South Africa has one of the most diverse populations in the world with 51.77 million people — up from 44.8 million in 2001 — according to the last census, taken in 2011. It helps to know who they are if you’re thinking about doing business there. The categories for the census are as follows: black Africans (76.4 percent), whites (9.1 percent), coloured (8.9 percent), Indian or Asian (2.5 percent), and other or unspecified (0.5 percent). Here are 12 of the most populous ethnic groups in South Africa, based on the most recent census.
Sources: WElections.Wordpress.com, SouthAfrica.info, NationsEncyclopedia.com
The majority of the Zulu people live in KwaZulu-Natal. An estimated 77 percent of the province’s population speaks Zulu as their first language. There is also a sizable Zulu minority in Mpumalanga — Eastern South Africa north of KwaZulu-Natal bordering Swaziland and Mozambique — making up 24 percent of the population, as well as in the Witwatersrand in Gauteng province (19.5 percent of the population). Modern Zulu culture is heavily influenced by King Shaka Zulu’s Zulu Kingdom, which established a dominant Zulu state and solidified its influence among the Northern Nguni people.
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 percent 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.
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 percent of the Limpopo province population, and have significant minority populations in Mpumalanga (9 percent) and Gauteng (10.2 percent) as well.
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-percent majority in that area. There is also a significant Tswana population in Gauteng, where they make up 9 percent of the population.
The Basotho people extend out of South Africa into Lesotho, but the bulk of the population lives in the Free State in South Africa (62.6 percent). In the 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 percent of its 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 percent of the provincial population, and Mpumalanga (10.8 percent). This coincides with the former Tsonga homeland during apartheid, known as Gazankulu, which spread across the two provinces.
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 percent of the provincial population. A small minority of Swazis live in Gauteng (1.1 percent).
The Venda people make up 16.5 percent 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.
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 percent of the provincial 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).
White South Africans make up 8.9 percent of the country’s population. The majority — 60m percent — 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 white settlers in South Africa, but other groups fleeing religious persecution in France also moved to the country, contributing their influences as well.
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.
The Asian/Indian ethnic group is the smallest in South Africa, making up 2.5 percent of the country’s population. The vast majority trace their ancestry to India with 58.8 percent living in the KwaZulu-Natal. They are concentrated in Durban in particular, where 44.6 percent of the Asian/Indian population lives. Indians first began arriving in South Africa after being imported as indentured workers/slaves 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.
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