With 11 official languages, South Africa is surely among the world’s most multi-ethnic societies. Considering its recent history of apartheid or institutionalised racial segregation, including systematic discrimination, land appropriation, and human rights violations, the nation has come far indeed — though most South Africans agree, not nearly far enough.
The African National Congress has been the ruling political party since the apartheid / minority rule colonial system was dismantled in 1994; with no legally defined capital city, the republic’s 3 branches of government are seated in Cape Town (legislative / parliament), Pretoria (administrative / president and cabinet), and Bloemfontein (judicial / supreme court) — with its constitutional court in Johannesburg. Cape Town is South Africa’s original city and second most populous, though also geographically its smallest; ‘Joburg’ is its largest, while the busy port city of Durban, founded in just 1824, is its most modern.
The story of South Africa is one of many peoples and a very rich cultural milieu: 80.2% are indigenous or ‘African’, also referred to as ‘Black’ and representing 4 major ethnic groups with numerous subgroups and languages; another 8.8% are officially designated ‘Coloured’ or mixed race, 8.4% ‘White’ (European descent), 2.5% Asian, primarily of Indian heredity, and 0.5% ‘Other’. The Dutch and British both had a colonial presence, while Germans and European Jews also migrated to the country in large number.
The traditional South African system, of bonded family groups living together in villages, was traumatically disrupted in the 20th century apartheid era, with European colonisation, minority rule and racial segregation, redistribution of land and forced migration, and relocation of impoverished job-seekers from village to city — typically head-of-household males without their families.
One dramatic example of such social disruption is that of District 6, an area in the centre of Cape Town that saw the government-sanctioned displacement of 60,000 residents — immigrants, Cape Malay Muslims, former slaves, Xhosa, and Afrikaans [European descendants], generally lower middle class to impoverished. The area, established as such since 1867, was declared a slum, ‘dangerous’ and ‘a detriment to society’, due to its interracial demographics. Its demolition for government use is widely considered today to be a matter of theft and social disruption.
During the Dutch colonial period in South Africa (1652-1795; 1803-06), slavery and slave trade began immediately in 1652, under the Slavery and Forced Labour Model; it was continued through the early years of British colonisation, ending in 1834 by British decree for all its colonies. Slaves were brought in from other areas in a trading process; many descendants of former slaves live in South Africa today, particularly in Cape Town. Some Africans were complicit, in a desire for trade in European goods, particularly weapons which in turn brought power; others were entirely displaced, such as the pastoral Khoikhoi who were often forced into servitude. Violence was a hallmark of this system, deeply buried within the South African psyche.
In the mid-19th century, orphaned children in South Africa were typically sold or otherwise placed into servitude; child labour still exists today, equally among boys and girls, and although on the decline remains a key social issue. According to Statistics South Africa, 1 in 4 children live without their parents, 7% of whom are orphaned and another 18% of whom have no parent in the house; currently, more than 500k are working in order to survive — 200k+ of whom have been injured in the process. Being forced to work also severely limits their education level. The profound effect on the psyche of a child who has to parent him/herself, and to work at a young age — to be concerned with the very concept of survival — cannot be overstated.
One of the ongoing legacies of the apartheid era can be seen in the townships — impoverished communities, the result of earlier segregation and displacement policies, work migration and loss of family and community bonds, unemployment and lack of education opportunities, and other factors. Some of these are formal settlements, while many informal / illegal such have often sprung up nearby; typically, these communities consist of poorly constructed homes too often built by hand from scrap materials, without necessary facilities such as running water or electricity, often in danger of flooding and other disasters, with a high rate of both crime and disease. The oldest of these, Langa in Cape Town, was established nearly 100 years ago and has a 200k population, largely Xhosa; the largest, Soweto in Johannesburg (pop. 1.3 million), was home to both Nelson Mandela and Desmond Tutu, site of the strongest demonstrations against apartheid and colonial rule.
The Cape Malay ethnic group represents another community rooted in slavery, its origins in then-Dutch colonial Indonesia from which Javanese were brought as slaves to Cape Town, later also from other SE Asian colonies of the Dutch — typically by way of Madagascar and East Africa. They introduced Islam to South Africa, along with many other cultural elements in food, language, dress, music, housing, and more. As a distinct group, Cape Malays along with those of Khoisan descent are included in the broader designation of ‘Coloured’ which most often refers to ‘mixed race’ — a political as well as social holdover from apartheid days that, during white minority rule, held a mid-level social status no longer recognised.
A community of Jewish immigrants was established in Cape Town in the early 19th century; in an early 20th century wave, most came from Lithuania, with a significant number also from the Greek island of Rhodes. The 1937 Alien Act sought to prohibit further Jewish immigration, as did the South African Gentile National Socialist Movement, or Grayshirts, a Nazi organisation, and the pro-German/anti-British — and anti-Semitic — Ossewabrandwag group. At its height, the Jewish community in 1970s reached 120,000; approximately 70,000, of whom 85% are Orthodox, remain in the country today — with heated controversy over the state of Israel and Zionism, pro-Palestinian Boycott-Divestment-Sanctions [BDS] movement, and any comparison between Israeli governance and that of apartheid South Africa.
One of the strongest associations many people have with South Africa is that of Nelson Mandela, lawyer and freedom fighter against the discriminatory apartheid system, political prisoner for 27 years, and the nation’s first post-apartheid — and first black — president. Mandela, along with Bishop Desmond Tutu, another revolutionary strongly associated with South Africa’s resistance against minority rule and systematised segregation, were leading figures in this endeavour — though criticised by both the leftist and rightist parties for attempting to bridge the gap between them. Mandela is locally known by his true Xhosa name, Madiba, and as the Tata, or Father, of the (newly reborn) Nation.
Many others also fought against the unjust apartheid system, and many lost their lives in the process; the country hosts numerous memorials to these revolutionaries, viewed by many as martyrs. Their legacy today is the ANC — and perhaps even moreso, the Economic Freedom Fighters [EFF], a far-left political party deemed extremist by some; led by politician Julius Malema, former (and expelled) president of the ANC’s Youth League. The EFF supports land and economic reform, transparency and anti-corruption measures, and other initiatives such as free healthcare and education to bridge the vast socioeconomic gap that remains as a legacy of the apartheid system. It is currently the 3rd largest party in both parliamentary houses.
The concept of ‘Mother Africa’ is alive and well in South Africa; the continent is known to have been the origin of modern homo sapiens and as such is Mother to us all, a concept also referred to as ‘Mitochondrial Eve’. As to the status of women in South Africa, the nation currently ranks 19th out of 149 on the Global Gender Gap Index; women represent 52% of the labour force and 42% of parliament, while 73% of women over age 25 have a secondary school education. The Women’s National Coalition [WNC] is an umbrella for all women’s organisations in the country; their current focus is on training women for parliamentary, local government, and community leader positions, alongside basic education and gender issues.
South Africa has often been described as a country of contradictions, challenges, and potential. Those born after 1994 are typically called “born-frees.” Culturally, South Africa is a widely diverse group of cultures with outside historic influences as well; their collective struggle against apartheid and birth of a “Rainbow Nation” initially engendered a high degree of social cohesion, but the ANC party has also fallen short of many of its original goals and given in to corruption in some areas. Some say that the racial divisions, though prioritised in reverse to the apartheid system, have not lessened but rather become even wider; a large percentage of Afrikaans or those of European descent have emigrated, while the impoverished townships remain. The culture itself is a bright mix, its economy second in the continent only to that of Nigeria, and the only African nation in the G20 — but with unemployment at 29% and a new approach to racial discrimination in policy, the society’s future is unclear.