt to this day. At the top of the social ladder was the white minority, which had formed the ruling class – politically, economically, socially and so forth – since European colonizers first arrived at the Cape. The large black majority was at the very bottom, forcibly segregated into underdeveloped rural ‘reserves’ or shunned to the outskirts of major cities in shantytowns, and denied any rights. The smaller Coloured and Indian groups faced systematic discrimination from the apartheid government as well, but they generally found themselves in an ever so slightly more favourable social position compared to the blacks. Indeed, the early Coloured political organizations sought assimilation or integration into the white European community and sometimes used disparaging language against blacks to shore up their credentials (to no avail). The Indians faced discrimination and the early apartheid governments viewed them as illegal aliens to be repatriated to India, but many accrued some wealth from commercial and trading businesses.
Since 1994, while the strict racial hierarchy is no more, its legacy is still clearly visible. In part, this is due to the policies of post-apartheid governments, which have generally been moderate and pragmatic in their dealings with the former white elite. The white economic elites adapted themselves quite well to the new dispensation, even with affirmative actions such as Black Economic Empowerment (BEE). Many critics have commented that the black majority has gained only incomplete control of the new South Africa; they hold political power but economic power still rests in white hands. However, various reports from several sources have shown that blacks have joined the ranks of the middle-class and business-owning elite. Furthermore, even if the black majority remains the poorest of South Africa’s four racial groups, most blacks have seen a marked improvement in their living standards – without speaking of basic human rights.
The following table details, by race, the different social indicators from the 2011 Census listed on the previous page. In brackets, where applicable and available, show the change since the 1996 Census.
|No schooling (20+)||10.5% (-13.5%)||4.2% (-5.8%)||2.9% (-3.4%)||0.4% (-0.5%)||8.6% (-10.5%)|
|Grade 12/Std 10 and/or Higher Ed. (20+)||35.2% (+19.6%)||32.6% (+15.4%)||61.6% (+20.1%)||76% (+9.9%)||40.7% (+17.3%)|
|Average annual household income||R60,613 (+R38,361)||R112,172 (+R60,732)||R251,541 (+R148,935)||R365,134 (+R171,314)||R103,204 (+R54,819)|
|3 or less rooms in dwelling||48.1%||32.1%||14.1%||8.5%||41.8%|
|No access to piped water||10.9%||1.5%||0.8%||0.7%||8.8%|
|Flush toilet connected to sewerage system||48.3%||85%||94.7%||91.2% (+7.9% w/ flush toilet w/ septic tank)||57%|
|Electricity used for lighting||81.4%||94%||98.5%||99%||84.7%|
|Electricity used for cooking||69.8%||89.9%||92.1%||88%||73.9%|
|Refuse removal by local authority weekly or more||54.5%||87.5%||95.4%||90.9%||62.1%|
|No internet access||70.6%||64.3%||41.7%||29.6%||64.8%|
|Unemployment – expanded, Q32013||40.6%||28.5%||16%||7.9%||35.6%|
|Absorption rate, Q32013||38.2%||48.5%||59%||68.6%||41.9%|
The above statistics are quite telling. On basically every single indicator, including ’21st century amenities’ such as cellphones or internet access, apartheid’s social hierarchy remains visible. The black majority is poorer, has lower education levels, is more likely to live in informal dwellings, is less likely to have access to electricity or flush toilets and is less likely to own household goods such as a refrigerator than any of the three other racial groups. Economically, South Africa’s high unemployment hits blacks the hardest: only 38% of them are actually employed and 41% can be considered to be unemployed under the expanded definition. On the other hand, white South Africans’ unemployment rate is lower than that of many European countries and the US.
There are very wide inter-racial disparities in income levels, now compounded with growing intra-race inequality. The 2011 Census data on average annual household income broken down by race provides a very stark picture, portrayed in the graph on the right.
The red bars show the distribution of the black population by income bracket. 61% earn between R1 and R76,400 (US$7,070) a year, in addition to 15.1% who report no income. In contrast, only 19% of whites – in green bars on the graph – earn in that range. Most black South Africans find themselves in the five lowest income brackets, whereas most whites (71.6%) are in the six highest income brackets. The two other minority groups, Coloureds and Asians, place between blacks and whites. Asians are the second wealthiest racial group after whites, with 57% in the top six income brackets and 34% in the five lowest. Coloureds tend to be slightly more affluent than blacks, with many of them in the lowest income groups (57.7%), but also a insignificant number in the highest groups (32%). For example, while only 7.6% of blacks earn between R76,401 and R153,800 (US$14,233), 14% of Coloureds are in this income bracket.
Another way of looking at income disparities is comparing the incomes of blacks, Coloureds and Indians to those of whites, keeping white income constant at 100. The graph on the left, drawn from data in this paper on income inequality trends in South Africa since apartheid, shows the relative per capita incomes of these three groups as a percentage of white level (whites = 100) since 1917, until 2008. Once again, blacks stand out as the poorest, earning only 13% of what whites earned in 2008, with Coloureds slightly more affluent – earning 22% of what whites earned in 2008 and Asians significantly closer to white levels (60% in 2008). For reasons which will become evident in the following section on political history, black income levels declined between 1917 and 1987, from 9% to 8.5% (they actually fell as low at 6.8% of white levels in 1970). Coloured’s incomes also fell, from 22% in 1917 to 19% in 1993 (and as low as 16% in 1960); only Asians were able to gradually enrich themselves, reaching 42% of white levels in 1993. Since the fall of apartheid, all three groups have become slightly more affluent (Asians especially).
However, if a good many blacks and Coloureds enriched themselves and joined the ranks a new, colour-blind middle-class and upper middle-class, many more blacks and Coloureds are still struggling in poverty and the riches of the new multiracial South Africa have not ‘trickled down’ to them. Continued income inequalities between racial groups is now compounded by increased income inequalities within racial groups. As discussed in the last section on South Africa’s economy, the RSA is one of the world’s most unequal countries in terms of wealth distribution. The country currently has around 0.63 on the Gini index, compared to 0.45 for the US and about 0.3 for Canada and Western European countries. The aforecited paper shows the Gini index by race since 1993: the Gini values for all four racial groups, including whites, have increased since then: from 0.54 to 0.62 for blacks, from 0.44 to 0.54 for Coloureds, from 0.47 to 0.61 for Asians and from 0.43 to 0.5 for whites.
There has been a lot of talk in the Western media about the growth of a large ‘poor whites’ underclass in South Africa since 1994, marginalized and ignored. A BBC report in May 2013 asked bluntly “do white people have a future in South Africa?”, going on to claim that 400,000 whites lived in squatter camps (with allegedly 80 in Pretoria alone) and talking of issues such as white farm murders, concluding that only certain whites had a future in the country. The BBC’s report elicited a mixed reaction in South Africa. Both major parties said it distorted the truth, a column in the independent Mail & Guardian newspaper criticized the BBC’s report for giving the impression that only whites faced poverty and the fact-checking website Africa Check said the report ‘grossly exaggerates the problem of white poverty’. According to the 2011 Census, 7,754 of white households lived in informal dwellings against 1.8 million black households.
A 2009 Stats SA report on poverty found that 62% of blacks, 33% of Coloureds, 7% of Asians and 1.2% of whites lived under the upper-bound poverty (less than R577/US$54 per capita per month). Put together, about 95% of the poor in South Africa are black. The same report also found upper-bound poverty to be over 55% in every province except WC and Gauteng, peaking at 74% of the population in Limpopo. It is also highest in urban informal areas (shantytowns), rural ‘traditional’ areas and rural formal areas (68%, 79% and 64% respectively) and lowest in urban formal areas (32%). Inequality, however, is highest in rural and urban formal areas.
Apartheid’s spatial legacy
The apartheid envisioned near-complete residential segregation of all races throughout the South African territory. The Group Areas Act (1950) assigned different races to separate residential and business areas and harsh pass laws limited non-whites’ freedom of movement. The Group Areas Act effectively reserved the best, most developed areas to whites. Residential segregation (social apartheid) was brutally enforced through forced removals and destruction of racially mixed neighborhoods (such as District 6 in Cape Town). The end of apartheid has altered the situation, with upwardly mobile blacks being able to move freely into historically ‘whites-only’ suburbs or whites moving out of downtown cores into ‘safe’ suburbs. However, social apartheid remains very much alive in South Africa.
