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  • Main languages: English, Afrikaans, Zulu, Xhosa, Northern Sotho, Southern Sotho, Tswana, Shangaan, Ndebele, Swazi, Venda (all eleven of these languages are official)

    Main religions: Christianity, indigenous beliefs, Hinduism, Islam, Judaism

    Population groups include Black African 50.4 million (81.4 per cent), Whites 4.5 million (7.3 per cent), Coloured 5.05 million (8.2 per cent), Indian/Asian 1.6 million (2.7 per cent), Other 0.24 million (0.4 per cent), to form a total of 62.03 million (rounded to the nearest hundred thousand) (Data: 2022 census).

    Black South Africans, defined as those whose mother tongue is an African language, comprise over three-quarters of the population of the country and share the common experience of the gross disruptions and abuses of white domination and apartheid – notably their wholesale incorporation into a migrant labour system combined with banishment for most to overcrowded and unproductive ‘homelands’. Linguistic and tribal divisions have been of less significance.

    The first settlers, from the mid-seventeenth century onwards, were primarily from Holland and France, later followed by British, Eastern European Jews, southern Europeans, as well as whites arriving from Angola, Mozambique and Zimbabwe. Afrikaners, defined as those considering themselves white and speaking Afrikaans, a derivative of Dutch, still comprise the majority of the white population.

    Perhaps five to ten million immigrants—estimates vary greatly—are currently living illegally in South Africa. The great majority are from other African countries, particularly Democratic Republic of Congo and Zimbabwe but increasingly from all parts of the continent.

    The indigenous peoples of South Africa, comprising San and Khoekhoe, are collectively referred to as the Khoe-San. Khomani San primarily live in Platfontein, Kimberley; Khoehoe live in the Northern Cape Province; Koranna live in Kimberley and Free State provinces; and the Cape Khoekhoe live in the Western Cape and Easter Cape. South Africa does not have formal legislation on indigenous people’s rights and data on their population is not collected through the census. It also has yet to ratify ILO Convention 169 on Indigenous and Tribal Peoples.

  • Land rights, long a source of discrimination under colonial and apartheid rule, remain a contested issue for the country’s indigenous peoples. The large majority of the country’s land is still owned by white South Africans, who make up less than 10 per cent of the population.

    Khoisan peoples were dispossessed of much of their ancestral lands during colonial rule, particularly as a result of the 1913 Natives Land Act, which allocated only 7 per cent of arable land to the indigenous populations while prohibiting land sales between geographical divisions of blacks and whites. While the post-apartheid government passed the Restitution of Land Rights Amendment Act to allow descendants of Khoisan communities that were forcibly dispossessed to claim back their lands, the 1913 Natives Land Act was used as the cut-off date for valid claims – yet community members argued that a large portion of their land was forcibly taken before then. Furthermore, the claims period initially closed on 31 December 1998, when many Khoisan communities were still unaware of the process or the deadline to lodge their claims. The claims process was then reopened in 2014 for an additional five years to allow for compensation of claims that were not filed before the 1998 deadline. Claimants now have until 2019 to seek compensation, but many of the claims lodged thus far have been settled monetarily rather than by land restitution. For the Khoisan peoples, of course, financial compensation alone would not address the drastic erosion of their cultures caused by dispossession, given that their cultural and spiritual practices and knowledge are so interconnected with their lands.

    South African society continues to be strongly defined along racial lines, with those stigmatized during the country’s apartheid era still suffering the effects of marginalization today. Though average incomes have increased, official data shows that white households still earn almost three times more than the average coloured household and more than five times that of the average black household. One of the biggest factors that continues to affect the socio-economic status of non-white communities in South Africa is that the desegregation has yet to reach the entire education system. Only 4.8 per cent of black and 3.1 per cent of coloured South Africans between 18 and 29 are enrolled in higher education, compared to 13.1 per cent of Indian and 23.3 per cent of white South Africans of the same age group.

    Since the end of apartheid, some of the old structures of white-dominated towns and black-dominated townships on the outskirts of those towns have somewhat broken up. Nonetheless, subsequent surveys suggest that a large proportion of the urban black population is still concentrated in these townships on the urban periphery, where issues such as unemployment, violence and sexual assault are still evident. Despite attempts to counter the ghettoization of these areas – for example, through government investment in public transport in townships – spatial segregation persists. While middle-class blacks have migrated in recent years to formerly white neighborhoods, the majority of the country’s black urban poor remain in the townships. Though explicit exclusion of blacks is rare and South Africa’s social division is now in many ways informed by class, the disproportionate poverty levels among the black population mean that in practice this separation still has strong racial dimensions. In Cape Town, for example, reports suggest that many of the city’s black population still feel excluded and unwelcome in the centre and other upmarket neighborhoods.

