South Africa country overview

The people of South Africa

Geography, People, Culture, and Economic Profile

South Africa information index

Demography of South Africa

Over 90% of the nation’s residents are situated within the eastern half and the southern coastal areas. The western part of the country, with the exception of the vicinity surrounding Cape Town in the far southwest, is notably less populated. Approximately two-thirds of the population resides in urban centers, a significant number of which are expansive informal settlements, often lacking essential services such as transportation, water supply, sanitation, and electricity.

Historically, a substantial segment of the African demographic has been concentrated in the “homeland” territories, also known as Bantustans. These fragmented regions, primarily located in the northern and eastern sectors of the country, were designated for African communities following the 19th-century conflicts that resulted in white domination and the displacement of Black populations. During the apartheid era, millions of non-white individuals were forcibly removed from urban areas and white-owned agricultural lands to these Bantustans. Additionally, boundary modifications led to the inclusion of numerous expansive informal communities within Bantustan borders, thereby altering some of these territories to reflect urban population densities rather than rural.

Rural settlement

In the historical context of rural land ownership, it is observed that while the majority of such land is currently held by white individuals, it was originally settled predominantly by Black communities. These early settlements were characterized by agricultural homesteads or villages, with land stewardship being a communal affair. The allocation of land for individual households to build homes and cultivate was typically overseen by a community leader, such as a chief or headman, while surrounding pastoral areas were utilized collectively.

However, the advent of colonial conquest and the establishment of white dominance led to the introduction of private land ownership, which consequently marginalized the traditional settlement structures. Despite this, in certain areas where Black communities have maintained access to land, vestiges of these traditional patterns can still be discerned, particularly in the more isolated regions of designated reserves. Moreover, in scenarios where sharecropping and labor tenancy have enabled Black individuals to access agricultural land, a distinctive local architecture has emerged, incorporating both industrial and traditional materials. It is noteworthy that approximately one-sixth of the Black population resides on farmland that is owned by white landowners.

The rural landscape shaped by white settlers, dating back to the late 17th century, was dominated by private farmsteads that were often significantly spaced apart. This pattern of settlement, which expanded during the 18th and 19th centuries, typically featured large tracts of land claimed by individual farmers. Despite the prevalence of such expansive homesteads, smaller farms and more intensive cultivation practices have always been present in certain regions, such as the viticultural zones in the southwest.

The late 19th century saw a surge in urban demand for agricultural products, prompting the subdivision of farms situated near urban centers or within ecologically favorable areas, leading to a denser settlement pattern. In contemporary times, there has been a trend towards the consolidation of farm sizes and a reduction in the number of landowners. Concurrently, the population of farmworker residents has diminished as agricultural production has increasingly adopted mechanization and as corporate entities have become more prevalent in farm ownership.

Urban settlement

The genesis of urban development in South Africa can be traced back to two primary sources: the aggregation of populations around the administrative hubs of indigenous African chiefdoms and kingdoms, and the establishment of towns by European settlers. The Sotho-Tswana people of the interior, influenced by factors such as water resources and land utilization, typically resided in sizable communities, some reaching populations in the tens of thousands. In contrast, the coastal Nguni people adopted a more scattered settlement pattern. The 19th-century conquest of African polities by European settlers and their allies resulted in the decline or obliteration of significant centers like Dithakong, a Tswana bastion in today’s Northern Cape, and Ulundi, a central Zulu royal settlement in what is now northern KwaZulu-Natal. Those indigenous settlements that endured were often relegated to a subordinate status, both politically and economically, in relation to the colonial towns that emerged adjacent to them, exemplified by the town of Mafikeng.

The Dutch initiated the colonial urban landscape of South Africa with the founding of Cape Town in 1652, followed by the establishment of several towns in the southern regions, including Stellenbosch and Graaff-Reinet. The British colonial era, commencing in the early 19th century, saw the creation of additional towns such as Port Elizabeth and Durban. The Great Trek, a migration of Dutch settlers in the 1830s, gave rise to new, predominantly small urban centers in the interior, such as Winburg and Pretoria, characterized by spacious plots and a grid layout that persists to this day.

Until the 1860s, South African towns remained modest in size, with Cape Town’s population not exceeding 40,000 by 1865. However, the subsequent decades witnessed a surge in urbanization, propelled by railway construction, mining, and broader economic growth. By the dawn of the 20th century, the population of Cape Town’s metropolitan area had reached 130,000, yet Johannesburg, established in 1886, had already eclipsed it. The continued expansion throughout the 20th century led to the formation of four principal urban agglomerations, the most significant being the Pretoria-Witwatersrand-Vereeniging complex centered around Johannesburg. Other key urban clusters include those around Durban, Cape Town, and the Port Elizabeth–Uitenhage area. These metropolitan centers offer a comprehensive array of services comparable to those found in cities of similar stature globally, yet they continue to exhibit stark disparities in income and access to urban amenities between affluent, predominantly white neighborhoods and impoverished, exclusively Black districts.

Beyond these major urban regions, the majority of South African towns are relatively small, catering to either mining operations or the agricultural hinterland. A number of cities with burgeoning populations in the hundreds of thousands serve as notable exceptions, including the port city of East London, the Free State’s capital Bloemfontein, and emerging industrial hubs like Witbank in Mpumalanga, as well as regional administrative and educational centers such as Mafikeng, Nelspruit, and Polokwane.

Historically, South African cities have exhibited racial segregation in residential patterns since their inception during colonial times. Initially, settler-established towns were predominantly white until the mining boom of the late 19th century sparked an industrial revolution, leading to a demographic shift where urban populations became predominantly Black. Early 20th-century policies led to the creation of segregated public-housing areas, and subsequent legislative measures throughout the 1920s to 1940s enforced segregation for Blacks, Coloureds, and Indians, culminating in the Group Areas Act of 1950. This act shaped the urban landscape, with white residential zones occupying prime urban spaces, while other racial groups were relegated to peripheral areas, often in townships designated for public housing. Although the 1980s saw some degree of racial integration in housing, particularly in high-density areas like Hillbrow in Johannesburg, the Group Areas Act’s repeal in 1991 has not entirely eradicated the entrenched patterns of racially defined settlements in towns and townships.

Demographic trends

The demographic trajectory of the Republic of South Africa exhibited a consistent upward trend throughout the final quarter of the twentieth century, with the population escalating from approximately 27 million individuals in 1985 to in excess of 41 million by the year 1996. However, entering the latter part of the 1990s, the burgeoning prevalence of AIDS began to exert a constraining effect on the rate of population expansion. In the initial decades of the twenty-first century, the birth rate in South Africa aligned closely with the global median, yet the nation’s mortality rate, significantly influenced by the AIDS epidemic, was approximately double the global average. The average life expectancy within South Africa, while comparable or superior to that of many neighboring countries in the Southern African region, remained substantially below the global mean. The demographic composition of South Africa is notably youthful, with nearly 60 percent of its populace being under the age of 30.

During the late 1960s and early 1970s, the influx of immigrants from Europe to South Africa surpassed 20,000 individuals annually. This trend, however, reversed in the late 1970s and 1980s, as the emigration of white South Africans began to outnumber incoming settlers. The dawn of the twenty-first century witnessed a resurgence in the volume of immigrants and refugees arriving in South Africa. This increase was primarily composed of individuals from other African nations who were either escaping political persecution or in pursuit of enhanced economic opportunities, with a significant proportion originating from the neighboring country of Zimbabwe.

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