Ethnic Groups of South Africa

South Africans cheer at a World Cup game in Johannesburg. Editorial credit: fstockfoto /
South Africans cheer at a World Cup game in Johannesburg. Editorial credit: fstockfoto /

South Africa is the 24th most populated country in the world and as such, has quite a diverse group of people living within its borders. The residents speak a wide variety of languages and practice just as many religions. This country also has a long history of racial segregation and inequality even though discriminatory laws were abolished during the late 1990’s. Today, the government is made up of people from all ethnic groups. Those groups are discussed below.

Black South Africans

An estimated 80.48% of the population self-identifies as black South African making this the most populous ethnic group in the country. The group itself is made up of many different indigenous African groups that speak Bantu languages. Traditionally, black South Africans lived in rural areas and practiced subsistence farming and hunting. During the apartheid era, disagreements among all ethnic groups (including the different black ethnicities) were pronounced, and tensions were high. Although black South Africans were, and continue to be, the majority, they lost social equality and political power to the white minority group (discussed below). Apartheid ended in the late 1990’s, however, the structural violence of those policies continues to influence the country.

Coloured South Africans

The coloured ethnic group makes up 8.79% of the population and consists of people of multi-ethnic descents. Some common ethnicities include black, white, Chinese, and Malay. This group of people resisted the apartheid movement prior to its establishment, and their human rights varied based on their location. Some areas afforded them nearly equal status as whites and in other areas, they had very few rights. The government forced their relocation which can be seen today in heavy distribution along the southernmost tip of the country. During apartheid, coloured individuals were forced to vote for four white representatives. In protest, many refused to register to vote. After 1963, they were given controlled participation in government positions.

White South Africans

The first European settlers began to arrive in South Africa in 1488; the first settlement was founded in 1652 by the Dutch East India Company. This ethnic group has a Dutch, French, German, and English ancestors. Around 61% of them are called Afrikaners and speak Afrikaans, which has its roots in the Dutch language. Another 36% speak English. They account for just over 8% of the entire South African population. Although this group is a minority, they held complete political control for many years before 1994 during a regime known as apartheid which promoted racial segregation and unequal rights among other ethnic groups.

Indian and Other Asian South Africans

The Indian ethnic groups began to grow in the 19th century when they came to South Africa as indentured servants to work in the sugar plantations. They now make up about 2.48% of the population. Post-apartheid has seen an increase in Indian immigrants coming to the country and are the majority of this group with a population of approximately 1 million. The Chinese ethnic group began arriving in the late 19th century to work in the gold mines. During apartheid, the Chinese were racially classified as colored and not given freedom to participate in public services like government and education. In 2006, they filed a court case to be considered as disadvantaged under apartheid to take advantage of the Black Economic Empowerment program. The issue was complicated by the presence of many new Chinese immigrants (who outnumber native Chinese South Africans). In 2008, they were granted the status. Other Asian ethnic individuals (like South Korean, Japanese, and Taiwanese) were given “honorary white status” upon their arrival and enjoyed the same privileges as white South Africans.

Ethnic Makeup Of South Africa

RankEthnic GroupPopulation% of Population
1Black African44,227,99580.5
2Coloured 4,832,9168.8
4Indian or Other Asian1,362,0022.5

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