South Africa country overview

The people of South Africa

Geography, People, Culture, and Economic Profile

South Africa information index

Ethnic groups of South Africa

The Population Registration Act, which was in force from 1950 to 1991, played a pivotal role in the apartheid era by instituting a government-mandated system of racial and ethnic categorization for all individuals in South Africa. This legislation classified individuals from birth into one of four racial groups: Black, white, Coloured (of mixed heritage), and Asian. These classifications were not strictly based on physical attributes but also took into account factors such as familial lineage and societal integration.

Today, the indigenous Khoekhoe and San populations of South Africa are not widely recognized as separate entities within the nation. Historical intermarriage with other African groups that settled prior to European colonization, as well as with slaves from Madagascar and Southeast Asia during the period of white governance, has resulted in the Khoekhoe and San contributing significantly to the genealogy of the present-day Coloured majority. The Bantu-speaking Africans, who migrated into the region approximately 1,800 years ago, now represent over 75% of the South African populace.

The demographic previously identified as Coloured has its roots in a diverse heritage, including the indigenous Khoekhoe and San, slaves brought by the Dutch from Madagascar, the Malay Archipelago, and European and Bantu-speaking African ancestries. Within this group, distinct subethnic identities persist, such as the Malays, primarily descended from Indonesian Muslim slaves, and the Griquas, who trace their lineage to a particular Khoekhoe community. While some individuals within these subgroups continue to embrace the Coloured designation, others have renounced the term, which was imposed during apartheid. Culturally and physically, they are often indistinguishable from the white population. Geographically, those formerly classified as Coloured are predominantly located in the western regions of South Africa, especially in the Western and Northern Cape provinces, where they form the majority in many districts.

The South African Indian community, labeled as Asian during apartheid, constitutes a smaller portion of the population. Initially arriving as indentured laborers from the British colony of Natal in the 1850s, and later joined by a number of traders, this group is now primarily settled in KwaZulu-Natal, with smaller populations in Gauteng, Limpopo, and Mpumalanga provinces. The majority of Indian South Africans are urban residents. Additionally, there are minor urban communities of other Asian ethnicities, including Chinese.

The majority of white South Africans are the descendants of European settlers, predominantly from Great Britain, Germany, and the Netherlands, who began immigrating to South Africa in the mid-17th century.

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