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The People of South Africa

Martie Coetser is a freelance writer from South Africa. She has a keen interest in a variety of topics.

South Africa - The Rainbow Nation

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The People of South Africa

South Africa is a multi-racial country composed of eleven language groups. The country's Constitution, which is considered one of the best in the world, protects the diversity of languages and cultures. It also stresses that everyone is equal before the law.

Let me introduce you to the people of South Africa -

South Africa has eleven official languages -

South Africa's eleven official languages

South Africa's eleven official languages

Dominant language groups are to be found in specific regions -

Regions of dominant languages, South Africa

Regions of dominant languages, South Africa

South Africa: 17th Century

Before Europeans (via the Dutch East India Company) established a refreshment station at the Cape of Good Hope for ships traveling between Europe and India in April 1652, the most southern region of Africa was already the homeland of many distinct peoples.

Map of current South Africa with slapdash 17th-century territories

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The San and Khoi-Khoi People

In April 1652, Dutch settlers arrived in the southwestern corner of southern Africa where the San and Khoi-Khoi were already settled. They named the settlement The Cape of Good Hope, today known as Cape Town. Here they met two distinct indigenous peoples - the San and the Khoi-Khoi.

The San were nomadic groups of hunters and gatherers. Tools used by them, which were found across the entire southern Africa, date back to 44,000 BC.

'San' means 'people different from ourselves'. The name was given to them by the Khoi-Khoi people. The Dutch called this group 'Bushmen' - a name that became highly offensive as racism spread among the descendants of European settlers.

The Khoi-Khoi (pronounced: coo-coo) - settled about 2000 years ago in the region of Cape Town. Although their physical appearance was similar to the San, they had a different culture and a more complex social structure. They were pastoralists, raising and herding sheep, goats and cattle. The Dutch called this group 'The Hottentots' - the only word (series of sounds) they could recognize in the language of the Khoi-Khoi, which is composed of a variety of click consonants. Today also the name 'Hottentots' is considered derogatory.

Khoisan - Historians merged the names 'San' and 'Khoi-Khoi' into Khoisan (coo-san). According to evolutionary geneticist Pontus Skoglund, the Khoisan was the largest population on Earth at some point. The oldest mitochondrial haplogroup (L0d) has been identified at its highest frequencies in this group - a distinction that makes them one of fourteen known extant “ancestral population clusters” from which all known modern humans descended.

Afrikaans

The Khoisan adopted the new language, Afrikaans - a language that was originally called "Kitchen Dutch", as the Dutch spoken by the original settlers became larded with words spoken by Khoisan, Portuguese, Germans, French, and slaves from India (Malay), Angola, and Mozambique. Only in 1925, Afrikaans would be recognized as one of South Africa's official languages. Even today Afrikaans is the youngest language in the world.

Today only 82,000 Khoisans live in South Africa, Botswana and Namibia, most of them still the way they have lived before the arrival of Europeans.

Map of current South Africa with slapdash 17th-century territories

South Africa - Khoisan Territory

South Africa - Khoisan Territory

Listen to the sound of KhoeKhoegowab - a dialect of the Khoisan language

Republic of Cameroon

Republic of Cameroon

Indigenous Africans

Proto-Bantu is the common ancestral language of about 550 languages spoken in Africa. This language group originally developed in the region known today as the Republic of Cameroon.

The word bantu is rooted in the word ntu, which means people or humans. (Ntu is the sound that is made by the footsteps of a creature that walks with two legs.) The word ba refers to people.

NB: To use the word Bantu instead of African, or Bantus instead of Africans, is disrespectful. The term Bantu may only be used in its original context in reference to African languages. Dutch, British and eventually Afrikaners referred to all Africans as 'kaffirs' - a highly offensive name meaning 'heathens'. Today the use of offensive names are against the Law.

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Bantu Expansion

About 3000–4000 years ago groups of Proto-Bantu split off to begin what is hypothesized as the Bantu expansion. There were three groups.

  1. The Nguni language group (2a) developed in Central/Eastern Africa in the region of the Great Lakes.
  2. The Sotho-Tswana language group (2b) developed in Western Africa.
  3. The Venda and Tsonga group (7a) developed in Zimbabwe and Botswana.

Writing and reading were introduced to these peoples in the nineteen century, initially by British missionaries.

The amaXhosa

During the 14th century, the first Xhosa tribes originated from the Nguni language group settled in southern Africa. The word 'xhosa' is a Khoisan word meaning 'angry/fierce people'. Their language - isiXhosa - contains many "click" sounds, indicating interaction with the Khoisan for quite a period of time. Like the Khoi-Khoi, the Xhosa were stock and cattle farmers.

Today 16% of SA's population is amaXhosa speaking IsiXhosa.