This excellent dot map allows you to map by race, language and household income down to an extremely micro level. You can search racial and linguistic numbers for all geographical levels, down to the ‘sub place’ (neighborhood) level here.
Many (urban) blacks remain concentrated in densely populated and racially homogeneous townships, most of them located on the poor outskirts of major cities. Soweto, in Johannesburg, is the largest and most well-known township, with a population of over a 1.2 million – 98.5% of which are black. Soweto, however, has grown more socially diverse since the end of apartheid: most residents live in formal housings, and some neighborhoods of Soweto have become fairly middle-class. Many other townships, however, remain poor with many residents still living in informal housing (shacks). Since the end of apartheid, many blacks, including illegal immigrants from other African countries, migrated to the major cities’ Central Business Districts (CBDs), causing crime to increase and business to shut down. In Johannesburg, downtown areas and inner suburbs such as Hillbrow, Berea and Yeoville have, in the space of 20-something years, transformed from middle-class and fairly homogeneously white suburbs to densely populated, over 95% black suburbs with major social problems. In Pretoria, the CBD is now 93% black and largely low-income. In Durban, Durban Central is 80% black.
The white population is largely concentrated in urban/suburban areas, although some provincial towns in the former Transvaal still have sizable white (Afrikaner) populations. In the major urban centres, whites live in the most affluent suburbs. In Joburg, for example, the northern suburbs (Sandton, Ranburg, Midrand, Roodepoort), a hilly area well connected to the city centre and a business hub since the white flight from the CBD, concentrate the bulk of the city’s white population. In Cape Town, the most affluent whites tend to live in the leafy and breathtaking suburbs along the Atlantic Ocean (Sea Point), while the black and Coloured populations remain the windswept Cape Flats (Khayelitsha and Mitchells Plains are two huge townships, one heavily black and the other heavily Coloured, in the Cape Flats). Many suburban whites have shielded themselves from ‘outside dangers’ by enclosing themselves in gated communities or walled, secure villas and houses.
Whites outside the main urban areas and remote provincial towns also line the Indian Ocean coastline in resort/coastal communities, such as Hermanus (WC), Stillbaai (WC), Plettenberg Bay (WC), Mossel Bay (WC), Knysna (WC), Jeffreys Bay (EC), Port Shepstone/Hibiscus Coast LM (KZN) and Richards Bay (KZN). In these areas, the affluent white areas are found along the coast, while impoverished black (sometimes Coloured) townships are found further inland.
However, while almost no whites live in the densely populated black townships or, in the case of rural areas, the former ‘homelands’, since 1994 many blacks – largely middle-class in this case – have moved into historically lily white suburbs. There are several black-majority middle-class areas in Joburg’s northern suburbs. Overall, Sandton is now 34.7% black (and 49.8% white), Randburg is 36.8% black and 45.7% white, Roodepoort is 51% black and Midrand is 54.5% black. New suburban developments in the Midrand, such as Vorna Valley, Halfway Gardens and Noordwyk, are black middle-class areas. In Pretoria, the old white Afrikaner suburb of Centurion (named, until 1995, after the architect of apartheid, Prime Minister HF Verwoerd), is 29% black.
Cape Town, however, remains one of the more segregated cities in South Africa. The black population, mostly poor migrants from the rural areas of the Eastern Cape (former Transkei/Ciskei), almost all live in poor and marginalized townships (Langa, Khayelitsha) or informal settlements. The Coloured neighborhoods also tend to be racially homogeneous – there is, for example, no racially mixed ‘transition area’ between Coloured and black areas in the Cape Flats. Whites, as noted above, are largely found in the affluent, leafy and hilly Southern Suburbs, the coastal areas (Sea Point, Green Point, Blouberg etc) or the elevated northern suburban town of Bellville.
The Coloured population is heavily concentrated in the Western and Northern Cape provinces, for reasons which will be explained later. They form a plurality of the population in the City of Cape Town (42.4%, 38.6% black), living either in impoverished township areas such as Mitchells Plain, remote Atlantis, Manenberg, Elsies Rivier and Delft or in slightly better-off areas in the Southern Suburbs. Although relatively few Coloureds live in the other provinces, there are heavily Coloured neighborhoods in both Joburg and Pretoria, in both cases formerly exclusive Coloured townships (Eldorado Park, Westbury and Newclare in Joburg; Eersterust in Pretoria).
Similarly, the Asian/Indian population is quasi-exclusively found in KwaZulu-Natal, namely in Durban (although Indian areas exist in other cities of KZN, such as Pietermaritzburg, Ladysmith, Newcastle, Richards Bay and Port Shepstone), where Asians make up 16.7% of the population. In Durban, the densest concentrations of Indians are Chatsworth and Phoenix. However, there is small but sizable Indian population in Gauteng and some very small concentrations in some other major cities in the country. In Johannesburg, Indians make up an overwhelming majority of the population in Lenasia, a formerly exclusive Indian township.
About eight in ten South Africans are black. Black South Africans crossed the Limpopo River into present-day South Africa in about 300-500 AD, the culmination of a long, gradual migration of Bantu-speaking peoples from their original homeland around the Niger Delta/west central Africa which had begun in about 1500 BC. These people settled in present-day KZN and the Eastern Cape up to the Great Kei River; areas generally favourable to agriculture. Others, who now speak Sotho-Tswana languages, settled in the drier areas of the veld in the present-day Free State and North West, and others lived along the banks of the Limpopo River in the north, in areas bordering Zimbabwe and Botswana.
Unlike South Africa’s first inhabitants, semi-nomadic hunter-gatherer peoples, the Bantu-speaking people were pastoralists, cattle herders, farmers and ironworkers who concentrated in villages. In the days before European colonization, these peoples generally lived in small chiefdoms – although the Sotho-Tswana peoples concentrated in larger, hierarchical communities around water sources and trading towns. The Nguni peoples (Xhosa and Zulu being the two largest ‘tribes’), living between the Highveld and the Indian Ocean in KZN and eastern EC, had smaller communities and less hierarchical societies.
The organization of African societies changed dramatically with the mfecane in the nineteenth century. Population growth, depletion of natural resources and devastating drought and famine led to revolutionary changes: deaths and displaced persons, infighting between chiefdoms and the organization of large standing armies around autocratic leaders. Four major African states rose during this period, amongst them the Zulu, Swazi, Sotho and Ndebele.
The correct term for referring to black South Africans is a highly contentious topic, plagued by the legacy of apartheid. Until around 1960, the white governments officially referred to the black population as ‘natives’, administered by the Ministry of Native Affairs. Afterwards, until the late 1970s, the apartheid government began referring to them as ‘Bantu’, with the ministry becoming known as the Ministry of Bantu Affairs (or administration) until 1978, when the ministry gained the less toxic and innocuous name of ‘plural relations’. The use of the words ‘natives’ or ‘Bantu’ to refer to black South Africans is considered pejorative, because of its close association with apartheid and racial discrimination. Officially, the census uses the term ‘Black African’ for blacks. Using ‘African’ on its own to refer to black South Africans is generally rejected by the non-black minorities. Many white Afrikaners consider themselves to be Africans, as do many/most Coloureds and Indians. The word kaffir is an extremely derogatory and insulting racial slur for South African blacks (the local equivalent of ‘nigger’ in the United States); it stems from the Arabic word kafir (non-believer) and became widely used by Europeans to describe all black peoples. It is generally understood that usage of the word is punishable under hate speech legislation.
Black South Africans are a linguistically diverse people. The two main languages are isiZulu (spoken by 28% of blacks) and isiXhosa (20% of blacks), although that leaves over 52% of blacks having another language (most of them being other Bantu languages, see the table above). Linguistic groups often coincide with ethnic groups. Using the word ‘tribe’, however, would be wildly inaccurate and insulting to many given the apartheid regime’s instrumentalization of ‘tribal’ ties in the black population. The ruling African National Congress (ANC), along with most other black political leaders, have long rejected tribalism and emphasized non-tribalism and black unity or Africanism. However, the ANC hasn’t been immune to ethnic/linguistic-based intrigues and power struggles.
