Ethnic Groups and Language

South Africa Table of Contents

South Africans represent a rich array of ethnic backgrounds, but the idea of ethnicity became highly explosive during the apartheid era, when the government used it for political and racial purposes. Whites in South Africa often attributed the recent centuries of warfare in the region to the varied origins of its peoples, rather than to the increasing economic pressures they had faced. Government officials, accordingly, imposed fairly rigid ethnic or tribal categories on a fluid social reality, giving each black African a tribal label, or identity, within a single racial classification.

Apartheid doctrines taught that each black population would eventually achieve maturity as a nation, just as the Afrikaner people, in their own view, had done. Officials, therefore, sometimes referred to the largest African ethnic groups as nations. The government established language areas for each of these and, during the 1950s and 1960s, assigned them separate residential areas according to perceived ethnic identity. Over the next decade, portions of these language areas became Bantustans, and then self-governing homelands; finally, in the 1970s and the 1980s, four of the homelands--Transkei, Bophuthatswana, Venda, and Ciskei--were granted nominal "independence". Although the independent homelands were not recognized as separate nations by any country other than South Africa, people assigned to live there were officially "noncitizens" of South Africa.

Apartheid policies also empowered the government to remove black Africans from cities and to preserve the "ethnic character"of neighborhoods in the African townships that were created, legally and illegally, around the cities. Many township neighborhoods were given specific "tribal" designations. Township residents generally ignored these labels, however, and reacted to the divisiveness of the government's racial policies by minimizing the importance of their ethnic heritage, or disavowing it entirely. A few South Africans embraced the notion that ethnicity was an outdated concept, a creation of governments and anthropologists, invoked primarily to create divisions among people of a particular class or region.

The word "tribe" assumed especially pejorative connotations during the apartheid era, in part because of the distortions that were introduced by applying this concept to society. Technically, no tribes had existed in South Africa for most of the twentieth century. The term "tribe," in anthropology, is often defined as a group of people sharing a similar culture--i.e., patterns of belief and behavior--settled in a common territory, and tracing their ancestry to a common--perhaps mythical--ancestor. But none of South Africa's black peoples shared a common, ancestral territory; they had been uprooted and relocated by warfare, by the search for new land, or by government action. Few rural residents could trace their descent from an ancestor shared with many of their neighbors.

Then in 1993 and 1994, as the country emerged from the apartheid era, many South Africans appeared to reclaim their ethnic heritage and to acknowledge pride in their ancestry. The new political leaders recognized the practical advantage of encouraging people to identify both with the nation and with a community that had a past older than the nation. So the interim constitution of 1993 reaffirmed the importance of ethnicity by elevating nine African languages to the status of official languages of the nation, along with English and Afrikaans.

Language Groups

The most widely spoken of South Africa's eleven official languages in the mid-1990s are Zulu (isiZulu), Xhosa (isiXhosa), Afrikaans, and English (for Bantu prefixes, see Glossary). The others--isiNdebele, sePedi (seSotho sa Leboa), seSotho, seTswana, siSwati, tshiVenda (also referred to as luVenda), and xiTsonga--are spoken in large areas of the country (see fig. 12). Each of the eleven includes a number of regional dialects and variants.

Despite the diversity of these language groups, it is nonetheless possible to begin to understand this complex society by viewing language groupings as essentially the same as ethnic groupings. This is possible because, in general, most South Africans consider one of the eleven official languages, or a closely related tongue, to be their first language; and most people acquire their first language as part of a kinship group or an ethnically conscious population.

Nine of South Africa's official languages (all except Afrikaans and English) are Bantu languages. Bantu languages are a large branch of the Niger-Congo language family, which is represented throughout much of sub-Saharan Africa. Bantu languages are spoken by more than 100 million Africans in Central Africa, East Africa, and southern Africa. Four major subgroups of Bantu languages--Nguni, Sotho, Tsonga-Shangaan, and Venda--are represented in South Africa.

The largest group of closely related languages in South Africa is the Nguni. Nguni peoples in the country number at least 18 million. About 9 million Sotho (BaSotho) and 2 million Tswana (BaTswana) speak seSotho or a closely related language, seTswana. More than 2 million Tsonga and Shangaan peoples speak xiTsonga and related languages; at least 600,000 Venda (VaVenda) speak tshiVenda (luVenda).

Each of these language groups also extends across South Africa's boundaries into neighboring countries. For example, Nguni-speaking Swazi people make up almost the entire population of Swaziland. At least 1.3 million seSotho speakers live in Lesotho, and more than 1 million people in Botswana speak seTswana. Roughly 4 million speakers of xiTsonga and related languages live in Mozambique, and tshiVenda is spoken by several thousand people in southern Zimbabwe. Language boundaries are not rigid and fixed, however; regional dialects often assume characteristics of more than one language.

Tsonga and Venda
Afrikaans Speakers
English Speakers

More about the Population of South Africa.

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Source: U.S. Library of Congress