Race and ethnicity in South Africa (2023)

Race and ethnicity have been and still is at the heart of South African history, politics, society and economy since the European colonisation. South Africa remains a complex mix of different races, cultural identities, languages and ethnic bonds. During the colonial times, the Dutch East Indian introduced racial segregation. In 1795 the British took over the Cape of Good Hope, and they continue with racial segregation. The concept of race became a particularly explosive idea during colonization, as well as during the Apartheid period which begun in 1948. Race is defined as a social concept referring to a group of people who share distinct and similar physical characteristics.

During the apartheid period, the government introduced numerous legislations based on racial classification. For example, the legislative basis for racial classification during apartheid was the Population Registration Act No. 30 of 1950. This Act divided the South African population into three main racial groups: Whites, Natives (Blacks), Indians and Coloured people (people of mixed race). Race was used for political, social and economic purposes. Politically, White people had the rights to vote, access to state security and protection as well as representation in the National Assembly as compared to people. Economically, Whites had the privilege of having access to much more skilled and office jobs, and they had access to own the productive land and other means of productions.

The other apartheid legislations were the Group Areas Act of 1950and Prohibition of Mixed Marriages Act of 1949. The Group Areas Act put an end to diverse areas and determined where one lived according to race. Each race was allocated its own area, which was used in later years as a basis for forced removals. The Prohibition of Mixed Marriages Act of 1949 did not allow marriage between persons of different races, and the Immorality Act of 1950 made sexual relations with a person of a different race a criminal offence.

Similarly, the Reservation of Separate Amenities Act of 1953legalised the racial segregation of public services, premises and other amenities. For example, municipal grounds were reserved for a particular race, creating, among other things, separate beaches, buses, hospitals, schools and universities. Blacks were provided with services greatly inferior to those of Whites, and, to a lesser degree, to those of Indian and Coloured people. The Bantu Education Act of 1953legalised racial separation of education in South Africa. A separate system of education was crafted for Black South African students and it was designed to prepare Black people for lives as a labouring class. In 1959 separate universities were created for Black, Coloured and Indian people. Existing universities were not permitted to enrol new Black students.

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Before colonisation and apartheid in South Africa, the concept of ethnicity was rooted in the ideas of bonds in kinship, biology and ancestry. Ethnicity has been associated with the belief that ethnic groups are extended kinship networks that serve as basic dividing lines within societies, embracing groups differentiated by colour, language, religion and race. In South Africa, ethnicity involved more visible local communities, built on face to face signal of dialect, kinship, status, religion, cultural practices, and on the force of understanding and fear produced by rural isolation.

Ethnicityrefers to shared cultural practices, perspectives, and distinctions that set apart one group of people from another. The most common characteristics distinguishing various ethnic groups are ancestry, territorial possession, language, forms of dress, a sense of history and religion. These characteristics were the units of social, economic and political organisations and inter-communal relations. Ethnic differences are not inherited; they are learned. South Africa consists of different ethnic groups located in different rural homelands. They were peasants or self-providing groups and their economy was agriculture. Land was important to the reproduction of social and economic life.

During the colonial and apartheid periods, the Black population of South Africa was divided into major ethnic groups; namely Nguni people which consisted of: Zulu, Xhosa, Ndebele and Swazi, Sotho people which consisted of Northern Sotho (Bapedi), Southern Sotho (Basotho) and Tswana, Shangaan-Tsonga and Venda, as well as Coloured and Afrikaans. There were separate Bantustans for the Zulus, Xhosas, Sothos, Tswanas, Vendas, Pedis and Shangaans. In urban areas, Africans were housed in the urban townships on ethnic lines and received their schooling in ethnic schools. Indians, Coloureds and Africans were also allotted separate schools.

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The largest ethnic group in South Africa is the Zulu and the majority of them live in KwaZulu Natal Province and Gauteng Province. The second largest is the Xhosa group; they are located in the Eastern Cape Province and Western Cape Province. South African ethnic groups are also found across South Africa's boundaries in neighbouring countries. For example, Nguni-speaking Swazi people make up almost the entire population of Swaziland. At least 1.3 million Sesotho speakers live in Lesotho, and more than 1 million people in Botswana speak Tswana. Tsonga and related languages speakers live in Mozambique, and Venda is also spoken by several thousand people in Southern Zimbabwe.

