English Speakers

South Africa Table of Contents


Although most of the English spoken in South Africa is spoken by nonwhites, the term "English speakers" is often used to identify non-Afrikaner whites in particular, largely because this group shares no other common cultural feature. Some of South Africa's roughly 2 million English-speaking whites trace their forebears to the large influx of British immigrants of the 1820s and the 1830s. Many more Europeans arrived in the late nineteenth century, after the discovery of gold and diamonds. Almost two-thirds of English speakers trace their ancestry to England, Scotland, Wales, or Ireland, but a few arrived from the Netherlands, Germany, or France and joined the English-speaking community in South Africa for a variety of social and political reasons. During the late 1930s and the 1940s, East Europeans arrived in substantial numbers. Unlike the Afrikaners, the English-speaking community has not worked to forge a common identity. During the apartheid era, non-Afrikaner whites held relatively little political power, but they maintained their superior wealth, in many cases, through their activities in commerce and business.

Also among South African whites are about 49,000 Portuguese immigrants, and 13,000 Greeks. South Africa's Jewish population of about 100,000 has been a relatively cohesive community, in comparison with other non-Afrikaner whites. Many South African Jews trace their ancestry to Eastern Europe or to the United Kingdom, and many others fled from Nazi Germany during the 1930s and the 1940s. In general, Jewish South Africans opposed apartheid, in part because of its emphasis on racial purity derived from National Socialist (Nazi) thought. Many Jews have also experienced religious discrimination in South Africa.


Of the roughly 1 million people of Asian descent in South Africa in the mid-1990s, all but about 20,000 are of Indian descent. Most speak English as their first language, although many also speak Tamil or Hindi, and some speak Afrikaans as a second or third language. Many South Africans of Indian descent trace their ancestry to indentured agricultural laborers brought to Natal in the nineteenth century to work on sugar plantations. But almost all Indians in South Africa in the 1990s were born there, because the South African government curtailed immigration from India in 1913.

Asians have endured racial and ethnic pressures throughout the past century. In the late nineteenth century, they were prohibited from living in the Orange Free State; a few settled in the Pretoria-Johannesburg area, but in the 1990s almost 90 percent of the Asian population live in KwaZulu-Natal--especially in Durban and other large urban centers. Only about 10 percent live in rural areas.

In the nineteenth century, Indians were divided by class, between those who had arrived as indentured laborers or slaves, and wealthier immigrants who had paid their own passage. The latter were given citizenship rights, in most cases, and were not bound by the labor laws applied to indentured workers. This class difference was reinforced by the origins of the immigrants--most of the wealthier Indian immigrants had arrived from northern and central India, and a substantial number were Muslims, while many indentured laborers were Hindus.

By the 1990s, these differences were narrowing; more than 60 percent of all Indians in South Africa are Hindus. About 20 percent are Muslims and 8 percent, Christians, and a few are members of other religions. Most are merchants or businessmen, but significant numbers are teachers or artisans. Caste differences based on Indian custom continue to have some influence over social behavior but are of decreasing importance.

More about the Ethnic Groups of South Africa.

Custom Search

Source: U.S. Library of Congress