    Despite the South African Constitution recognizing 11 official languages, those of the Khoi and San are not included. However, the Constitution does require the Pan South African Language Board to promote the 11 official languages as well as Khoi, Nama, and San languages, though there is disagreement on how effective this has been: in October 2016, the UN Special Rapporteur on the Rights of the Child recommended that the government take effective steps towards providing bilingual education to indigenous children. In the Western Cape province, Khoi have begun offering informal classes in the Khoekhoegoewab language.

    But while there has been increasing recognition in recent years of indigenous traditions and customs, the campaign to legalize Muslim marriages still continues. While their status appeared to gain recognition with the publication and circulation of the 2010 Muslim Marriages Bill and the accreditation in 2014 of 100 imams as marriage officers, the bill has yet to be formally passed as law. As a result, Muslim women’s land rights after divorce or the death of their spouses remains uncertain. In the meantime, Muslim women remain socially vulnerable and disadvantaged as the common law definitions of marriages in South Africa is not extended to include religious Muslim marriages. Muslim couples are considered single and unmarried unless they formally register with a South African court.

    South Africa’s migrant population, most of whom originate from neighbouring countries such as Lesotho, Mozambique and Zimbabwe, have regularly been targeted in xenophobic attacks. April 2015 saw the outbreak of the worst violence since 2008 when a series of killings in Alexandra township, Johannesburg, left seven dead and many others injured. While economic frustrations and poverty contributed to the violence, South Africa’s migrants have regularly been scapegoated for the country’s problems. A speech the previous month by King Goodwill Zwelithini of the Zulu nation, South Africa’s largest ethnic group, in which he allegedly called for foreigners to ‘pack their belongings and go pack to their countries’, was widely blamed in the media for triggering the attacks, though he claimed to have been misquoted.

    Popular hostility towards migrants has been mirrored by increasingly severe official policies, reflected in Operation Fiela (‘sweep the dirt’ in Sesotho), a series of crackdowns carried out in urban communities across South Africa during 2015. While the stated purpose was reportedly to tackle the high crime rate, by September at least 15,000 migrants without documentation – making up the majority of those targeted by police – had been deported. The same month, the deportation of an estimated 2,000 refugees, most of them Angolan, was announced, after their status was revoked, despite many individuals having resided in South Africa for over a decade. Refugees who were granted two-year temporary residence permits now face difficult choices as their permits expire.

    The findings of an inquiry into the violence against migrants that occurred in 2015 were released in April 2016. It was found that much of the tension was caused by competition for jobs and recommended the education of civil servants on migrant and refugee rights. Nevertheless, anti-immigrant violence has persisted, with demonstrations in Pretoria in February 2017 accompanied by attacks on Nigerians and other foreigners in the city.

  • Environment

    Covering the southern tip of the African Continent where the Indian and Atlantic oceans meet, South Africa borders six countries, including Lesotho, which it entirely surrounds. South Africa features tremendous diversity of climate and topography and has considerable natural resources.


    Khoisan hunter-gatherers were the first human inhabitants of today’s South Africa, but were largely displaced by Bantu peoples migrating south in the fourth or fifth centuries. Some Khoisan descendants remained, some mixing with Bantu peoples, notably the Xhosa, whose language retains the influence.

    The progressive dispossession of the black people of South Africa dates from the earliest years of European settlement in the seventeenth century and had been achieved to a far greater extent than anywhere else on the continent long before the Union of South Africa was established in 1910.


    In the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, European settlers in South Africa were predominantly Dutch-speaking. British take-over of the Cape Colony in 1806 led to an influx of English-speaking colonists. European migration, notably including Jews from Eastern Europe, increased greatly following the discovery of diamonds (1867) and gold (1886). Conflicts between Afrikaner farmers who colonized the interior of South Africa, establishing the republics of the Transvaal and the Orange Free State, and British imperial interests, led to the Anglo-Boer Wars of 1899-1902 and a legacy of bitterness compounded by the comparative educational and economic disadvantages experienced by Afrikaners in relation to English-speaking whites. The Afrikaner nationalist movement would later culminate in the victory of the National Party which ruled the country from 1948 to 1994, and mobilized Afrikaners against this imbalance as well as in support of white supremacy.


    Over time, white South Africans would come to see themselves as distinct group, and often as a ‘threatened minority’. But even the bitter Anglo-Boer conflict was eventually subsumed under efforts to maintain domination supported by the overwhelming majority of whites. The nineteenth-century wars of subjugation and the wholesale expropriation of black land lent support to a pervasive mythology, actively promoted by successive white minority regimes, that the only alternative to white domination would be black retribution.