One of the main characteristics of ethnicity is language. In South Africa, there are more than ten languages and others are grouped as Nguni and Sotho languages. IsiZulu, isiXhosa, siSwati and isiNdebele are Nguni languages. Sepedi (Northern Sotho), Sesotho (Southern Sotho) and Setswana (Tswana) are Sotho-Tswana languages. Venda and Tsonga are the other two official languages in South Africa. English and Afrikaans are also official languages spoken in South Africa.

The majority of the White population, about 60 percent is Afrikaans, with many of the remaining 40 percent being of British or European descent. The Coloured population has a mixed lineage, which often comprises the indigenous Khoisan people and White settlers. Most of the Coloured population live in the Northern and Western Cape Provinces, whilst the majority of the Indian population live in KwaZulu-Natal. The Afrikaner population is especially concentrated in the Gauteng and Free State Provinces.

The apartheid government ended in 1994 and was replaced by the Constitutional democracy. South Africa is a multi-racial democratic country which embraces its diversity. Symbolically, the image of the ‘Rainbow Nation’, made popular by Archbishop Desmond Tutuin 1994, is the most important symbols used to promote the ideology of a free, multiracial democratic society. Other symbols include the constitutional recognition of eleven official languages.

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The South African Constitutionprovides equal human, political and social rights to all individuals regardless of race, ethnicity or language. All adult South African citizens have the right to vote and hold office. Section 9.3 of the Bill of Rights in the Constitutionof the Republic of South Africa states that the “state may not unfairly discriminate directly or indirectly” on grounds includingrace, colour, ethnic or social origin, culture or language. a subsection of the same section further states that “discrimination on one or more of the grounds listed in subsection (3) is unfair unless it is established that the discrimination is fair” and sections of the Bill of Rights and the broader Constitution also states that ‘the nation’ is committed to ensuring redress for past racially discriminatory policies.


Henry Lever, H. (1982). Ethnicity in south African society, Humboldt Journal of Social Relations, Vol. 10, No. 1, Race & Ethnic Relations: Cross-Cultural Perspectives, pp. 239-253.|

Nengwekhulu, R, H. (1986). Race, Class and Ethnicity in South Africa, African Journal of Political Economy, Vol. 1, No. 1, Southern Africa in crisis, pp. 29-39.|

Ramutsindela, M, F. (1997). National identity in South Africa: the search for harmony, GeoJournal, Vol. 43, No. 1, pp. 99-110. |

World elections (n.d). Race, ethnicity and languages in South Africa. Available at: https://welections.wordpress.com/guide-to-the-2014-south-african-election/race-ethnicity-and-language-in-south-africa/[accessed on 17 March 2015]|

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South Africa Information, (1999/2015). South African Languages and Culture. Available at: https://www.sa-venues.com/sa_languages_and_culture.htm[accessed on 17 March 2015]

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What were the 4 races in South Africa? ›

From 1950 South Africans were classified on the basis of their 'race'. People were classified into one of four groups: 'native', 'coloured', 'Asian' or 'white'. By 1966, 11 million people had been classified under the Population Registration Act of 1950.

How many ethnicities are in South Africa? ›

This Act divided the South African population into three main racial groups: Whites, Natives (Blacks), Indians and Coloured people (people of mixed race). Race was used for political, social and economic purposes.

What are the main races in South Africa? ›

Three-fourths of the population are black Africans, including the Zulu, Xhosa, Sotho, and Tswana; nearly all of the remainder are of European or mixed or South Asian descent.

What race is South Africa? ›

Black South Africans make up around 81% of the total, coloured people 9%, whites 8% and Indians 3%. The country has the fourth-largest population in Africa – after Nigeria, Ethiopia and Egypt – and the 25th-largest in the world.

What is the most race in South Africa? ›

As of 2022, South Africa's population increased and counted approximately 60.6 million inhabitants in total, of which the majority (roughly 49.1 million) were Black Africans. Individuals with an Indian or Asian background formed the smallest population group, counting approximately 1.56 million people overall.

What is the largest ethnicity in South Africa? ›

The world's largest ethnic group is Han Chinese, with Mandarin being the world's most spoken language in terms of native speakers.

What are the three main ethnic groups in South Africa? ›

The People of South Africa

The black population of South Africa is divided into four major ethnic groups; namely Nguni (Zulu, Xhosa, Ndebele and Swazi), Sotho, Shangaan-Tsonga and Venda. There are numerous subgroups within these, of which the Zulu and Xhosa (two subgroups of the Nguni group) are the largest.

