The People and Language of South Africa

The People and Language of South Africa

South Africa has one of the most diverse ethnic populations in the world. Of the eleven major languages spoken on the subcontinent, only perhaps English is the dominant one. In 1996 population was estimated around 42 million. Of the 4 major population groups, black people number 32 million, whites nearly 5 million, the "coloured" community 3 - 4 million and those of Asian origin just under a million.


The popualtion has always been heterogeneous. The whites are mainly descendants of Dutch, British, French and German settlers. The Cape in the early days was a melting pot of racial strains; and the so-called coloureds have a rich mixture of genes drawn maily from Africa and Europe. The Indian population originated in 1860 when labourers were imported to work on sugar plantations.

The Khoisan

The aboriginal Khoisan peoples once had the subcontinent to themselves. The San (Bushmen) lived in the interior and the Khoikhoi (Hottentots) preferred the coast.

Both these peoples stemmed from a culture of the later Stone Age, dating back more than 30,000 years. Khoikhoi and San spoke similar languages, rich in click sounds.

The San: Unlike thier coastal cousins (the Khoikhoi or Hottentots), these nomadic people never took to agriculture or hearding. To the day the surviving San live in small bands as hunter-gatherers.

San art has become world famous, and can be seen in caves and rock overhangs as well as engraved on rock faces near rivers. The finest examples are located in the mountains in the N.E. Cape and KwaZulu-Natal Drakensberg. This amazing gallery accumulated works of art for 20,000 years until the San were threatened by the white colonists from the south and the black migrants from the north.

The San were outnumbered, and the majority of those who survived the conquest or integration fled north-west to seek refuge in present day Botswana and Namibia, where they now number approximately 20,000.

The Khoikhoi: Initially the Khoikhoi peoples were dispersed along the Orange River and the coastal plain in the south and south-west. These were sheep and cattle keeping nomads. In the beginning the Khoikhoi traded with the Dutch, swapping cattle for tobacco. They also served as go-betweens in negotiations with black tribes. Although the Khoikhoi were never enslaved, they suffered considerable exploitation as a source of cheap labour. Imported deseases and colonial expansion also added to thier demise. Some survivors trekked to the interior and were absorbed by black tribes. Those who remained behind added thier genes to the rich blend that was to become the coloured population.

There are no "pure" Khoikhoi left today, only distant relatives in the form of the Gqunukwebe, the Cape Nguni and the Nama.

The Bantu

A number of Bantu-speaking peoples migrated from the north and occupied the coastal regions in the south-east and east more than 2,000 years ago. There are four broad ethnic groups: Nguni, Sotho, Shangaan-Tsonga and Venda. The first two have a combined population of about 23 million.

The Nguni: There are 3 main black language groups classified as Ngunu: Zulu, Xhosa and Ndebele. Each group can be further sub-divided into smaller groups and local dialects.

Zulu: there are almost 8 million Zulus in South Africa. Thier ancestral homeland is in KwaZulu-Natal monarch King Goodwill Zwelithini heads a hierarchy of tribal chiefs and headmen.

Xhosa: three million people speak Xhosa, including the Xhosa, Pondo, Pondomise amongst others. Xhosa is subdivided into many dialects. Xhosa was the name of the founding father of the group who lived some 500 years ago. Diverse Nguni tribes adopted the Xhosa label after thier migration from north-eastern Africa.

South Ndebele: the northern branch of this people has been absorbed by the Sotho but the South Ndebele still preserve ab identity in what was central Transvaal. This group includes the Mapoch (or the Manala) and the Ndundza peoples.

The Sotho: Eight million Sotho speakers can be divided broadly into the North Sotho, the South Sotho and the Tswana.
The North Sotho are based in the Northern Province, and groups include the Pedi, Pulana, Pai, Kutswe, amongst others.
The South Sotho comprises the Phokeng, Tlokwa, Kwena, Phetla, Phuti and Pulana groups. The South Sotho live in the kingdom of Lethoto and the Free State.

In South Africa the Tswanas live in the North West province and Gauteng. They are ethnically the same as the population of Botswana. The tribe was cut in half by a colonial border between the Transvall and Botswana, then known as Bechuanaland.

The White South Africans

Afrikaans speakers: approximately 58 % of whites are Afrikaans-speaking, having been in the country for fifteen generations. Afrikaans is also the mother tongue of the coloured community.
Afrikaners are basically of Dutch descent but many have French names derived from the Hugenot refugees of the 17th century. 3.8 % of the population are of other genetic and cultural elements derived from German, Scottish, English and Portugese sources.

English speakers: Approximately 39 % of the 5 million whites in South Africa use English as thier mother tongue.
The first British occupation of the Cape in 1795 established a small English-speaking community, which was boosted in 1820 by the arrival of the settlers brought in to create a buffer zone on the eastern frontier. The discovery of mineral wealth in the mid-19th century brought many more English speakers to the interior and there was a large-scale immigration from Europe following the Second World War.

Other: There is a Portugese-speaking community of more than 500,000 which was boosted by the collapse of Portugal's colonies in Angola and Mozambique. There are also immigrants from many European countries, including Holland, Germany, France, Belgium, etc. The Chinese have become a small group of growing importance, and a prominent Jewish community has made an impact on all spheres of South African life.

The "Coloured" people

The coloureds are the third largest population group in the coutry. The live primarily in the Western Cape and subcultures exist within broad groupings: Cape Coloureds, Griquas and Cape Malays.

The dominant Cape Coloureds are descended from several races - white, Khoisan, East Indian and Bantu. Approximately fifty percent still live in the Western Cape.

The Griquas, who have a strong sense of identity, live in the Northern Cape and are descended from khoikhoi and white ancestors who met 200 years ago.

The Cape Malay have Indian, Arab, Malagasy, Chinese and Malay blood, being the descendants of slaves owned by the Dutch East Inda Company. The Cape Malays are held together by thier religion, Islam, and for the most part live in the Western Cape area.

Coloureds were traditionally fishermen, farm labourers and servants. Today, many still live on farms and in rural settlements, but a large number of this vibrant community have begun to take thier rightful places in politics, commerce, industry, education and arts. Coloured folklore and music is a bright strand woven into the cultural tapestry of South Africa.

The Asian community

Brought to Natal as indentured labour for the sugar plantaions, the first Indians arrived in South Africa in 1860. At the end of that period of service, they could opt for repatriation or be settled on the land. KwaZulu-Natal remains an Indian stronghold but there are important communites in urban centers throughout South Africa.

Hindus make up 70% of the population, with twenty two per cent Muslims and a small percentage of Christians and Buddhists.
Hindus are divided into four language groups; Tamil, Telegu, Hindi and Gujarati; while Muslims tend to speak Gujarati and Urdu. Almost all Indians can speak English, while 14% speak the other languages at home.


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