Most blacks are Christian, but they tend to be followers of African-initiated churches and practice a syncretic form of Christianity, combining with traditional pre-Christian beliefs. According to the 2001 Census, 17.2% of blacks claimed no religion, the highest of all races. Around 14% aligned with Zion Christian churches (+ 5% for “other Zion churches”) and 13.5% with ‘other Apostolic churches’ – both referring to African-initiated churches. Smaller numbers were close to other churches: 8% Methodist, 7% Catholic, 3% Lutheran, 3% Anglican and 3% with the Dutch Reformed Church (NGK).
The Zulu are the largest black group, making up roughly 28% of the black population.
KwaZulu-Natal (KZN) is the Zulu heartland (KwaZulu means the country of the Zulu in isiZulu), and Zulu-speakers form an overwhelming majority of KZN’s population – 77%. Only the white/Indian areas and a Xhosa region (a former exclave of the Xhosa homeland of Transkei) in the west of the province are not predominantly Zulu. There is a sizable Zulu minority in Mpumalanga, where they make up 24% of the population and form a large majority in the south of the province bordering KZN.
Over the twentieth century, many Zulu – along with many other black South Africans from rural areas – migrated to the Witwatersrand, the country’s economic and industrial heartland, creating a very diverse (and sometimes explosive) melting pot in present-day Gauteng province. Zulu-speakers make up a bare plurality of the provincial population (19.5%). Black areas in Gauteng, unlike in most other provinces, are linguistically diverse: Soweto is plurality Zulu, at 37.1%. There are also Zulu majorities or significant minorities in many other townships in the Johannesburg region: Alexandra, Orange Farm, Diepkloof, Tsanka, Katlehong, Vosloorus (all 3 outside Brakpan) or Daveyton. The Zulu population is very small in the Free State and North West, and negligible in Limpopo and the Cape provinces.
The Zulu homestead consisted of an extended polygynous family and others attached through social obligations. Responsibilities were divided by gender, with the men responsible for defense, caring for cattle, making weapons and tools and building dwellings. Women had domestic responsibilities and raised crops.
King Shaka Zulu consolidated a powerful Zulu Kingdom beginning in 1817, establishing the Zulu state as the dominant power among the northern Nguni. Shaka’s Zulu monarchy controlled about 100,000 people, with a standing army of 40,000 men. Shaka developed a Zulu national consciousness, officially celebrating customary Nguni festivals, extolling Zulu traditions and effectively building the roots of a strong national/ethnic consciousness which transcended the original identities and lineages of his various subjects. Shaka’s Zulu Kingdom declined after his death, a result of infighting, poor leadership and conflict with whites. However, Shaka had a major historical and cultural impact. Modern Zulu culture continues to lionize Shaka.
The Xhosa, another Nguni people, are the second largest black group, making about 20% of the black population. The Xhosa-speaking peoples include various ‘tribes’, such as the Mpondo, Thembu, the Bhaca and Mfengu (the former two are clans, the latter two are former tribes/ethnic groups which adopted the Xhosa language, isiXhosa). The modern Xhosa heartland is in the Eastern Cape province, where they make up 77.6% of the population. The former ‘independent homelands’ of Transkei and the Ciskei (both located in EC) were ‘Xhosa homelands’ and most of the rural Xhosa population remains concentrated in those regions. Black immigration to the Western Cape (Cape Town) was tightly curtailed and strictly controlled under apartheid, but the fall of apartheid in 1994 led to major Xhosa migration from the impoverished traditional areas of the Transkei into Cape Town and the Western Cape. The black population in Cape Town is almost entirely Xhosa. Some Xhosa migrated to the Witwatersrand, but they only make up 6.5% of the population in that province, smaller in numbers than other groups such as the Zulu.
The Xhosa historically lived in villages on the top of ridges overlooking rivers, and lived by cattle herding, cultivation and hunting. Xhosa homesteads were organized around descent groups, with descent traced through male forebears. Two distinct and rival chiefdoms emerged in Xhosa society, the Gcaleka and Rharhabe/Ngqika, a division which the white governments played on, dividing the Xhosa into the homelands of Ciskei (Gcaleka Xhosa) and Transkei (Ngqika Xhosa).
The Xhosa had close contact with Europeans in the nineteenth century, welcoming missionaries and educators. As a result of their contact with Europeans, the Xhosa’s weakness in the face of the Shaka’s Zulu monarchy in the early 1800s and inability to resist European invasions weakened the Xhosa and led to early absorption into the wage economy. Therefore, the Xhosa rose to form the core of South Africa’s small black professional class (lawyers, physicians and ministers). The Xhosa have been well represented in South Africa’s political leadership: Nelson Mandela was the son of a Thembu royal born in the Transkei and his successor, Thabo Mbeki, was also a Xhosa. The ANC was called ‘Xhosa Nostra’ (Xhosa is popularly pronounced ‘Kosa’ by English speakers) by some opponents critical of the weight of the Xhosa in the party.
isiXhosa, the Xhosa language, is a Nguni/Bantu language fairly close to isiZulu, but it stands out for its ‘click’ sounds, likely assimilated from the Khoisan languages.
The Northern Sotho, from the Sotho-Tswana people, are the third largest black ethnic group in South Africa, with 11% of blacks speaking Sepedi/Northern Sotho as their mother tongue. The Northern Sotho group is, in reality, an heterogeneous group uniting all the peoples in the northern Transvaal (Limpopo) speaking the Northern Sotho language, called – misleadingly – Sepedi, the language of the Pedi people (a polity in the Northern Sotho group). The Pedi became the most powerful and important group, mainly due to their control of interior-coastal trade routes in the nineteenth century and relatively military strength. Under apartheid, the government created the ‘homeland’ of Lebowa for the Northern Sotho peoples in the northern Transvaal region. However, few had ever resided in ‘Lebowa’ and the territory also included other black ‘minorities’. However, through forced removals and voluntary relocations, Lebowa’s population grew rapidly.
Today, the Northern Sotho make up the majority (52%) of the province of Limpopo’s population, with smaller minorities in Mpumalanga (9%) and Gauteng (10.2%). Many Northern Sotho moved, first temporarily and later permanently, to the industrial Witwatersrand in search of employment in the mines or as tenant farmers on white-owned land. They settled in townships on the outskirts of Pretoria, and Sepedi-speakers make up over 40% of the population in the townships of Atteridgeville, Saulsville and Mamelodi. In Limpopo, the geographical distribution of the Northern Sotho population – in densely populated rural areas or sprawling townships outside Polokwane and Mokopane – coincide with the boundaries of the former Lebowa homeland.
The Tswana, another Sotho-Tswana people, form about 9.7% of the black population in South Africa. The Tswana is one of the black ethnic groups in South Africa which extends across national borders: the Tswana form the majority (estimated at 79%) of the population in Botswana – in the Tswana language, ‘bo’ is a prefix referring to the country (and ‘se’ referring to the language, hence the Setswana language). However, with 4 million Setswana speakers, more Tswana live in South Africa than in Botswana. In South Africa, the Tswana settled in the area of the present-day North West and Northern Cape provinces.
Tswana chiefdoms were more highly stratified than those of other Sotho or the Nguni. The Tswana formed close patron-client relationships with nearby Khoisan-speaking hunters and herdsmen. Tswana chiefs gradually lost their power following clashes with Afrikaner farmers and formal integration into British and Afrikaner territory. Like many other black peoples in South Africa, the Tswana were forced to turn to migrant labour, often in the Witwatersrand, for their livelihoods. During apartheid, the Tswana ‘homeland’ of Bophuthatswana gained ‘independence’ and was the richest of all the homelands – although most residents remained very poor and continued to turn to migrant labour. Today, Tswana-speakers make up 62% of the North West province’s population and are the largest Bantu-speaking group in the Northern Cape province, where they make up 32.6%. There is also a significant Tswana population in Gauteng, making up 9% of the province’s population. Geographically, the Tswana population still coincides with the limits of the former segmented enclaves of Bophuthatswana, which straddled the present-day NW, NC and Gauteng provinces. Some of the densest concentrations are found in sprawling townships outside of Mafikeng and the mining areas outside of Rustenburg and Brits. In the City of Tshwane (Pretoria), the Tswana make up a large majority in the townships of Mabopane and Ga-Rankuwa, which were part of Bophuthatswana, but they form only 16.7% of the population in the adjacent township of Soshanguve, which was not part of Bophuthatswana.
