South Africa Table of Contents

Size and Growth

The first census of the Union of South Africa was taken in 1911, one year after its formation. Several enumerations occurred after that, but the black African population was not accurately counted in any of them. In 1950, when apartheid legislation officially restricted black peoples to approximately 13 percent of the land, the government declared that a national census would be taken at the beginning of each decade. After that, Africans were gradually assigned to live in these homelands, then called Bantustans. As the first four homelands were granted nominal independence in the 1970s and the early 1980s, their residents and others assigned to live there were excluded from the official census of South Africa.

Another problem with census measurements was that many black South Africans lived in informal settlements, or "squatter camps," close to cities where they worked or hoped to work, and squatters were often omitted from census counts. In addition, although all citizens were legally required to register births, deaths, marriages, and divorces, many people--especially urban blacks--avoided doing so, in part because of the stringency and complexity of the laws governing legal residency.

The 1980 census count was nearly 23.8 million; another 4.6 million were added to compensate for acknowledged undercounting, resulting in a nationwide population of 28.4 million. The figures excluded those living in the three homelands that were nominally independent in 1980--an estimated 2.7 million in Transkei, 1 million in Bophuthatswana, and about 350,000 in Venda. A fourth homeland, Ciskei, with a population of 678,000, became "independent" in 1981.

The next census, in 1991, took place amid unprecedented political violence. For the first time, the government used aerial photography and sample surveys to enumerate residents in eighty-eight "unrest" areas, which were otherwise inaccessible to government officials. After being adjusted for underenumeration, the 1991 census yielded a count of 30,986,920 citizens, excluding the four "independent" homelands. Residents of the other six non-independent ("self-governing") homelands--10,746,504 people--were included in the nationwide count.

In 1992 the United States Bureau of the Census estimated that 48 percent of all black South Africans, and about 1 percent of all other racial groups, lived in the ten homelands--which made up only about one-seventh of the total land area of the country. On this basis, the bureau estimated the total population of South Africa at 40.6 million.

In 1994 the South African government estimated the total nationwide population at 40.4 million, after all ten homelands had been reincorporated into South Africa. In that year, the United States Bureau of the Census estimated the total population of South Africa at 43.9 million. Relying on the South African government's enumeration and legal categories, the South African Institute of Race Relations estimated that the population was 76.4 percent black, 12.6 percent white, 8.5 percent coloured, and 2.5 percent Asian.

Population growth rates declined from about 2.9 percent per year in the early 1980s to 2.4 percent in 1995, according to the Development Bank of Southern Africa, a South African economic research and lending organization. Again, racial groups varied; population growth was about 2.6 percent per year for blacks, 2.2 percent for coloureds, 1.9 percent for Asians, and 1.0 percent for whites. The government estimated that the population would double by the year 2025.

Life expectancy at birth was 62.7 years for males and 68.3 years for females in 1996, placing South Africa just below the global median. These figures, too, varied considerably by race; for black males, life expectancy was about nine years less than for white males. About 50.5 percent of the population is female and 49.5 percent is male, according to the South African Central Statistical Service. In some rural areas and the former homelands, labor policies that draw men into urban areas have resulted in strongly skewed gender ratios. For example, in the early 1990s, the population of QwaQwa was estimated to be 56 percent female; in KwaZulu, 54 percent female.

In 1995 overall fertility was 4.1 births per adult female, down from 5.6 a decade earlier. The crude birth rate was 27.1 births per 1,000 people, according to official estimates. Twelve percent of all births in the early 1990s were to women aged nineteen or younger. Infant mortality was estimated at 45.8 deaths within the first year, per 1,000 live births. The average annual death rate for the entire population was 7.6 per 1,000. Until 1994, these statistics had been reported by racial group, and both birth and death rates were higher among blacks than among whites.

The median age was 19.2 years in 1995, according to official estimates. Roughly 37 percent of all South Africans were fifteen years of age or younger. Nearly 13 percent were above the age of fifty. Racial disparities in age composition were large, however; for example, 52 percent of blacks and only 31 percent of whites were under age nineteen.

The age dependency ratio, or the ratio of the combined population of children and the aged (those less than fifteen years of age and those more than sixty-four years of age) compared to the number between age fifteen and sixty-four, was 70.6 percent in 1995. This measurement is often used to estimate the burden of "economic dependence" on the economically active population. Variations among provinces are great, in part because of the uneven job concentration across the country. For example, in the Northern Province, the age dependency ratio is more than 100; while in Gauteng, the age dependency ratio is less than 50.0, according to the Central Statistical Service.


Population density averaged 34.4 persons per square kilometer in 1995, although distribution is uneven nationwide. The eastern half of the country is more densely populated than the western half, primarily because of the aridity of much of the west and the concentration of minerals in the east. The most densely populated areas of the country until 1994 were the homelands--where average densities sometimes exceeded 300 people per square kilometer--and Gauteng, which includes Pretoria, Johannesburg, and the mining region of Witwatersrand. More than 7 million people, nearly 17 percent of the population, live in Gauteng, which constitutes less than 2 percent of the land area of South Africa. The population of Gauteng is expected to double by the year 2010.

Population distribution by racial group is also uneven. In 1995 black South Africans formed a majority in all provinces except the Western Cape, where they made up only 20 percent of the population. Cities were predominantly white, and the townships and squatter areas that ringed the cities were overwhelmingly black. The racial composition of cities and of formerly white neighborhoods began to change in the early 1990s as apartheid-related laws were rescinded or ignored, and the pace of change accelerated in the mid-1990s.

The Johannesburg-based Urban Foundation and other researchers have estimated that the urban population was approximately 57 percent of the total in 1995. Rates of urbanization varied widely by province. The most highly urbanized provinces were Gauteng (nearly 96 percent), Western Cape (86 percent), and Northern Cape (73 percent). The population of Northern Province, in contrast, was only about 9 percent urban, according to the Development Bank of Southern Africa.

Ethnic Groups and Language

For more recent population estimates, see Facts about South Africa.

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Source: U.S. Library of Congress