What are 5 examples of ethnic? ›

Definitions for Racial and Ethnic Categories
  • American Indian or Alaska Native. ...
  • Asian. ...
  • Black or African American. ...
  • Hispanic or Latino. ...
  • Native Hawaiian or Other Pacific Islander. ...
  • White.
8 Apr 2015

What's the difference between race and ethnicity? ›

Race refers to the concept of dividing people into groups on the basis of various sets of physical characteristics and the process of ascribing social meaning to those groups. Ethnicity describes the culture of people in a given geographic region, including their language, heritage, religion and customs.

What is my nationality if I was born in South Africa? ›

You automatically qualify for South African citizenship if: you are born in South Africa and at least one of your parents is a South African citizen or a SA permanent residency permit holder.

How much of South Africa is white? ›

According to Statistics South Africa, white South Africans make up 8.9% (Census 2011) of the total population in South Africa.
White pop. (2016)4,516,691
% province (2001)9.6
% province (2011)8.9
% province (2016)8.1
9 more columns

What are people from South Africa called? ›

Total population
c. 2.8–3.5 million
Regions with significant populations
South Africa2,710,461 (2011)
Namibia92,400 (2003)
14 more rows

Is South Africa the most white country in Africa? ›

The African country with the largest European descendant population both numerically and proportionally is South Africa, where White South Africans number 4.3 million people (7.7% of the population).

What is the biggest race in Africa? ›

Hausa. The Hausa are primarily located in West Africa in northwestern Nigeria and southern Niger but they are also found in Cameroon, Togo, Chad, Benin, Burkina Faso, and Ghana. They are notable because they are the largest ethnic group in Africa with a population of 78 million.

What are 10 different races? ›

  • 4.1 White and European Americans.
  • 4.2 Hispanic and Latino Americans.
  • 4.3 Black and African Americans.
  • 4.4 Asian Americans.
  • 4.5 American Indians and Alaska Natives.
  • 4.6 Native Hawaiians and other Pacific Islanders.
  • 4.7 Middle Easterners and North Africans.
  • 4.8 Two or more races. 4.8.1 Genetic admixture.

What is the smallest race in the world? ›

1. Timor-Leste — 155.47cm (5 feet 1.28 inches) People on the Southeast Asian island of Timor are an average 155.47cm (5 feet 1.28 inches) tall. The average Timorese man is 159.79cm (5 feet 2.90 inches) tall.

Is African an ethnicity? ›

The term African [origin] in the context of scientific writing on race and ethnicity usually refers to a person with African ancestral origins who self identifies or is identified by others as African, but usually excludes those residents of Africa of other ancestry, for example, Europeans and South Asians and ...

What is my ethnicity? ›

Ethnicity: Your ethnicity refers to your background heritage, culture, religion, ancestry or sometimes the country where you were born.

What are the 7 different races? ›

The Census Bureau defines race as a person's self-identification with one or more social groups. An individual can report as White, Black or African American, Asian, American Indian and Alaska Native, Native Hawaiian and Other Pacific Islander, or some other race. Survey respondents may report multiple races.

What do I put for race and ethnicity? ›

The minimum categories for data on race and ethnicity for Federal statistics, program administrative reporting, and civil rights compliance reporting are defined by OMB as follows:
  • American Indian or Alaska Native. ...
  • Asian. ...
  • Black or African American. ...
  • Hispanic or Latino. ...
  • Native Hawaiian or Other Pacific Islander. ...
  • White.

What are examples of race and ethnicity? ›

For example, people might identify their race as Aboriginal, African American or Black, Asian, European American or White, Native American, Native Hawaiian or Pacific Islander, Māori, or some other race. Ethnicity refers to shared cultural characteristics such as language, ancestry, practices, and beliefs.

What is my ethnicity if I am black? ›

Black or African American

Includes persons having origins in any of the Black racial groups of Africa, including Black Americans, Africans, Haitians, and residents of Caribbean Islands of African descent. African – Includes people from countries such as Ghana, Nigeria, Niger, Liberia, etc.

Can ethnicity and race be the same? ›

Race and ethnicity are often regarded as the same, but the social and biological sciences consider the concepts distinct. In general, people can adopt or deny ethnic affiliations more readily than racial ones, though different ethnicities have been folded into racial categories during different periods of history.

