The people of South Africa

People of South Africa
A sculpture in Port Elizabeth commemorating the long queues of South Africans, of all colours, who waited together to vote in the country’s first democratic elections of 1994. (Image: Brand South Africa)

• Statistics South Africa
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• Stats SA Distribution Section
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South Africa’s languages
South African English

Mary Alexander

South Africa is a nation of diversity, with nearly 52-million people and a wide variety of cultures, languages and religious beliefs.

According to Census 2011, the country’s population stands at 51.77-million, up from the census 2001 count of 44.8-million.

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

Sections in this article:

At a glance

According to Statistics South Africa’s Census 2011 data, 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 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%
Other 280 454 0.5%
TOTAL 51 770 560 100%

South African population groups

Population by province

Gauteng, South Africa’s economic powerhouse, is the most populous of the country’s provinces, although it is by far the smallest geographically. Some 12.3-million people live in the province, or 23.7% of the total.

It is followed by KwaZulu-Natal with 10.3 million (19.8%), 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 Free State with 2.75-million (5.3%).

Although the Northern Cape is the largest province, at almost a third of South Africa’s land area, it is an arid region with the smallest population – only 1.15-million people, or 2.2% of the total.

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%


Comparing census data from the three national drives held in 1996, 2001 and 2011, 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.

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.

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:

  • the 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 various colonial properties in the east, as well as elsewhere in 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, and a new wave of immigrant Chinese.


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, Sepedi, Sesotho, Setswana, siSwati, Tshivenda and 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%.

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%
Other 828 258 1.6%
TOTAL 50 961 443 100%


*Spoken as a home language.

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.