    Legislation in 1913 and 1936 formally allocated 87 per cent of the land for settlement by whites. Apartheid, progressively introduced following the National Party victory in the white elections of 1948, was the culmination of such policies. All South Africans were categorized according to race and forced to live in their own ‘group areas’. Additionally, black South Africans were categorized according to ‘tribe’ and huge numbers were uprooted to the corresponding ‘bantustans’ or ‘homelands’, which roughly coincided with the land already reserved for black settlement. The bantustans were generally located away from the main centres of economic activity and functioned as labour reserves, and increasingly as dumping grounds for the homeless. Although economic requirements sometimes ran counter to the strict dictates of this ideology, and although apartheid was imposed on a country already heavily segregated on racial lines, over three million South Africans were forcibly removed from their homes in pursuit of these plans.

    Sharpeville Massacre

    The 1960 massacre of 69 black people at a protest in Sharpeville against ‘pass laws’, which were designed to segregate the population, proved a watershed in the struggle against apartheid. Mass protests and arrests followed the police shootings, and South Africa faced increased international scrutiny of its racist regime. The government banned the Pan Africanist Congress, which had organized the Sharpeville protest, as well as well as the African National Congress (ANC). The bans led to enhanced militarization of both liberation movements. In its heightened siege mentality, the government also cracked down on the labour union movement.

    The government of Frederik de Klerk that came to power in 1989 realized that apartheid was no longer sustainable. Under mounting pressure, in 1990 the National Party government legalized the African National Congress (ANC) and ended the 27-year jailing of its leader, Nelson Mandela. De Klerk set about negotiating with the ANC the end of minority rule at a time when the white government could still dictate some of the terms. The 1994 elections heralded the end of apartheid and the establishment of a government of national unity.

    The new South Africa

    However, political and economic factors severely constrained the ability of the new interim government to counteract the extreme inequalities of wealth and opportunity which had developed along racial lines. Indeed, whites’ retention of economic gains made under apartheid was part of the grand bargain – if never clearly spelled out – that led to majority rule.

    The status of the disadvantaged and marginalized – predominantly the black rural poor and urban unemployed, between them comprising a majority of the population – was a challenge that would continue to confront the government even after the full transition to majority rule. While whites kept their economic power and blacks gained political power, coloured (or mixed ethnic background) and Indian (i.e. Asian origin) communities remained in the middle – considered too black under apartheid, and too white in the post-apartheid era.

    Socioeconomic disparities, strongly defined along ethnic lines, have persisted in South Africa. Inequality also remains prevalent with respect to land-holdings, with whites still owning a disproportionate amount of the country’s land. Progress on the restitution of land to communities who had been dispossessed under apartheid rule has been slow, however, though in 2016 South Africa’s parliament approved a bill authorizing the government to expropriate land in the public interest – a measure that should pave the way for the restitution of more land to black South Africans.


    South Africa can be considered a country of minorities, yet questions of minority rights take a distinctive form. Pervasive opposition to the enforced racial and tribal classifications of apartheid has led to considerable scepticism over calls for any defence of rights on a group basis.

    Political conflict in South Africa has been primarily across the fault-line of white domination. Consequently, the strenuous efforts of the apartheid regime to promote divisions among blacks on tribal lines had limited success, even by comparison with the efforts of many colonial regimes in Africa. (The promotion of Zulu-based Inkatha movement was an exception to this.) The primary apartheid division into whites, coloureds, Indians and blacks left a more profound and immediate legacy.

    The interim Constitution agreed in 1994 by the National Party and the African National Congress (ANC) put a high premium on individual rights as opposed to those of any particular grouping. Exceptions were last-minute concessions made to right-wing whites and the Zulu Inkatha, and substantial devolution of authority to provincial governments.

    The compromise settlement limited the potential for fundamental change, with the land question in particular remaining unresolved. Clauses protecting property rights in the interim Constitution made the redistribution of virtually all white-owned land impossible for the succeeding five years; and although possibilities existed for the restitution of land alienated since 1913, owned by the state, or through commercial mechanisms, the scope was decidedly limited.

    The new Constitution contained an extensive bill of rights consistent with international human rights standards. It also declared eleven official languages, while recognizing an additional eight non-official languages. Under the new constitution, in June 1999 the National Assembly elected fellow ANC veteran Thabo Mbeki to succeed Nelson Mandela as president. The ANC won nearly 70 per cent of the vote in the 2004 elections, and the National Assembly re-elected Mbeki to another term as president.