The Basotho, also known as the Southern Sotho or simply Sotho, make up 9.5% of the black population. The prefix ‘ba’ refers to the Sotho people, the prefix ‘se’ refers to their language (Sesotho) and the prefix ‘le’ refers to the country of the Sotho. Like the Tswana and the Swazi, the Basotho population extends across the border into the landlocked mountainous kingdom of Lesotho. However, with over 3.8 million Sesotho speakers in South Africa and a population of only 2 million in Lesotho, the bulk of the population lives in South Africa, namely in the Free State. The Basotho settled in the Highveld and the Drakensberg Mountains (present-day Lesotho).
King Moshoeshoe unified the Basotho people displaced by the Zulu expansion (mfecane), forming a strong Sotho kingdom in the southern Highveld – the modern kingdom of Lesotho. Moshoeshoe resisted Afrikaner expansion in the Highveld by welcoming French missionaries and successfully appealing to the British for protection, albeit at the cost of significant territorial cessions to the British. Lesotho, formerly known as the Basutoland Protectorate, gained independence from Britain in 1966. In South Africa, the Basotho form the majority of the population in the Free State (62.6%), territories which used to be part of Moshoeshoe’s kingdom before Afrikaner and British encroachments. Under apartheid, the tiny homeland of QwaQwa, located in a mountainous region of the FS bordering KZN and Lesotho, was intended as ‘homeland’ for the Basotho, but the majority of the ethnic Basotho population remained outside the homeland’s territory. The area around Phuthaditjhaba, the former capital of QwaQwa, is nevertheless very densely populated. In the Free State, the Basotho population is largely located in the more populated and environmentally favourable areas further west. Specifically, it congregates around major cities: Bloemfontein, the gold mining town of Welkom, Sasolburg, Bethlehem and Kroonstad.
The Basotho are the second largest Bantu-speaking group in Gauteng after the Zulu, with 11.4% of the population. Sesotho-speakers make up a majority of the population in Emfuleni LM (Vanderbijlpark/Vereeniging), concentrated in townships such as Evaton, Sebokeng, Sharpeville, Boipatong and Bophelong. There are small Basotho minorities in the North West (around the mining centre of Klerksdorp), Mpumalanga and the Eastern Cape (a mountainous region just south of Lesotho, which was part of the Transkei homeland).
The Tsonga, who make up 5.5% of the black population, are a separate Bantu linguistic/ethnic group. The wider Tsonga group includes several smaller ethnic groups including the Shangaan, Thonga and Tonga (unrelated to another ethnic group also named Tonga). The Tsonga people spillover into neighboring Mozambique, where they likely make up a larger group than in the RSA. In the past, the Tsonga largely lived from fishing and crop cultivation (but not cattle herding), because they lived in a (fly-infested) lowland. Many Tsonga migrated inland during the Zulu mfecane, during which some Tsonga clans were subjugated by Zulu warriors.
Under apartheid, about 500,000 people – less than half of the Tsonga population – lived in Gazankulu, a self-governing homeland intended for the Shangaan-Tsonga people. Like many other blacks, a lot migrated to the industrial Witwatersrand and settled alongside other poor blacks in townships. The present-day Tsonga population (who speak Xitsonga) is split between Limpopo (16.3% of the provincial population) and Mpumalanga (10.8%), with a significant minority in Gauteng (6.5%). In Limpopo and Mpumalanga, the Tsonga population still coincides to a large extent with the boundaries of the former Gazankulu homeland. In Gauteng, the Tsonga largely lived in ethnically mixed townships, mostly on the northern outskirts of the city of Tshwane (Pretoria).
The Swazi are a predominantly Nguni people who account for 3.1% of the black population in South Africa. The Swazi population extends across borders into the kingdom of Swaziland, which has a population of 1.185 million. There are about 1.3 million siSwati/isiSwazi speakers in South Africa. The Swazi language is known in Swazi as siSwati, but it is also commonly called by its Zulu name – isiSwazi.
The Swazi kingdom and people can trace their origins to Sobhuza, the leader of the Ngwane people, who formed a strong monarchy which rivaled the Zulu monarchy for control of the region. The Swazi people and Swaziland took their name from King Mswati II, Sobhuza’s son and successor. The Swazi monarchs maintained their power through marriages with Zulu chiefs and other Swazi clans, payment of tribute to the Zulu monarchs when it was thought to be necessary and building a powerful army. In 1881, the British recognized Swazi independence, but the country could not resist British and Afrikaner influences. In the early twentieth century, Swaziland became a British protectorate and it gained independence in 1968. Swaziland is an authoritarian absolute monarchy ruled by King Mswati III – the only absolute monarch in Africa.
The Swazi people in South Africa are heavily concentrated in Mpumalanga, where they account for 27.4% of the province’s population. Besides a small number in Gauteng (1.1% or 136k), there are almost no Swazis in the other provinces of South Africa. The population remains largely concentrated in KaNgwane, the former apartheid-era ‘homeland’ for South Africa’s Swazis (which the apartheid government tried, unsuccessfully, to sell off to Swaziland). KaNgwane was made up of separate enclaves, including a few on Swaziland’s northern border and another large stretch of land in the Lowveld to the east of Nelspruit.
The Venda, a separate subgroup of the Bantu-speaking peoples in southern Africa, are the second smallest black group in South Africa, representing only 2.9% of the black population. Some Venda live across the border in Zimbabwe, and the Tshivenḓa grammar shares similarities with Shona, a language spoken by many Zimbabweans.
Venda culture, like the language, incorporated an eclectic variety of traditions from East African, Central African, Nguni and Sotho peoples. Historically, the Venda were organized into small kinship groups, dispersed among several households. The Venda people largely live in Limpopo province, where they are 16.5% of the population. A small minority lives in Gauteng (2.2%). The Venda population in Limpopo province coincides with the boundaries of Venda, a homeland which gained ‘independence’ in 1979.
The Southern Ndebele, an Nguni group, are the smallest black ethnic group in RSA with only 2.6% of the black population
The Ndebele originated in Natal and moved northwards, into the northern Transvaal, well before the mfecane in 1600. Another wave of migration was led by Zulu chief Mzilikazi, a former ally of King Shaka who fled north after breaking with Shaka around 1820. Mzilikazi’s followers only transited through the region; defeated by the Zulus and Boers, they were forced to cross the Limpopo River into Zimbabwe. Those who stayed in South Africa were defeated by the Europeans and crushed.
Mzilikazi’s clan became the Northern Ndebele (or Matabele) people, who currently form the second largest ethnic group in Zimbabwe. They speak Northern Ndebele, a language very close to isiZulu. The Southern Ndebele in South Africa speak isiNdebele, which is more distinct from isiZulu.
Under apartheid, most Ndebele were assigned to the KwaNdebele ‘homeland’, although others were assigned to the Sepedi homeland of Lebowa and the apartheid government placed a significant Sepedi minority in KwaNdebele. The underdevelopment and poverty of the homeland forced effectively turned it into a ‘bedroom community’ for the industrial Witwatersrand in search of employment. Today, isiNdebele speakers make up 10% of the population in Mpumalanga, with most of them concentrated in the former KwaNdebele homeland, around the former capitals of KwaMhlanga and Siyabuswa. There are smaller minorities in some townships near Bronkhorstspruit (Gauteng) and Emalahleni (Mpumalanga). Ndebele speakers make up 3% of Gauteng’s population.
The ‘Coloured’ people are currently the largest minority racial group in South Africa, with about 4.62 million people, equivalent to 8.9% of the South African population. In the past, the Coloureds had been the second minority group behind the whites, but white emigration combined with significantly higher non-white birthrates led to a reduction in the white population beginning in the late 1980s (see above) and allowed the Coloured population to surpass the white population.
