58,558,270 inhabitants (2019).
There are 11 official languages in South Africa, including English, Afrikaans, Swati and Zulu, and many more belonging to the country’s numerous ethnic groups.
English is the language of everyday communication. However, Afrikaans is also widely practiced and used on signs.
A number of ethnic groups make up South Africa’s population. The Zulu (22.9%), Xhosa (16.5%), Sotho (17.4%) and the Tswana (7.8%), together alone total 64.6% of the population. Afrikaners, or Boers, who are descendants of Dutch settlers, represent 60% of the white population, while others are mainly of British origin, but also Portuguese and German. To this, 8.6% of mixed-race descent and 2.6% of Asian origin is added. Among the more recent immigrant populations are Jews, Indo-Mauritian, Arabs and Zanzibari.
The religious makeup of South Africa is predominantly comprised of: Christians (68%), Muslims (2%), Hindus (1.5%), and followers of indigenous beliefs (28.5%). The South Africans are practitioners and religious beliefs play an important role in public affairs.
27 April: Freedom Day.
- January 1: New Year's Day.
- March 21: Human Rights Day.
- March-April: Easter Good Friday and Easter Monday.
- April 22: Family Day.
- April 27: Freedom Day.
- May 1: Labour Day.
- 16 June: Youth Day.
- August 9: Women's Day.
- September 24: Heritage Day.
- December 16: Day of Reconciliation.
- December 25: Christmas.
- December 26: Day of Goodwill.
In 1488, the Portuguese navigator Bartolomeu Dias, sailed past the Good Hope Cape and onto Mozambique. It wasn’t until the mid-seventeenth century that the Dutch East India Company established a port in Cape Town – a colony was created and a few hundred men settled, at first making positive contact with the hunter-gatherer population, the Khoisan, who ran the country. French Protestants joined, where they began to plant vines. Agriculture called for labourers and slaves were brought in to work the land. 1706 saw the first uprising of settlers, Boers, against the administration – some of the population retreated into the hinterland (they became known as Trekboers). There were also repeated clashes with the indigenous people, the Khoisan, and with the Xhosa farmers, part of the Bantu ethnic group. In 1814, the colony was ceded to Britain and before long, it had extended. The gap widened between the Boer community and the English, with conflict about many things, including the status of indigenous communities and slaves.
The abolition of slavery in 1833 by the British administration caused the departure of several thousand Boer (Trekboers) farmers inland, in order to develop their own area of influence – this became known as The Great Trek. The Trekboers collided with the Zulu Empire on their intended territory and the Battle of Blood River was fought. Both sides suffered losses until the eventual victory of the Boer people who established their territory, called Natal. To the east of the Cape Colony, the English led several wars against the Xhosa and created the British Kaffraria in 1866, an administrative arm of the colony. Driven by the British, who annexed Natal, the Trekboers left and founded two new states, the Transvaal and Orange Free State. But British imperialism, ideological inflexibility and gold in the Transvaal area caused three Anglo-Boer wars from 1880, during which time the English introduced the era of concentration camps.
Under the treaty of Vereeniging in 1902, citizens of the Boer republics became British subjects. The leader of the resistance to this, President Paul Kruger of the Transvaal, died in exile and the day of his birth was a holiday until 1994. In 1910, the Union of South Africa was established ¬¬– a dominion which coordinated the various states. The area was completed with the annexation of German South West Africa. The African National Congress (ANC) was created in 1912 to fight for the rights and equality of black South Africans, who were persecuted and prevented from voting. Apartheid, the separation of different racial groups, specifically whites and blacks, was introduced in 1948. White supremacy spread across the nation and white and black populations developed separately. The Republic of South Africa was proclaimed in May 1961 when the country left the Commonwealth. Decades of apartheid followed, a policy that received international condemnation and much internal opposition. The political and economic isolation threatened the republic and in 1990, the release of Nelson Mandela, who had been imprisoned since 1962, paved the way for the eventual abolishment of apartheid laws in 1991. In multi-racial elections in 1994, Nelson Mandela was elected president.
