South Africa’s Incredible Ethnic Diversity, From Afrikaner To Zulu

South Africa is one of the most ethnically diverse countries in the world; its 51.77 million people come from dozens of ethnic groups, and the country has 11 official languages (plus hundreds of unofficial ones). The official census categories are quite broad and do not necessarily reflect all the ethnicities that make their home in South Africa: black Africans make up 76.4% of the population, whites 9.1%, coloured 8.9%, and Indian or Asian 2.5%, while 0.5% are “unspecified.” Here is a further breakdown of the most populous ethnic groups in South Africa, from Afrikaner to Zulu.


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Zulu – 28% of the black population

The majority of Zulu people live in KwaZulu-Natal. An estimated 77% of KZN’s population speaks Zulu as a first language. There is also a sizable Zulu minority in Mpumalanga (in eastern South Africa, north of KwaZulu-Natal, bordering Swaziland and Mozambique) making up 24% of the population, as well as in Gauteng province (19.5% of the population). Modern Zulu culture is heavily influenced by King Shaka Zulu’s kingdom, which established a dominant Zulu state and solidified its influence among the Northern Nguni people in the 1800s.

Xhosa – 20% of black population

While the Xhosa people include several different tribes and clans, the group is made up of those who speak Xhosa as their first language. The heartland of the Xhosa people is the Eastern Cape province, where they make up 77.6% of the population – a result of the independent homelands established in Transkei and the Ciskei during apartheid. When apartheid ended, many Xhosa made their way to Cape Town and the Western Cape, and the vast majority of the black population of Cape Town today is Xhosa.

Northern Sotho – 11% of black population

The Northern Sotho, identified as those who speak Sepedi or Northern Sotho as their mother tongue, includes all who live in the Limpopo region and speak the language. The Northern Sotho make up 52% of the Limpopo province population, and have significant minority populations in Mpumalanga (9%) and Gauteng (10.2%) as well.

Tswana – 9.7% of black population

The Tswana people extend beyond the national borders of South Africa into Botswana, but the majority of Setswana speakers have settled in the North West and Northern Cape provinces in South Africa. As the Tswana homeland during apartheid was largely confined to Bophuthatswana, mostly located in the North West Province, they maintain a 62% majority in that area. There is also a significant Tswana population in Gauteng, where they make up 9% of the population.

Basotho/Southern Sotho – 9.5% of black population

The Basotho people extend out of South Africa into Lesotho, but the bulk of the population lives in Free State in South Africa (62.6%). In Free State, many Basotho live in the western region around major cities such as Bloemfontein, Welkom, Sasolburg, Bethlehem, and Kroonstad. A sizable minority of Basotho also live in Gauteng, accounting for 11.4% of its population.

Tsonga – 5.5% of black population

Though more Tsonga people live in neighboring Mozambique than in South Africa, the present-day population in South Africa is split between Limpopo, where they make up 16.3% of the provincial population, and Mpumalanga (10.8%). This coincides with the former Tsonga homeland during apartheid, known as Gazankulu, which spread across the two provinces.

Swazi – 3.1% of black population

Almost equal numbers of Swazi live in South Africa and Swaziland (1.3 million and 1.185 million, respectively). In South Africa, they are mostly concentrated in Mpumalanga, making up 27.4% of the provincial population. A small minority of Swazis live in Gauteng (1.1%).

Venda – 2.9% of black population

The Venda people make up 16.5% of the Limpopo province, but many also live across the border in neighboring Zimbabwe. In fact, the Tshivenda language shares many grammatical similarities with Shona, the predominant language in Zimbabwe. The Venda apartheid homeland was largely located within Limpopo, and the majority of the people remain in that region today.

Southern Ndebele – 2.6% of black population

The smallest black ethnic group is the Southern Ndebele, most of whom are concentrated in the former KwaNdebele homeland within the Mpumalanga province. There, they make up 10% of the provincial population.

Coloured – 8.9% of entire population

The South African ethnic group known as Coloured is the largest minority racial group with more than 4.62 million people. It is extremely diverse. Coloured people are heterogeneous and often described as “mixed-race.” The mixed lineage of Coloured people comes from slaves brought to the country from East and Central Africa, the indigenous Khoisan people (South Africa’s earliest inhabitants), indigenous Africans, Indian and Southeast Asian immigrants, and whites (mainly Europeans – Dutch and English for the most part).

Afrikaner – 60% of the white population

White South Africans make up 8.9% of the country’s population. The majority — 60% — are considered Afrikaners, descendants of European settlers from the Netherlands, France, Germany and Scandinavia. The largest influence is Dutch. The Dutch were the earliest and most populous group of white settlers in South Africa, but other groups fleeing religious persecution in France also moved to the country, contributing their influences as well.

English South Africans – 35% of white population

The majority of white South Africans who speak English as their first language can claim British ancestry. Britain gained control of the Cape Colony in the 1820s and encouraged immigration. Though British immigration to South Africa did not take off until the late 1800s with the gold rush, the small English-speaking minority still wields impressive influence in the country, especially among the business elite.

Indians – majority of Asian/Indian population

The Asian/Indian ethnic group is the smallest in South Africa, making up 2.5% of the country’s population. 58.8% live in KwaZulu-Natal province and are concentrated in Durban in particular, where 44.6% of the Asian/Indian population lives. The vast majority trace their ancestry to India. Indians first began arriving in South Africa as indentured workers/slaves imported by the Dutch. At the time, they were labeled as Cape Malays or Cape Coloured, further blurring the distinctions between Indians and Coloureds during apartheid.

Related content on AFKTravel:

10 Things You Didn’t Know About Traditional Zulu Culture
10 Things You Didn’t Know About Post-Apartheid Coloured Culture
10 Things You Didn’t Know About The Xhosa Language

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  1. Maria Zol
    Maria Zol
    May 31, 2016

    Maybe next time it be interesting to read about Australia and America since European seem too love settling and ruling...

    Maybe next time it be interesting to read about Australia and America since European seem too love settling and ruling other people country.

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