The South African Coloured group is often confusing to foreigners. To begin with, unlike in the United States (historically), the word ‘colo(u)red’ in South Africa does not refer to the black population. Secondly, there is some degree of misunderstanding and confusion as to the origins and identity of the Coloured people. They are a heterogeneous people, who may be more or less accurately described as ‘mixed-race’, but even that descriptor is not entirely accurate.
Most Coloureds have some sort of Khoisan ancestry. The Khoisan people were South Africa’s earliest inhabitants, living in what is today part of the Western and Northern Cape provinces (as well as Namibia, Botswana and Angola). Over 20,000 years ago, modern South Africa was occupied by the San, a semi-nomadic people of hunter-gatherers. They spoke a language which included unique ‘click’ consonants, were of lighter skin pigmentation than blacks and were generally short in height; theories, however, that they formed a separate race have been disproved by studies which showed that southern Africa’s black inhabitants are closely related. Around 2,500 years ago, some San in present-day Botswana acquired cattle and became pastoralists. These people became known as the Khoikhoi or Khoi, separated from the San only by their occupations and geographical locations (the Khoikhoi were more coastal, the San more inland, in the Kalahari). The Khoikhoi lived in larger settlements but still moved with the seasons among coasts, valleys, and mountains in search of pastureland. The Khoikhoi and San societies overlapped considerably and both were fissiparous in nature. Their shared culture and languages created the Khoisan cultures and languages.
The San are still often known as Bushmen, as Europeans called them, but this word is sometimes seen as derogatory by the Khoisan. Similarly, the Khoi were known as Hottentot, but this term is also considered archaic or derogatory.
Although no Khoisan language is an official language in South Africa – most are endangered, others are moribund and some even extinct – the Constitution charges the Pan South African Language Board to “promote, and create conditions for, the development and use” of Khoisan languages. South Africa’s motto, ǃke e: ǀxarra ǁke, meaning ‘diverse peoples unite’, is in the extinct ǀXam language. ‘Bushman’ culture and the click languages continue to fascinate many, popularized with the 1980 South African film The Gods Must Be Crazy.
The second element in Coloured identity came with the arrival of the Europeans. The Dutch colonists at the Cape were originally quite loose when it came to intermarriages or relations with local people. The mixing of the European (Dutch) population with Khoikhoi women created the Griqua people, originally known as the Basters (and still known as such in Namibia). The Griquas settled north of Cape Town in the 1750s, before moving north and then east following the Orange River, establishing settlements (Griqualand) in present-day Northern Cape and the Free State, with later migrations leading some to settle as far as KZN (Kokstad). During the Griqua migrations, assimilation – forced or voluntary – with the indigenous population was the norm, so that European genes sometimes became marginalized. The size of the Griqua population is unknown and the term has fallen into disuse.
The colonial black population in the Cape Colony amalgamated, partially assimilated and integrated into the lower classes of colonial society, especially after the emancipation of the Khoisan (1828) and slaves (1833) by the British. The more assimilated colonial blacks came to assert a separate Coloured identity in order to claim a positive of relative privilege in relation to the black Africans who migrated to the Cape.
The importation of slaves, by the Dutch colonists, from the Dutch East Indies but also from India added a third element to the mix. The Cape Malays are a significant Coloured group descended from slaves from Java and Dutch Malacca, who were brought to the Cape by the Dutch beginning in 1654. The modern Cape Malay population, heavily concentrated in Cape Town (historically in the central Bo-Kaap neighborhood or pre-eviction District Six), speak Afrikaans (or English) but they have retained their Sunni Muslim faith.
In summary, the South African Coloured population is one of the most racially diverse groups in the world – a mixture of Khoisan, Bantu, European, Indian and Southeast Asian. A 2010 report in the American Journal of Human Genetics, through detailed phylogeographic analyses of mitochondrial DNA and Y-chromosome variation, found that the maternal contribution to the Coloured population was disproportionately Khoisan (about 60%) and negligibly European (4.6%). However, the paternal contribution was nearly evenly balanced between sub-Saharan African groups (Bantu and Khoisan) and European, contributing 45.2% and 37.7% respectively.
Socially, the Coloured people have been fairly integrated into the European society. 74.6% speak Afrikaans as their home language and 20.5% have English as their home language. The small Coloured population in KZN is predominantly Anglophone, with 78.8% claiming English as their home language (and a substantial number, 8%, having isiZulu as their first language). In the NC, where the Coloured population is largely rural, 93% have Afrikaans as their mother tongue. In the WC’s five non-urban District Municipalities, about 95% have Afrikaans as their home language; in Cape Town, however, a large minority (mostly in more middle-class areas) – 35% – identified English as their home language. In Gauteng, English was the home language for 36.8% of the Coloured population; in Joburg, 48% of Coloureds have English as their home language.
With the notable exception of the Muslim Cape Malays, the vast majority of Coloureds are Christian. The 2001 Census, which reported on religion, found that 15% identified with ‘other Apostolic churches’, 12.3% with ‘other Christian churches’, 11.9% with Pentecostal/Charismatic churches, 11.7% with the Dutch Reformed Church, 9% with the Anglican Church and 8.9% with the Catholic Church. 7.6% of Coloureds – the Cape Malays – were Muslim (Sunni).
Coloured identity has been a complicated, contentious and ambiguous issue in South African history. To begin with, the term ‘Coloured’ was originally interpreted differently by different people. Some used it in the North American meaning, a portmanteau term for all non-Europeans/non-whites; others used the term to refer to non-Bantu-speaking non-whites and others used it only to refer to the descendants of Malay slaves. Until apartheid, many poorer whites and Coloureds lived interspersed, blurring the lines between poor whites and Coloureds. Many Coloureds tried to ‘pass for white’, to escape discriminatory laws. Under apartheid, the Coloured racial category was perhaps the most arbitrary one. To begin with, it was vaguely defined by the regime itself. In the Population Registration Act (1950), a ‘coloured person’ was “a person who is not a white person or a native [black African].” At an individual level, there was natural ground for confusion. The infamous ‘pencil test’ – pushing a pencil through a person’s hair – was often used to adjudicate whether a person was white or Coloured. The most notorious – and tragic – case is that of Sandra Laing, a darker-skinned girl born to two white Afrikaner parents who was expelled from a whites-only school for failing the pencil test and subsequently reclassified as Coloured. Laing was shunned by her white family and community, and has had a difficult life trying to deal with her identity, even in a post-apartheid South Africa.
Coloureds have responded to the question of their identity in different ways. Originally, one of the main strands of Coloured political thought was a yearning for assimilation and acceptance, to gain the approval of the white minority and access to political rights, better education and jobs. These views, rooted in the Cape liberal tradition, proved to be out of place in the post-Union South Africa, which moved irremediably towards segregation. Beginning in the 1930s, some intellectuals challenged this moderate view and took a more radical stance, rejecting ‘Colourdness’. Again in the 1970s, with the Black Consciousness Movement, many Coloureds rejected ‘Colouredness’ as an artificial construct and came to define themselves as black. In the waning days of apartheid and since 1994, a new form of Coloured identity has tried to emerge.
At the same time, Coloureds recognized their intermediate status in apartheid’s racial hierarchy. While the Coloureds faced increasing discrimination from the white government, they nevertheless were granted a slightly more favourable position in the racial hierarchy than black Africans. A number of Coloureds, in the past, expressed the feeling that they were ‘better than black’ and even resorted, at times, to pejorative language against the blacks. After 1994, a major fear in Coloured communities, particularly in Cape Town, has been the threat of being ‘overwhelmed’ by black migrants from the Transkei and the purported dangers of ‘majority rule’. A majority of Coloured voters, particularly less educated and poorer segments, backed the National Party (NP), the same party which had disenfranchised and oppressed them, in the 1994 election.