The South African political system operates at two levels. The nine provinces each have a parliament and its own administration – they have the opportunity to adopt a particular constitution that it is compatible with the national constitution. At the national level, parliament has legislative power; it is composed of the National Assembly (400 seats; 5 year terms) and the National Council of Provinces (90 seats, 10 by province; 5 year terms). The president is elected by parliament and is both head of state and the government. The 1996 constitution is the fundamental law of the state. The African National Congress (ANC) has dominated political life since the end of apartheid, but solidly organised opposition parties make up a true democracy.
Famous South Africans
- Nelson Mandela (1918-2013). An icon of the anti-apartheid struggle and one of the world's most famous and respected head of states. As head of the African National Congress, Mandela presided over the dismantling of the apartheid regime and, as president, was able to rebuild national unity. A major political figure whose legacy lives on.
- Frederik de Klerk (born 1936). President of South Africa from 1989 to 1994 and Vice President from 1994 to 1996, de Klerk, along with Mandela, assisted in negotiating the end of the apartheid regime. He was jointly awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1993 alongside Madela.
- Myriam Makeba (1932-2008). A singer and activist born in Johannesburg known as ‘Mama Africa’, Makeba married the US leader of the Black Panther Party in the 60s and returned home to South African following Mandela’s release. A high-class singer, Makeba is known as one of the voices of black Africa.
- Johnny Clegg (1953-2019). A Grammy-nominated singer songwriter and anti-apartheid activist also known as the ‘white Zulu’. Clegg was from a Jewish family in Rhodesia who was part of a successful mixed-race music group, Juluka, during South Africa’s apartheid era.
- South African literature has a number of big names, including the novelist André Brink (1935-2015) and the poet Breyten Breytenbach (born 1939). Among them, it is the work of eclectic and passionate Doris Lessing (1919-2013) that was crowned the Nobel Prize in Literature in 2007.
- Desmond Tutu (born 1931). An Anglican Archbishop, anti-apartheid and human rights activist. Tutu is a moral figure who is famous across the world. Tutu won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1984 for his peaceful action against segregation.
- Christiaan Neethling Barnard (1922-2001). A doctor and cardiologist who, on 3 December 1967, performed the world’s first heart transplant on Louis Washkansky who survived 18 days following the operation, before dying of pneumonia.
South African’s are extremely friendly, welcoming and laid-back, with many similar cultural practices as in the western world. That said, there are many smaller indigenous groups with their own customs, so take the lead from your guide, and the people around you, with regards to best practices for each group. The central element of social life in South Africa is the braai, which means ‘barbecue’. It is found in every home, in every community and is a treasured ritual for people to talk, laugh and eat together. If you’re invited to a braai, don’t arrive empty handed – check first if you need to bring your own meat to cook, and also arrive with a small gift for your host.
Shopping in South Africa is a delightful expedition of the country’s beautiful crafts. Among the most popular items are beautiful decorated ostrich eggs, biltong – dried beef cut into slices either plain or spicy, traditional jewellery, technicolour beadwork items, leather bags, wood carvings and great value and amazing quality wine.
With such a multitude of ethnicities that reside in South Africa, many recipes have changed hands over the years and particular specialities of communities are fiercely preserved. The result is a national cuisine that’s rich, varied and strikes a fine balance between competing influences. Typical dishes include mieliepap, a simple staple in many South African households, which is a corn flour porridge served with meat sauce. Bobotie is a hearty curry with ground beef and an egg top. Waterblommetjiebredie is a stew made with lamb and vegetables. To these dishes, game must be added, including antelope, ostrich and more exotic options like crocodile. The climate lends itself well to outdoor feasts and South Africans have established a solid tradition of braai, or barbeque, to cook sausages, beef, pork and many other meats in a sociable, laid-back environment. The gastronomy in the country’s major cities is growing in scope and kudos rapidly, with many of South Africa’s finest restaurants at the top of their game.
Tap water is unsafe to drink, so rely on bottled during your stay and avoid ice. The third biggest wine producer in the world, South Africa knows its vino and the country’s vineyards benefit from an ideal climate and major expertise from its growers. Whether reds like cabernet, merlot and pinot noir are your thing, or if it’s whites like chardonnay, muscatel, Gewürztraminer that tickle your fancy, the wine produced here is some of the best. Rooibos tea is another major favourite among South Africans – a herbal, caffeine-free tea, also known as red bush, it is drunk by the gallon by most locals and has various health benefits that have made it a firm favourite among the international community.