South Africa’s population

South Africa’s population reflects a nation of diversity, with over 56.5-million people and a wide variety of cultures, languages and religious beliefs.

The people of South Africa
A South African child wears his country’s flag on his face. (Image: Brand South Africa)

According to Census 2011 the country’s population is 51.77-million, up from the census 2001 count of 44.8-million. Statistics South Africa’s 2017 mid-year population estimate puts the total at 56.5-million people.

Africans are in the majority, making up 79.2% of the population. Coloured and white people each make up 8.9% of the total, and the Indian/Asian population 2.5%. The “other” population group makes up 0.5% of the total.

At a glance

According to Census 2011 data from Statistics South Africa, in 2011 the country’s population was 51 770 560, of which 26 581 769 (51.3%) were female and 25 188 791 (48.7%) were male.

Africans are in the majority at just over 41-million, making up 79.2% of the total population. The coloured population is 4 615 401 (8.9%), while there are 4 586 838 (8.9%) whites. The Indian/Asian population stands at 1 286 930 (2.5%). In 2011, “other” was included in the Census, and accounts for 280 454 or 0.5% of the total.

Population groupNumber% of total
African41 000 93879.2%
White4 586 8388.9%
Coloured4 615 4018.9%
Indian/Asian1 286 9302.5%
Other280 4540.5%
TOTAL51 770 560100%

Source: Statistics South Africa

There have been three official censuses since South Africa’s first democratic election in 1994, the first in 1996, the second in 2001, and the third conducted in October 2011. The population in 1996 was 40.6-million, increasing by 10.4% to 44.8-million in 2001. The population grew by 15.5%, or almost 7-million people, in the space of 10 years to reach a total of 51.7-million in 2011.

By province

The provinces of Gauteng and KwaZulu-Natal are the most populous, accounting for 42% of South Africa’s population:  12.3 million people (23,7%) live in Gauteng, while 10.3 million (19.8%) live in KwaZulu-Natal.

They are followed by the Eastern Cape with 6.56-million (12.7%), the Western Cape with 5.82-million (11.3%), Limpopo with 5.4-million (10.4%), Mpumalanga with 4.04-million (7.8%), North West with 3.51- million (6.8%), and the Free State with 2.75-million (5.3%).

The Northern Cape is the largest province, but it is an arid region with the smallest population – only 1.15-million people, or 2.2% of the total.

Map of population density in South Africa

ProvincePopulation% of total
Eastern Cape6 562 05312.7%
Free State2 745 5905.3%
Gauteng12 272 26323.7%
KwaZulu-Natal10 267 30019.8%
Limpopo5 404 86810.4%
Mpumalanga4 039 9397.8%
Northern Cape1 145 8612.2%
North West3 509 9536.8%
Western Cape5 822 73411.3%
TOTAL51 770 560100%

Source: Statistics South Africa

Comparing the three sets of census data, the provincial share of the total population has fallen in the Eastern Cape (from 15.1% in 1996 to 12.7% in 2011). The fastest growing province is the Western Cape, growing by 29% between 2006 and 2011. Gauteng’s population grew by 31% to 12.8-million people by 2011, up from 9.4- million a decade ago.

Around 1-million people have moved to Gauteng in the past decade, highlighting the flow of people from rural to urban areas. Only 56% of people living in Gauteng today were born there.

Population groups

The African population is made up of four broad groupings:

  • The Nguni, comprising the Zulu, Xhosa, Ndebele and Swazi people
  • The Sotho-Tswana, who include the Southern, Northern and Western Sotho (Tswana people)
  • The Tsonga
  • The Venda

White South Africans include:

  • Afrikaners, descendants of Dutch, German and French Huguenot who came to the country from the 17th century onwards.
  • English-speakers, descendants of settlers from the British Isles who came to the country from the late 18th century onwards.
  • Immigrants and descendents of immigrants from the rest of Europe, including Greeks, Portuguese, Eastern European Jews, Hungarians and Germans.

“Coloured” South Africans (the label is contentious) are a people of mixed lineage descended from slaves brought to the country from east and central Africa, the indigenous Khoisan who lived in the Cape at the time, indigenous Africans and whites. The majority speak Afrikaans.

Khoisan is a term used to describe two separate groups, physically similar in being light-skinned and small in stature. The Khoi, who were called Hottentots by the Europeans, were pastoralists and were effectively annihilated; the San, called Bushmen by the Europeans, were hunter-gatherers. A small San population still lives in South Africa.

The majority of South Africa’s Asian population is Indian in origin, many of them descended from indentured workers brought to work on the sugar plantations of what was then Natal in the 19th century. They are largely English-speaking, although many also retain the languages of their origins. There is also a significant group of Chinese South Africans.


South Africa is a multilingual country. Its Constitution recognises 11 official languages, to which it guarantees equal status. These are:

  • Afrikaans
  • English
  • isiNdebele
  • isiXhosa
  • isiZulu
  • Sesotho sa Leboa
  • Sesotho
  • Setswana
  • siSwati
  • Tshivenda
  • Xitsonga

Besides the official languages, scores of others – African, European, Asian and more – are spoken in South Africa, as the country lies at the crossroads of southern Africa.

According to the 2011 census, isiZulu is the most common home language is, spoken by just over 20% of the population. It is followed by isiXhosa at 16%, Afrikaans at 13.5%. and English and Setswana each at 8.2%.

The number of people who speak English as a first language has increased by more than 1-million, to 4.9-million people, or 9.6% of the population.

Sepedi is the home language of 9.1% of South Africans, followed by Setswana at 8%, Sesotho at 7.6%, and Xitsonga at 4.5%.

LanguageNumber of speakers*% of total
Afrikaans6 855 08213.5%
English4 892 6239.6%
IsiNdebele1 090 2232.1%
IsiXhosa8 154 25816%
IsiZulu11 587 37422.7%
Sepedi4 618 5769.1%
Sesotho3 849 5637.6%
Setswana4 067 2488%
Sign language234 6550.5%
SiSwati1 297 0462.5%
Tshivenda1 209 3882.4%
Xitsonga2 277 1484.5%
Other828 2581.6%
TOTAL50 961 443**100%

* Spoken as a home language

** Unspecified and not applicable excluded
Source: Statistics SA

Most South Africans are multilingual, able to speak more than one language. English- and Afrikaans-speaking people tend not to have much ability in indigenous languages, but are fairly fluent in each other’s language. A large number of South Africans speak English, which is ubiquitous in official and commercial public life. The country’s other lingua franca is isiZulu.

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