Coloured identity has been associated with negative connotations. The group has been defined in a ‘negative’ way – in terms of what it is not – witness the definition of Coloured in the Population Registration Act. In the past, some whites and blacks viewed the Coloureds as a leftover group which, unlike white Afrikaners or the blacks, lacked a nation. Coloured identity has often been associated with racial intermarriage and racial hybridity, a negative thing in a (white-dominated) society which under apartheid became obsessed with racial purity. Racist views therefore connected Colouredness with promiscuity and immorality; white supremacists ran away from Coloureds, which for them was an ’embarrassing’ reminder for their past ‘lapses in morality’ and a challenge to their racist ideas of ‘pure race’ and ‘God’s chosen people’. These negative perceptions were often internalized by the Coloureds, who accepted with resignation that they allegedly lacked cultural specificity or a history to take pride in. For example, under apartheid, many Coloureds were ashamed of speaking their vernacular form of Afrikaans, kombuis Afrikaans (kitchen Afrikaans) in public. Closely related to this is a feeling of marginality in South African society, even today, well encapsulated with the common phrase of Coloureds being ‘not white enough [under apartheid], not black enough [post-apartheid]’.
The Coloured population is heavily regionally concentrated: they form 48.8% of the population in the WC and 40.3% in the NC. With the exception of a significant minority in the Eastern Cape (8.9%) concentrated in the west of the province bordering the WC, they form no more than 3.5% of the population in any other province. There are small Coloured neighborhoods/townships in Johannesburg, Pretoria, Durban, Bloemfontein, East London and indeed most major provincial towns across the RSA, but the vast majority of the Coloured population lives in the WC – where they are the largest racial group – and the NC. The explanation for the geographical concentration of the Coloured population are twofold. Firstly, the Bantu migrations pushed back the Khoisan peoples into the arid regions of the Cape. The inhospitable terrain and climate of western South Africa meant that the Bantu peoples did not expand into the present-day Western and Northern Cape provinces as much; the Great Fish River – just east of Port Alfred in the EC – is often cited as the original western limit of the Bantu (in this case, Xhosa) expansion into present-day South Africa.
But this surely cannot be the only, or even most important, reason in a country whose history has been marked by major internal migration. The main reason is that, under apartheid, the authorities designated all of the Western Cape, most of the Northern Cape (excluding the northeastern areas around Kimberley, Kuruman or included in the homeland of Bophuthatswana) and the areas of the Eastern Cape west of Port Elizabeth as a ‘Coloured Labour Preference Area’ (CLPA). In this region, whites retained predominance in employment but Coloureds were ‘preferred’ over blacks. In practice, the government strictly enforced influx control laws in the Western Cape, deporting over 1 million blacks – mostly women and children – from the region. When the CLPA policy was dropped in the late 1980s, there was a massive influx of poor black migrants from the Transkei, flooding into hastily-built townships in the windswept Cape Flats or elsewhere in the WC/NC. In 1996, the first post-apartheid census, blacks made up only 20.9% and 33.5% of the WC and NC’s populations respectively. Today, they make up 33% and 50%.
Compare the map of the CLPA on the left to the map of the Coloured population by ward in 2011 – the correlation remains stunning.
White South Africans
White South Africans currently make up 8.9% of the South African population, numbering 4.59 million. As noted above, the percentage share of the white population in South Africa has steadily fallen from 21.6% in 1911, due to higher non-white birthrates and, since the 1980s, white emigration. White population, in raw terms, peaked in 1991, where there were over 5 million whites in South Africa.
Although a small minority in an overwhelmingly black country, the white population in South Africa has stood out in Africa. It is significantly larger than the white population in Zimbabwe (Rhodesia) and Kenya, the two other British colonies which developed a large white settler population. Even at its peak in the 1960s, the white population in Zimbabwe/Rhodesia was only 270,000 or so. There were 60,000 white residents in Kenya at independence. Even Portuguese Angola and Mozambique, French Algeria and Italian Libya – other European colonies which drew a significant white settler population – never reached the size of the white South African population. There were up to 1.3 million French pieds-noirs in Algeria in 1962, and about 300,000 in Portuguese Angola and Mozambique in 1975. Secondly, the white Afrikaners developed nationhood, a distinct language, culture and faith.
Although the twenty years since the end of apartheid have reduced the public heterogeneity of the white population, it is best to treat the white South African population as a diverse ensemble of peoples. The division between white Afrikaners and white English South Africans has been of major significance in South African history until quite recently, and the historical animosity (to say the least) between both of these groups makes treating the South African white population as a homogeneous entity extremely misleading and incorrect.
However, in a new multiracial South Africa – and even before that – the old animosity between Afrikaner and English has abated rather significantly. Electorally, whites vote as a bloc, which was not the case under the whites-only democracy. A lot of Afrikaners have lost interest in the old nationalist mythology, imagining new forms of Afrikaner identity or finding common ground with the English on the basis of whiteness, white privilege and shared exposure to a perceived ‘common threat’ (majority rule, loss of political power). Nevertheless, an understanding of South African history would be woefully incomplete without an understanding of the diversity of the white population.
About three-fifths of white South Africans are Afrikaners. The Afrikaners are the descendants of European settlers from the Netherlands, France, Germany and Scandinavia which began to occupy the Cape area in the seventeenth century. The original colonial settlers in modern-day South Africa were Dutch, but as the Cape’s population grew, the colony attracted a more diverse population of Protestant settlers: German Protestants, Scandinavians and French Huguenots fleeing religious persecution in France. These different national groups gradually assimilated into a single European population, united by faith and language.
The Huguenot influence is perceptible in some place names or Afrikaner names: prominent South Africans of Huguenot descent include former Prime Minister Daniel François Malan, white nationalist leader Eugène Terre’Blanche, actress Charlize Theron, anti-apartheid cleric Beyers Naudé, former President FW de Klerk and rugby player Francois Pienaar.
It is also worth noting that the Afrikaner population is not ‘racially pure white’ as white supremacist liars pretend. In reality, in the early years of colonization there was significant interracial sexual relations, and up until apartheid, many poorer whites lived alongside Coloureds, blurring racial lines. Therefore, many ‘white Afrikaners’ tend to have some non-white ancestry: Indian slaves, Khoisan and even black.
Some fifty years after Jan van Riebeeck landed at the Cape in 1652, the white settler population had detached itself from its European roots – many of them were now second generation, born in Africa, and most developed an individualist and rebellious mindset. In 1706, a young Cape-born settler, Hendrik Bibault, refused to obey a judge’s instructions claiming that he was no longer Dutch but ‘Afrikaner’. Soon thereafter, individualist Afrikaner farmers – known as Boers (farmers) – left the original Cape colony to escape the strict rules of the Dutch East India Company (VOC), migrating eastwards into the dry open spaces of the Karoo.
After the British replaced the Dutch as colonial masters, an Afrikaner identity progressively crystallized itself. Traditional Dutch was still the language of the Afrikaner elites, while Afrikaans – a language born in the 1700s, diverging from Dutch with lexical and syntactical borrowings from Khoisan languages, Malay or Portuguese – was still negatively perceived as a bastardized dialect spoken by poorer whites and Coloureds. Nevertheless, some Afrikaner clergymen and intellectuals were starting to take interest in the promotion of Afrikaans as a language.
As a reaction to the British emancipation of the Khoisan and the abolition of slavery (1833), a group of Boers started migrating eastwards and northwards in the late 1830s and 1840s, a significant historical event known as the Great Trek. In the 1850s, they established two Boer Republics in the Orange Free State and the Transvaal. The voortrekkers who left the Cape Colony for the OFS and Transvaal were rugged individualists, nationalistic, anti-British, devoutly religious, rather poor, deeply attached to the land and passionate believers in white supremacy. In contrast, a significant Afrikaner population stayed behind, in the Cape; those tended to be more loyal to the British Crown (albeit nonetheless attached to their faith and language), wealthier, entrepreneurial and more urbane. There emerged an Afrikaner/Cape Dutch petite bourgeoisie made of affluent wheat and ostrich farmers, winemakers, clergymen, teachers, merchants and academics. The contrast between the Boers of the north (Transvaal and OFS) and the Cape Afrikaners played a significant role in Afrikaner politics well into the 1980s.