What is my ethnicity if I am white? ›

Since 1977, "white" in government data describes anyone "having origins in any of the original peoples" of Europe, the Middle East or North Africa.

Is nationality where you were born or ethnicity? ›

The word nationality refers to where you are born.

Is your country of birth your ethnicity? ›

Country of birth is the country in which a person was born. This is different to nationality which is the country or countries where a person can have a legal status, although they may not reside in that country. There are times when someone is not born in a country (for example, at sea).

What is my ethnicity if I was born in South America? ›

About Hispanic Origin

OMB defines "Hispanic or Latino" as a person of Cuban, Mexican, Puerto Rican, South or Central American, or other Spanish culture or origin regardless of race.

What are the 4 main races? ›

The world population can be divided into 4 major races, namely white/Caucasian, Mongoloid/Asian, Negroid/Black, and Australoid. This is based on a racial classification made by Carleton S. Coon in 1962.

What are the 4 race categories? ›

OMB requires five minimum categories: White, Black or African American, American Indian or Alaska Native, Asian, and Native Hawaiian or Other Pacific Islander.

What are the four parts of race? ›

RACE is an acronym that helps students remember which steps and in which order to write a constructed response.
  • R = Restate the Question.
  • A = Answer the Question.
  • C = Cite Text Evidence.
  • E = Explain What it Means.
  • A few notes…
  • Click here to take a peek!

Who were called the black in South Africa? ›

The system of apartheid divided the people and labelled them on the basis of their skin colour. The native people of South Africa are black in colour. They made up about three-fourth of the population and were called 'blacks'.

What is ethnicity and race? ›

Race refers to the concept of dividing people into groups on the basis of various sets of physical characteristics and the process of ascribing social meaning to those groups. Ethnicity describes the culture of people in a given geographic region, including their language, heritage, religion and customs.

What are the 7 races of people? ›

Categorizing Race and Ethnicity
  • White.
  • Black or African American.
  • American Indian or Alaska Native.
  • Asian.
  • Native Hawaiian or Other Pacific Islander.
4 Aug 2021

What are the 3 main race? ›

Using gene frequency data for 62 protein loci and 23 blood group loci, we studied the genetic relationship of the three major races of man, Caucasoid, Negroid, and Mongoloid. Genetic distance data indicate that Caucasoid and Mongoloid are somewhat closer to each other than to Negroid.

What are the 5 most common races? ›

Growing Diversity in America
  • White: 60.1% (Non-Hispanic)
  • Hispanic: 18.5%
  • Black: 12.2%
  • Asian: 5.6%
  • Multiple Races: 2.8%
  • American Indian/Alaska Native: 0.7%
  • Native Hawaiian/Other Pacific Islander: 0.2%
28 Dec 2020

What is race of a person? ›

Race is defined as “a category of humankind that shares certain distinctive physical traits.” The term ethnicities is more broadly defined as “large groups of people classed according to common racial, national, tribal, religious, linguistic, or cultural origin or background.”

What are the 5 components of ethnicity? ›

Ethnicity refers to the idea that one is a member of a particular cultural, national, or racial group that may share some of the following elements: culture, religion, race, language, or place of origin.

Who was the first race in South Africa? ›

The Khoisan were the first inhabitants of southern Africa and one of the earliest distinct groups of Homo sapiens, enduring centuries of gradual dispossession at the hands of every new wave of settlers, including the Bantu, whose descendants make up most of South Africa's black population today.

What is South Africa's true name? ›

South Africa, officially the Republic of South Africa (RSA), is the southernmost country in Africa.

What do you call a white South African? ›

The term "Afrikaner" (formerly sometimes in the forms Afrikaander or Afrikaaner, from the Dutch Africaander) presently denotes the politically, culturally and socially dominant and majority group among white South Africans, or the Afrikaans-speaking population of Dutch origin.


1. Race Ethnicity and Community the South African experience – Alan G Morris
2. Race & Ethnicity: Crash Course Sociology #34
3. Big Debate on Racism
(Big Debate South Africa)
4. Race and Ethnicity: Field Studies in Geography
5. South African Racism vs. American Racism - Between the Scenes | The Daily Show
(The Daily Show with Trevor Noah)
6. Masaman's 2021 Ethno-Racial Map of the World (Part 1: Africa)
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