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 1950 and 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 1953 legalised 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 1953 legalised 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.


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.

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 Tutu in 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.

The South African Constitution provides 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 Constitution of the Republic of South Africa states that the “state may not unfairly discriminate directly or indirectly” on grounds including race, 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]|

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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