South Africa has one of the world’s most complex ethnic patterns. Furthermore, legal separation of the racial communities was a cornerstone of government policy through most of the 20th century. This racial policy, often called apartheid but referred to in South African government circles as “separate development,” created and maintained one of the most rigidly segregated societies in the world.
South Africa is a nation of over 47 million people of diverse origins, cultures, languages, and beliefs. The last census was held in 2001 and the next will be in 2011. Statistics South Africa provided five racial categories by which people could classify themselves, the last of which, “unspecified/ other” drew negligible responses, and these results were omitted. The 2006 mid year estimated figures for the other categories were Black African at 79.5%, White at 9.2%, Coloured at 8.9%, and Indian or Asian at 2.5%. South Africa has a yearly population growth rate of −0.46%.
The black population includes a large number of peoples. The largest groups include the Zulu, Xhosa, Northern Sotho, Southern Sotho, Tswana, Shangana-Tsongo and Swazi.
The white population descends largely from colonial immigrants: Dutch, German, French Huguenot, and British. Culturally and linguistically, they are divided into the Afrikaners, who speak Afrikaans, and English-speaking groups, many of whom are descended from British immigrants. Many small communities that have immigrated over the last century retain the use of other languages. The white population is on the decrease due to a low birth rate and emigration; as a factor in their decision to emigrate, many cite the high crime rate and the government’s affirmative action policies. In the first decade after the ANC took power, a million whites emigrated.
The term “Coloured” is still largely used for the people of mixed race descended from slaves brought in from East and Central Africa, the indigenous Khoisan who lived in the Cape at the time, indigenous African Blacks, Whites (mostly the Dutch/Afrikaner and British settlers) as well as an admixture of Javanese, Malay, Indian, Malagasy and other European (such as Portuguese) and Asian blood (such as Burmese). The majority speak Afrikaans. Khoisan is a term used to describe two separate groups, physically similar in that they were light-skinned and small in stature. The Khoikhoi, who were called Hottentots by the Europeans, were pastoralists and were effectively annihilated; the San, called Bushmen by the Europeans, were hunter-gatherers. Within what is known as the Coloured community, more recent immigrants will also be found: Coloureds from the former Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe) and Namibia and immigrants of mixed descent from India and Burma (Anglo-Indians/Anglo-Burmese) who were welcomed to the Cape when India and Burma received their Independence.
The major part of the Asian population of the country is Indian in origin, many of them descended from indentured workers brought in the nineteenth century to work on the sugar plantations of the eastern coastal area then known as Natal. There is also a significant group of Chinese South Africans (approximately 100,000 individuals) and Vietnamese South Africans (approximately 50,000 individuals).
South Africa has 11 official languages, nine of which are indigenous—Zulu, Xhosa, Tswana, Sotho, Swazi, Venda, Ndebele, Pedi, and Tsonga. Many blacks also speak Afrikaans (the first language of about 60% of the whites and the majority of those of mixed race) or English (the first language of most of the rest of the non-blacks).
According to the 1996 National Census, the three most spoken first home languages are Zulu (9.2 million), Xhosa (7.2 million) and Afrikaans (5.8 million). The three most spoken second home languages are English (2.2 million), Afrikaans (1.1 million) and Zulu (0.5 million). The four most spoken home languages are Zulu (9.8 million), Xhosa (7.5 million), Afrikaans (6.9 million) and English (5.7 million). The 1996 census does not include information about languages spoken elsewhere than at home.
The country also recognizes eight non-official languages: Fanagalo, Khoe, Lobedu, Nama, Northern Ndebele, Phuthi, San and South African Sign Language. These non-official languages may be used in certain official uses in limited areas where it has been determined that these languages are prevalent. Nevertheless, their populations are not such that they require nationwide recognition.