Map of current South Africa with slapdash 17th-century territories

Xhosa territory, South Africa

Xhosa territory, South Africa

Listen to the sound of isiXhosa

The amaZulu

The amaZulu were originally a Nguni group formed by Zulu kaMalandela in ca.1709. They settled in the northern regions of today’s province, KwaZulu-Natal. Between 1816 and 1828, King Shaka amalgamated many small Nguni tribes into the mighty nation known today as the amaZulu. Cultivating land, raising stock, metalwork and training in warfare were everyday activities in the kingdom of the Zulus.

Today 22.7% of SA's population is amaZulu speaking isiZulu.

Map of current South Africa with slapdash 17th-century territories

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Listen to the sound of isiZulu

The emaSwati

Since ca.1750, a Nguni clan known as the emaSwati, also known as the bakaNgwane, settled south of the Limpopo River. The group was named after their king Mswati II who expanded his territory and unified the emaSwati between 1840 and 1868.

Although Swaziland achieved independence on September 6th, 1968, the majority of emaSwati live in South Africa to form a population of 2.5% siSwati-speaking people.

Map of current South Africa with slapdash 17th-century territories

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Listen to the sound of siSwati spoken by a citizen of Swaziland

Tsonga and Shangaan territory, South Africa

Tsonga and Shangaan territory, South Africa

The Shangaan-Tsonga Group

The first Xitsonga speaking people were traders traveling in boats on the Limpopo River and its tributaries, bartering cloth and beads for ivory, copper and salt. While the majority Vatsonga (Xitsonga-speaking people) lived in Mozambique, some of the smaller tribes were conquered by Soshangane during the Mfecane (Difaqane)- the period between 1815 and 1840 when widespread chaos and warfare occurred among indigenous ethnic communities in southern Africa. The word Tsonga is a transition of the word Rhonga, meaning dawn/east.

The amaShangaan came into being during the Mfecane (Difaqane) when King Shaka of the Zulus sent Manukosi, later named Soshangane, to conquer the Vatsonga in southern Mozambique. Manukosi decided to form his own tribe - the amaShangaan - including Xichangana, XiTsonga, isiZulu, siSwati, as well as isiXhosa-speaking people. They settled south of the Limpopo River. The word Shangaan is a Tsonga transition of the Nguni word Changana, meaning to destroy/invade/attack.

Today 4.5% of South Africans speak Xitsonga or Xichangana.

Map of current South Africa with slapdash 17th-century territories

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Listen to the sound of Xitsonga

Listen to sound of Xichangana

Venda People

It is not clear when the Vhavenda (or Vhangona) settled south of the Limpopo River, and if they were part of the Mapungubwe Kingdom, which existed between 1030 and 1290 AD. The word Venda means ‘land’, ‘country’ or ‘pleasant place’.

Today 2.4% South Africans speak Tshivenda.

Map of current South Africa with slapdash 17th-century territories

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Listen to the sound of Tshivenḓa

The Bapedi (Northern Sotho)

Nuclear groups of Sotho-Tswana speaking people co-existed in the north-eastern region of what would become South Africa. They identified themselves through their distinct totemic animals, such as tau (lion), kolobe (pig), kwena (crocodile), and noko (porcupine). By 1650 the group with the porcupine totem, the Maroteng, gained control over the region, hence the establishment of the Pedi paramountcy.

The Bapedi speak Sepedi and form 9.1% of South Africa's population.

Map of current South Africa with slapdash 17th-century territories

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Listen to the sound of sePedi

Ndebele

The amaNdebele, a Nguni language group, was named after their legendary King Ndebele. During the first half of the 1600s their King Musi led them inland, away from the coast and the Zulu's, to settle in the region known today as the province of Limpopo. Internal conflict divided the tribe into two - the Northern and Southern Ndebele.

The Southern Ndebele settled in the region today known as the Mpumalanga Province. They speak isiNdebele and form 2.1% of South Africa's population.

The Northern Ndebele adopted the language and culture of their Sotho and Tswana neighbours.

Map of current South Africa with slapdash 17th-century territories

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Listen to the sound of Isindebele/Sindebele (Northern Ndebeli)

Listen to the sound of Ndébélé (Southern Ndebeli)

The Basotho (Southern Sotho)

The Basotho were originally several clans of the Sotho-Tswana group that migrated from the western regions of Africa. Between 1818 and 1820 they were conquered and merged by Moshoeshoe I. Although Lesotho achieved independence in 1966, the majority of Basotho live and work in South Africa.

The language of the Basotho - Sesotho - was documented by the missioner Eugène Casalis between 1837 and 1855.

Today 7.6% of South Africans speak Sesotho.

Map of current South Africa with slapdash 17th-century territories

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Listen to the sound of Sesotho

The Batswana

Since about 1300 CE the Batswana lived as herders and farmers under tribal rule. By 1880 all major Batswana villages had a resident British missionary, hence the completion of Christianization in 1923. Botswana achieved independence in 1964. Today the majority Batswana live in the Northwest province of South Africa.