    After the general election of 2009, Jacob Zuma, the then leader of the ANC, assumed the presidency. His period of governance has been rife with scandal—most recently in 2016 when the Constitutional Court of South Africa ruled that upgrades to his private residence using public funds violated the South African Constitution. Prior to assuming power in 2009 he was involved in court cases concerning accusations of arms-related corruption and rape.

    Though the ANC held onto power in the May 2014 general election, its share of the national vote declined to 62.2 per cent, down from 65.9 per cent, with the Democratic Alliance (DA) increasing its share to 22.2 per cent and the newly established Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF) gaining 6.4 per cent of the votes. According to an IPSOS survey conducted shortly before the election, less than half (47 per cent) of the population believed that the government has the country’s interests at heart, with even lower levels among white (17 per cent) and coloured (23 per cent) citizens.

    HIV/AIDS, the challenge of an unskilled work force and high unemployment rates have all burdened South Africa’s economy since the end of apartheid. It has grown steadily at around three per cent each year, just enough to keep up with population growth. More blacks have gained access to running water, electricity and telephone service, but much of the growth has simply benefited an ethnically broadened elite.

    Slow progress has caused the majority poor black population to agitate for faster land reform. In 1994, 13 per cent of the land belonged to blacks, who make up 80 per cent of the population. Over subsequent years, with the government committed to a ‘willing-buyer, willing-seller’ approach, only a very small portion of white-owned land has shifted to blacks. In response, in 2016 the South African government passed a land expropriation bill. It will allow the government to compulsorily acquire land in the ‘public interest’ and replaces the ‘willing-buyer, willing-seller’ approach.

    Estimates as to the number of immigrants in South Africa vary widely. Estimates in early 2017 put the number between 1.5 million and 3.2 million, two thirds of whom come from elsewhere on the continent. African immigrants have been subjected to growing harassment and resentment, principally on the grounds that as unregistered (as well as non-unionized) workers they are unfairly competing for jobs. Many have been resident for long periods, a significant number with South African spouses and children. South African police and officials at the Department of Home Affairs have been regularly accused of abusing the rights of illegal immigrants and legitimate asylum seekers alike.

    Incidents of xenophobic or foreigner-targeted violence have taken place with regularity in recents year, the most significant of which were a series of riots in 2008 which started in Alexandra then spread to Durban and Cape Town. In 2015 there was another upsurge in anti-foreigner and xenophobic sentiment when in Durban foreign nationals were attacked and their shops were looted. A significant number of people were internally displaced after being forced to flee their homes and the attacks left at least five people dead. The government has been criticized for its reluctance to acknowledge the racial character of the violence.

    While indigenous peoples, long marginalized from the country’s politics, have seen some improvements in their situation since the fall of apartheid, substantial barriers remain. The introduction to the public in September 2015 of the Traditional and Khoi-San Leadership Bill, drafted to recognize Khoisan communities overlooked in the existing Traditional Leadership and Governance Framework Act of 2003, which had been condemned by critics as violating customary law and reinforcing restrictive apartheid-era classifications. Public hearings of the bill continued in early 2017 amid criticism of a widespread lack of meaningful consultation from officials and an excessive focus on the control of traditional leaders over land rather than the communities themselves.

    The Indigenous Knowledge Systems Bill was also opened for public comment in 2015. This bill would establish prior and informed consent for indigenous populations, as well as benefit sharing agreements. In 2013, South Africa also ratified the Nagoya Protocol of the Convention on Biodiversity. This law establishes the sustainable and shared use of biological resources with indigenous peoples. One of the key outcomes of this law was the necessity of industries to recognize the rights of indigenous peoples as the traditional knowledge holders on the use of resources. For example, in 2015 the South African government required international food conglomerate Nestlé to enter into a benefit sharing agreement with the Khoi and San over the use of rooibos, a plant used to make tea.

    Immigrants now form one of the country’s largest and most marginalized groups, but with the implosion of neighbouring Zimbabwe’s economy and instability elsewhere on the continent, incentives for immigration to relatively prosperous South Africa remain. President Zuma’s stance on illegal immigrants was said to have ‘hardened’ in 2015, with military-supported arrests and deportations of nationals from other African countries, among them Zimbabwe, Malawi and Nigeria.

  • African Centre for the Constructive Resolution of Disputes (ACCORD)

    Indigenous Peoples of Africa Co-ordinating Committee (IPACC)

    Legal Resource Centre

    Consortium for Refugees and Migrants in South Africa (CoRMSA)

    Lawyers for Human Rights – Refugee and Migrant Rights Project

    PASSOP (People Against Suffering, Oppression and Poverty)


    South African San Institute

    South Africa San Institute website on Cultural Resources Management

Updated June 2024

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