South Africa has early human fossils at Sterkfontein and other sites. The first modern inhabitants of the country were the hunter-gatherer San (‘bushman’) and the Khoi (‘Hottentot’) peoples, who herded livestock. Bantu-speaking clans that were the ancestors of the Nguni (today's Zulu, Xhosa, Swazi, and Ndebele peoples) and Tswana-Sotho language groups (today's Sotho/Basuto, Tswana, and Pedi) migrated down from east Africa as early as the eleventh century (archeological evidence recently confirmed this through pottery specimens).

These groups encountered European settlers in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, when the colonists were beginning their migrations up from the Cape. The Cape's European merchants, soldiers, and farmers wiped out, drove off, or enslaved the indigenous Khoi herders and imported slave labor from Madagascar, Indonesia, and India. When the British abolished slavery in 1834, the pattern of White legal dominance was entrenched. In the interior, after nearly annihilating the San and Khoi, Bantu-speaking peoples and European colonists opposed one another in a series of ethnic and racial wars that continued until the democratic transformation of 1994.

Conflict among Bantu-speaking chiefdoms was as common and severe as that between Bantus and Whites. In resisting colonial expansion, Black African rulers founded sizable and powerful kingdoms and nations by incorporating neighboring chieftaincies. The result was the emergence of the Zulu, Xhosa, Pedi, Venda, Swazi, Sotho, Tswana, and Tsonga nations, along with the White Afrikaners. Modern South Africa emerged from these conflicts.

As South Africa is a multilingual and ethnically diverse country, there is no single ‘Culture of South Africa’. Besides the 11 officially recognised languages, scores of others - African, European, Asian and more - are spoken in South Africa, as the country lies at the crossroads of southern Africa.

In fact, in post-Apartheid South Africa the then Anglican Archbishop of Cape Town, Desmond Tutu, coined the term ‘Rainbow Nation’ to encapsulate the unity of multi-culturalism and the coming-together of people of many different races, in a country once identified with the strict division of white and black.

The phrase was elaborated upon by President Nelson Mandela in his first month of office in 1994, when he proclaimed: "Each of us is as intimately attached to the soil of this beautiful country as are the famous jacaranda trees of Pretoria and the mimosa trees of the bushveld - a rainbow nation at peace with itself and the world" (Manzo 1996).

This spotlight history feature sees the beginnings of an extensive archive of information on the many and varied language and cultural groups in South Africa. We will be adding biographies, articles, books etc, to this feature during the year.

The country's Constitution guarantees equal status to 11 official languages to cater for the country's diverse peoples and their cultures. These are: Afrikaans, English, Ndebele, Xhosa, Zulu, Pedi, Sotho, Tswana, Swazi, Venda, Tsonga.  

Other languages spoken in South Africa and mentioned in the Constitution are the Khoi, Nama and San languages, sign language, Arabic, German, Greek, Gujarati, Hebrew, Hindi, Portuguese, Sanskrit, Tamil, Telegu and Urdu. There are also a few indigenous creoles and pidgins.

English is generally understood across the country, being the language of business, politics and the media, and the country's lingua franca. But it only ranks joint fifth out of the 11 official languages as a home language.

South Africa's linguistic and cultural diversity means languages and cultures have had a profound effect on each other. South African English, for example, is littered with words and phrases from Afrikaans, Zulu, Nama and other African languages.

Today almost 80% of South Africa’s population follows the Christian faith. Other major religious groups are the Hindus, Muslims, Jews and Buddhists. Minorities of South Africa’s population do not belong to any of the major religions, but regard themselves as traditionalists of no specific religious affiliation.


Howcroft, P. (unpublished encyclopedia, part of SAHO archive)|

South African Languages [online]. Available at: [accessed on 17 February 2009]|

The Languages of South Africa [online]. Available at: [accessed on 26 February 2009]|

National symbols and heritage [online]. Available at: [accessed on 26 February 2009]|

The land and its people [online]. Available at: [accessed 26 February 2009]|

Gough, D.H. (date unknown), ‘English in South Africa’ [online]. Available at: [accessed on 5 March 2009]|

Countries and their cultures [online]. Available at: [accessed on 6 March 2009, various pages were used as a resource from this site]|

Hermann Giliomee and Bernard Mbenga (2007). New History of South Africa, Tafelberg Publishers, Cape Town, pg 28-39.|

Kruger, Cultures [online]. Available at: [accessed on 6 March 2009]  

Collections in the Archives