Setswana is the home language of 8% of South Africans.

Map of current South Africa with slapdash 17th-century territories

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Listen to the sound of Setswana

Afrikaans

As explained in the capsule about the Khoisan, Afrikaans was the new language that developed in the Cape of Good Hope. It evolved from Hollandic, also spelled Hollandish, which was, together with Brabatian, the most frequently used dialect of the Dutch language. Larded with words from other languages that were spoken in the Cape of Good Hope, Afrikaans was originally labelled 'Kitchen Dutch.' However, by the time the British took over in the beginning of the 1800's, everybody, including the Khoisan and Malay, spoke Afrikaans. Interesting is the fact that in 1815, Afrikaans, written with the Arabic alphabet, started to replace Malay as the language of instruction in Muslim schools. (Ref: Arabic Afrikaans.)

Afrikaans also became the home language of two new races that developed due to inter-racial relationships between whites and non-whites.

The Griqua People descended from inter relations between European men and Khoi-Khoi women. They speak a unique dialect of Afrikaans. Today, less than 100,000 Griquas live mainly in the Northern Cape Province.

The Cape Coloureds are a heterogeneous group with diverse ancestral links, including links in Xhosa, Malay, and in Africans from Madagascar and Angola. The Afrikaans dialect spoken by the Cape Coloureds is also unique. The majority of Cape-Coloureds live in the Western Cape Province.

Coloureds elsewhere in South Africa - As time went by, inter-racial relationships occurred between white and blacks all over South Africa, and between South Africans and immigrants from all over the world. Their distinct descendants are also known as Coloureds. (Keep in mind that inter-racial relationships and marriages were only prohibited during the Apartheids regime [1949-1985]). Some of the families in this group speak English.

Today, 13.5% South Africans, including Griquas and Coloureds, speak Afrikaans.

Afrikaans expansion

South Africa

South Africa

Trek to the north (1836-1838)

Groot Trek (1836-1838)

Groot Trek (1836-1838)

At present: Regions dominated by Afrikaans-speaking people

Afrikaans regions, South Africa

Afrikaans regions, South Africa

Listen to the sound of Afrikaans

English

The first British settlers arrived in 1820. They were mainly poor and unemployed victims of the Napoleonic wars. At first they lived in an Anglo-Saxon establishment named Albany, where they kept their distinctive culture in the predominantly Xhosa and Afrikaans-speaking Cape. Eventually the lack of agricultural experience led many to establish other settlements like Grahamstown, East London and Port Elizabeth, where they reverted to their trades.

A group of the initial British settlers moved to the land of the Zulus where King Shaka allowed them to stay in exchange for access to firearm technology.

After the discovery of diamonds in 1867, and gold (in 1886), English also became predominant in Kimberley and Johannesburg.

Today 9.6% South Africans, including Indians, speak English.

South Africa: English Expansion since 1808

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Indians

South African Indians are largely descending from indentured laborers brought to South Africa by the British during late 19th-century to work on sugar plantations in the province known today as KwaZulu-Natal. Today, most Indians live in KwaZulu-Natal, especially in Durban and Pietermaritzburg. However, being masters in retail, they own shops, factories, and houses all over the country. Only a minority still speaks some Indian languages such as Hindi, Gujarati, Marathi, and Odia.

Settlers from Asia

Chinese, Taiwanese, Japanese

The first Chinese to settle in South Africa were prisoners exiled from Batavia by the Dutch in 1660. Although Chinese immigration was banned under the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1904, over sixty-three thousand contracted miners were imported from China to work the mines of the Witwatersrand between 1904 and 1910. They were repatriated after 1910 due to strong White opposition to their presence. Under the Population Registration Act of 1950, Chinese South Africans were deemed "Asiatic", then "Coloured", and finally "Chinese". Like all non-Europeans, they suffered under the Group Areas Act of 1950.

From the late 1970's onward, Taiwanese and Hong Kong Chinese migrating to South Africa were exempt from many apartheid laws and regulations as they were seen as investors and referred to as "honorary whites", while South Africans of Chinese descent continued to be classified as Coloureds or Asians. In 1984, all South African Chinese, Taiwanese, and Japanese finally obtained the same official rights as Europeans.

Since 1994 Chinese immigrate to South Africa in large numbers, increasing the Chinese population in SA to ± 400,000 in 2015. Most Chinese live in SA's economic hubs: Johannesburg, Durban, Port-Elizabeth, and Cape Town.

Africa

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Immigrants from Africa

Legal as well as illegal immigration from African countries such as Nigeria, Angola, Somalia, Mozambique, and Zimbabwe, has multiplied since 1994. Immigrants from other countries in Africa are known as 'Foreign Nationals', shortened to 'Nationals'. In order to survive, these groups have to speak and understand English.

According to the 2016 community survey, 1,6-million foreign-born migrants represent 2.8% of South Africa’s population.