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.
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.
|SOUTH AFRICA’S POPULATION: CENSUS 2011|
|Population group||Number||% of total|
|African||41 000 938||79.2%|
|White||4 586 838||8.9%|
|Coloured||4 615 401||8.9%|
|Indian/Asian||1 286 930||2.5%|
|TOTAL||51 770 560||100%|
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.
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.
|POPULATION BY PROVINCE 2011|
|Province||Population||% of total|
|Eastern Cape||6 562 053||12.7%|
|Free State||2 745 590||5.3%|
|Gauteng||12 272 263||23.7%|
|KwaZulu-Natal||10 267 300||19.8%|
|Limpopo||5 404 868||10.4%|
|Mpumalanga||4 039 939||7.8%|
|Northern Cape||1 145 861||2.2%|
|North West||3 509 953||6.8%|
|Western Cape||5 822 734||11.3%|
|TOTAL||51 770 560||100%|
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.
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.
- Sesotho sa Leboa
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%.
|SOUTH AFRICAN LANGUAGES – 2011|
|Language||Number of speakers*||% of total|
|Afrikaans||6 855 082||13.5%|
|English||4 892 623||9.6%|
|IsiNdebele||1 090 223||2.1%|
|IsiXhosa||8 154 258||16%|
|IsiZulu||11 587 374||22.7%|
|Sepedi||4 618 576||9.1%|
|Sesotho||3 849 563||7.6%|
|Setswana||4 067 248||8%|
|Sign language||234 655||0.5%|
|SiSwati||1 297 046||2.5%|
|Tshivenda||1 209 388||2.4%|
|Xitsonga||2 277 148||4.5%|
|TOTAL||50 961 443**||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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