The Boer Republics were defeated by the British in the Second Boer War, a traumatic event in Afrikaner collective memory. After the Boer Wars, many poor Afrikaners lived a miserable existence either in the barren platteland or poor urban areas. Politically, as the next section will show, it was an era of Afrikaner disunity, marked by debates on the form of the South African state, the definition of Afrikanerdom and the attitude to be adopted vis-à-vis the English, blacks and Coloureds. Afrikaner nationalism, in its modern incarnation, was born in the late 1930s and won political power in 1948. Political power allowed the Afrikaners to finally attain relative economic and social equality with the English. Apartheid maintained a high degree of – but never total – Afrikaner unity – the fabled volkseenheid (unity of the Afrikaner volk), which broke down beginning in the late 1960s/early 1970s and which collapsed in the 1980s.
In a new, multiracial South Africa, Afrikaners have struggled to redefine their identity – torn between attachment to doctrinaire, traditional Afrikaner nationalism; identification with English whites or redefinition of Afrikaner identity free from the inconvenient shackles of apartheid and its ideology. Some Afrikaners, especially in business, adapted quite well to the new dispensation and made friends with the new black political elite. Others, however, have struggled. Having lost the preferential treatment they had under apartheid, white Afrikaners have feared the high levels of criminality (but despite common misconceptions, most victims of crime in South Africa are black), resented the government’s affirmative action policies and been highly critical of government corruption and mismanagement. Many whites emigrated after 1994, moving to Australia, New Zealand, the UK, the US or Canada (among other countries); however, there have been some reports of white South Africans moving back to the country in the last few years.
A certain group of activist Afrikaners have been at the forefront of movements to defend the Afrikaans language and Afrikaner rights and heritage in the face of what many see as a hostile government. While Afrikaans remains very much vibrant – and its relative position still more favourable than that of many Bantu languages – it has lost its place of choice as the second lingua franca at the expense of English. For example, Afrikaans’ presence on SABC public broadcasting has fallen and most government publications (laws, documents, reports) are available in full only in English rather than in both languages. At a more symbolic but highly significant and emotional level, the government has been controversially changing official place names from Afrikaans to Bantu languages. Pietersburg became Polokwane; Nelspruit became Mbombela; the name Transvaal disappeared from provincial names and Witbank became Emalahleni. The most controversial change has been the government’s decision to rename Pretoria’s metropolitan municipality as ‘Tshwane’, the Setswana word for the river running through Pretoria. The decision sparked an ongoing firestorm between the government and local residents – mostly whites; opponents of the name change consider the government’s move as an insult to their identity and denounced an ideological and antidemocratic decision by the government. For now, the name Pretoria has been retained for the historic city.
Afrikaans has influenced South African English. Afrikaans words such as braai (barbecue and also a term for the wider social outing surrounding BBQs), baas (boss), bakkie (pick-up trucks) or gatvol (angry or fed up) have integrated everyday English in South Africa; in the world, Afrikaans word such as apartheid, veld, trek, rand or laager have also integrated common English vocabulary.
The Afrikaners have developed their own culture, which has gone beyond traditional nationalist symbolism. There remains a fairly vibrant (or at least well developed) Afrikaner literature, film industry (South African-born Charlize Theron is the most well-known Afrikaner actress, but there is also a fairly important Afrikaans-language film industry in South Africa itself) and music; rugby remains the national sport for Afrikaners (and whites in general), and Afrikaner cuisine has influenced the country as a whole. Since 1994, a lot of Afrikaners have chosen to jettison some aspects of the nationalist mythology, but at the same time there remains strong attachment to the Afrikaans language and there has been cultural emphasis (largely through Afrikaans-language pop culture – music and cinema) on Afrikaner historical symbols (Bok van Blerk’s – controversial – hit De La Rey – in 2006) or nostalgia for the countryside (the platteland or an idyllic country life has been the theme of a lot of pop songs and some movies).
There has been significant debate for hundreds of years on the definition of the word ‘Afrikaner’. Although the term, which literally means ‘African’ in Afrikaans, was coined in 1707, the term Afrikaner became widely used only in the twentieth century. Similarly, the Afrikaans language gained its credentials beginning in the nineteenth century and became an official language only in 1925. There has been disagreement – in academia, politics or wider society – about whether ‘Afrikaner’ should include all Afrikaans-speakers regardless of race and whether it referred only to white Afrikaans-speakers. Earlier on, there was political disagreement about whether Afrikaners could only include Afrikaans-speakers or if it could include all (white) South Africans whose first loyalties were to South Africa (over Britain and the Empire). Today, for a variety of historical reasons, the term Afrikaner is understood to refer to white Afrikaans-speakers (or those who have integrated into the white Afrikaans-speaking community). Traditionally, white Afrikaners consider themselves to be ‘true South Africans’ (unlike, they claim, the English) whose home is Africa. Sometimes referred to as the ‘white tribe’ of Africa, some black politicians have also supported Afrikaners’ claims to be true South Africans – in 2008, incumbent President Jacob Zuma controversially said that the Afrikaners were the only ‘white tribe’ in Africa which was truly African and that ‘of all the white groups in South Africa’, only the Afrikaners were ‘truly South African’.
35% of white South Africans are English South Africans (for lack of a better term). In good part, the 35% of white South Africans who claim English as their home language are the descendants of British immigrants to South Africa. After Britain gained control of the Cape Colony, British authorities began encouraging immigration from the British Isles, which began in the 1820s; British immigration aimed to settle, pacify and fortify colonial borders against the black populations and to reduce the weight of the Afrikaner majority in the white settler population. Compared to British immigration to Australia, New Zealand or Canada, immigration to South Africa never really took off until the gold rush at the end of the nineteenth century. Even then, the English/British population in South Africa never constituted as large an element as in Oceania or Canada.
Until the 1960s, English South Africans – a minority within the white minority – formed the dominant elite in the bureaucracy and business. They gradually lost their economic and bureaucratic predominance under apartheid, but after South Africa became a republic, the apartheid government became friendlier with English capital and integrated the English population in a ‘common front’ of sorts united by whiteness. Today, English South Africans remain fairly well represented in the country’s business elite.
Generally, English South Africans have not forged a forge a common identity or strong local culture. Over the early twentieth century, many Afrikaners – especially the more doctrinaire nationalists – suspected the English of being loyal first and foremost to Britain and the Empire rather than to South Africa. Zuma’s comments in 2008 hinted at that same idea.
The white community in South Africa also includes fairly significant Portuguese, Greek and Jewish communities. Portuguese South Africans moved to South Africa either from Madeira or from the former Portuguese colonies of Mozambique and Angola following decolonization in Portuguese Africa in 1975. A wave of conservative white Portuguese settlers from Angola and Mozambique immigrated to apartheid South Africa, unwilling to return home after the Carnation Revolution. The Portuguese Observatório da Emigração estimates at 200,000 the number of Portuguese or Portuguese-descent people in South Africa and the Portuguese consulate had 71,513 people registered in 2012. There are between 45,000 (per the Greek foreign ministry) and 100,000 (per the South African foreign ministry) Greek South Africans. The first immigrants were manual workers or miners, working in industries or mining; a subsequent wave, after the 1920s, largely settled in trade.
The Jewish South African community is fairly small, numbering about 75,000 (0.2% of the population in 2001), but they have played a significant role in politics and business. Many Jewish South Africans originally came from Lithuania, the United Kingdom or Germany (fleeing Nazi rule); settling mainly in Cape Town or Johannesburg, and becoming fairly prominent in politics, business or culture. Although Israel was one of the apartheid government’s strongest foreign allies until the end, the Jewish community in South Africa played a significant role in the anti-apartheid movement. Early Afrikaner nationalist leaders tended to be anti-Semitic and a good number of them had experimented with national socialism during the Nazi period. Prominent Jewish opponents of apartheid included Joe Slovo, Ruth First, Helen Suzman and Harry Schwarz. In the 2001 Census, 1.5% of whites were Jewish (3.7% of English South Africans).
Religiously, per the 2001 Census, a plurality of whites (34.2%) belong to the Dutch Reformed churches, followed by 8.7% claiming no religion, 8.6% identifying with ‘other Christian churches’, 7.9% were Methodists and 6.6% were Catholics. There is a very clear split, however, between Afrikaners and non-Afrikaner whites. In 2001, a majority of Afrikaners – 55.4% – belonged to the Dutch Reformed Church (Nederduitse Gereformeerde Kerk, NGK), the largest of three Dutch Reformed (Calvinist) churches in the country (3% of Afrikaners identified with the Nederduits Hervormde Kerk, the second largest Reformed church). The NGK, the ‘official religion’ of the ruling party under apartheid, was one of the key actors in the formation and development of Afrikaner nationalism. Until 1986, the NGK supported and theologically justified apartheid. No religious denomination dominates with English-speakers: in 2001, the largest denomination was the Methodist Church with only 17.2%, followed by the Catholic Church (14.4%), no religion (13.7%), other Christian churches (11.2%) and the Anglican Church (10.8%).
Afrikaners form the largest white group in every province except KZN. Less than 10% of the whites in the Free State, the North West and the Northern Cape have English as their home language. In Limpopo and Mpumalanga, less than 15% of whites are Anglophones. Afrikaners predominate in Gauteng, the Western Cape and the Eastern Cape but there is a significant English population in all three: 36.9% in Gauteng, 40.3% in the Western Cape and 44.4% in the Eastern Cape. In contrast, in KZN, only 25% of whites have Afrikaans as their home language.
KZN – the former colony and province of Natal – was disputed between Boers and the British in the 1840s, but Natal became a British colony as early as 1843 and those whites who immigrated to Natal – there were never that many – were predominantly British or English-speaking. The white population in Durban, the most significant white concentration in KZN, is overwhelmingly English-speaking at 78.3%. Pietermaritzburg and the Natal coast (Hibiscus Coast) areas are English-speaking, but Afrikaners are in the majority in Ladysmith, Newcastle, Vryheid, Richards Bay and Dundee.
In the Eastern Cape, the former ‘homelands’ of the Ciskei and Transkei have insignificant (less than 1%) white populations although the few who are white are English-speaking. Historically, in the colonial era, the areas beyond the Great Fish River were a disputed territory fought between the Xhosa and the British. After the British subjugated the Xhosa rebellions, they encouraged a small number of English-speaking whites from the British Isles and Germany to settle the area. Most whites in East London, Grahamstown, Queenstown and King William’s Town are English-speaking – the place names are already a good indicator. Port Elizabeth – Nelson Mandela Bay Metro Municipality – has an English white population in Port Elizabeth proper, but the white population in Uitenhage is largely Afrikaner.
In Gauteng, the majority (65.9%) of whites in Joburg are English-speaking and there is a significant Anglo minority (40.2%) in Ekurhuleni MM. Pretoria, the ‘capital’ of Afrikanerdom, is overwhelmingly Afrikaner (77.4%) as are all other white populations in the province’s suburban municipalities – Carltonville, Vereeniging, Vanderbijlpark and Meyerton.
In the Western Cape, the city of Cape Town is closely split, with an English-speaking majority (52.8%) but a large Afrikaner minority (41.5%) – the white suburbs lining the Atlantic Ocean and the Southern Suburbs are Anglophone while Bellville is an Afrikaner area. English-speakers form the majority of the white population in the coastal resort towns of Knysna and Plettenberg Bay, but the rest of the WC’s whites – in rural and coastal areas – are Afrikaner.
Asians and Indians
Asians and/or Indians form the smallest racial group in South Africa, with a population of 1.29 million – 2.5% of the country’s population. The vast majority of the Asian population is Indian, hence why they are usually known as ‘Indians’. 58.8% of the Asian/Indian population lives in one province, KwaZulu-Natal; even more extreme, 44.6% of the entire Asian/Indian population in the country lives in a single municipality – Durban. 27.7% of the Asian population lives in Gauteng.
The first Indians came to South Africa as Dutch slaves, imported from Goa, Kerala or Bengal. The early Indian slave population in Dutch colonial South Africa is often forgotten; lacking an identity, they were classified as ‘Cape Malays’ or Cape Coloured. The modern Indian community, however, arrived as indentured labourers beginning in the 1860s. The British Natal Colony had large sugarcane plantations requiring a labour force; the British were unwilling to rely on the local Zulu population (who themselves were self-sufficient and had no reason to work on plantations), so they brought in indentured labourers from India to work on the sugarcane plantations. Over 50 years, about 150 thousand Indians were brought to work in Natal, also serving in the coal mines or the railroads. Most were Tamil or Telugu-speaking Hindus from the then Madras Presidency, while about 12% were Muslims from northern India. On plantations, Indian labourers worked in atrocious conditions akin to slavery and abuses were widespread. The British colonists and business elites in Natal did not take into account long-term Indian settlement in Natal.
After the era of indentured labour, some former labourers returned to India while other stayed – often workings on the railroads or as clerks. A large free Indian population, both Muslims (from Gujarat or Uttar Pradesh) and Hindus, also immigrated to Natal, often working as traders. Indian Muslims came to become the ‘trader elite’ within the Indian population in South Africa. While most stayed in Durban and Natal, smaller numbers moved to the Transvaal (the Rand) or the Cape. The arrival of these ‘passenger Indians’ created a class divide between richer, oftentimes Muslim, traders from northern India and poorer, oftentimes Hindu, freed indentured labourers from southern India. Whites came to resent Indian traders, hurling racial epithets such as ‘coolie’ at them.
Mahatma Gandhi lived for 21 years in South Africa (Durban) between 1893 and 1914, playing an important role in Natal Indian minority politics and activism. Indeed, by the time Gandhi was in South Africa, Indians were facing discrimination from Afrikaners in the Transvaal and OFS and from the British in Natal (less so in the Cape Colony). Racial discrimination continued during apartheid. Indeed, the apartheid government considered Indians to be ‘aliens’ who should be deported to India until they recognized them as permanent residents in 1961. Indians were banned from residing in the Orange Free State. Under the Group Areas Act (1950), the government forcibly moved Indians – about 40,000 families – to Indian townships, such as Lenasia in Joburg. However, the Indians were nonetheless in a more advantageous position vis-à-vis blacks. Today, Indians are the second wealthiest group behind whites, although many still live in poverty.
The vast majority of Indians – 85% – now speak English as their home language. While some may still understand Hindi, Urdu, Tamil, Telugu and so forth, English has become the first language of almost all Indian South Africans. However, Indian culture – Bollywood movies, Indian music – remain quite popular with Indian South Africans. Religiously, Indian South Africans are Hindu or Muslim, with a smaller Christian minority. In 2001, 47% of Indians were Hindu, 24.8% were Muslim and the rest were Christian or had no religion (2.1%). The majority of the Indian population in KZN is Hindu (55.8%) and only 14.8% are Muslim; in Gauteng and the WC, however, a plurality are Muslim – 46% in Gauteng and 65% in the WC.
There is a substantial Chinese South African population, estimated at around 350,000. The first Chinese immigrants arrived during the gold and diamond boom in the Witwatersrand and Kimberley at the end of the nineteenth century, but the colonial governments passed laws restricting Chinese immigration in the early 1900s. After the Boer War, between 1904 and 1911, the British contracted Chinese migrants to word in the mines in the Rand. The scheme was abandoned in the face of significant anti-Chinese sentiments in the local white population, and Chinese immigration remained minimal until the 1970s. In 1936, there were about 2,900 Chinese in the country, almost all of them in the Cape or Transvaal. Under apartheid, the Chinese faced discrimination, and were classified as Coloured or Asian, although the Asian group was understood to be for Indians. In the 1970s, the government attracted Taiwanese investors, offering generous incentives to wealthy businessmen who were willing to immigrate from Taiwan. These Taiwanese immigrants were treated, like the Japanese, as ‘honorary whites’, a status extended to all Chinese in 1984. In 2008, a High Court in Pretoria ruled that Chinese South Africans who were citizens prior to 1994 could qualify for affirmative action as ‘Coloureds’. More recent (post-1994) Chinese immigrants, however, will not benefit from this ruling.
For business and trade reasons, the apartheid government granted the small Japanese population the status of ‘honorary white’.
The next section will enter into far more extensive and thorough detail about the roles of each racial group in South Africa’s rich history, with a focus on the rise and fall of Afrikaner nationalism, the development of African nationalism and multiracial/nonracial nationalism.