Last update on May 04, 2020

Learn more about South African culture in this guide to the cultural makeup of the Rainbow Nation.

South Africa has been often called the ‘rainbow nation’ and comprises many people groups.

Its vast and varied history (from its setting as one of the cradles of civilization to scenes of colonialist battles to more recent anti-apartheid struggles) informs the culture and character of the nation.

At 79 percent, Black Africans make up the majority ethnicity in the country. Some 9.6 percent of the population is white, 8.9 percent colored and 2.5 percent Indian/Asian.

Ethnic groups in South Africa

Among the Black population, there are four major ethnic groups: Nguni, Sotho, Shangaan-Tsonga and Venda.  There are also many subgroups; Zulu and Xhosa are the largest. Some 60 percent of the White population is of Afrikaans descent and most of the remaining 40 percent are of British descent.

The middle class is predominantly white but this is changing with increasing numbers of black, coloured and Indian people entering the middle classes every year.  Their lifestyles are similar to those in Western Europe, North America and Australasia and they frequently travel or study abroad.

The first Indians came as indentured labourers in Natal to work the Sugar Cane Fields, and others later arrived as traders. A post-apartheid wave of South Asian (including Pakistani) immigration has also influenced this Indian culture.

There is a small Chinese South African community that consists of early immigrants plus apartheid-era immigrants from Taiwan and post-apartheid immigrants from mainland China.

Official languages of South Africa

The following official languages are spoken in South Africa: IsiZulu (official) 23.8 percent, IsiXhosa (official) 17.6 percent, Afrikaans (official) 13.3 percent, Sepedi (official) 9.4 percent, English (official) 8.2 percent, Setswana (official) 8.2 percent, Sesotho (official) 7.9 percent, Xitsonga (official) 4.4 percent, other 7.2 percent, isiNdebele (official), Tshivenda (official), siSwati (official)

Religion in South Africa

The religious makeup of the nation comprises: Zion Christian 11.1 percent, Pentecostal/Charismatic 8.2 percent, Catholic 7.1 percent, Methodist 6.8 percent, Dutch Reformed 6.7 percent, Anglican 3.8 percent, Muslim 1.5 percent, other Christian 36 percent, other 2.3 percent, unspecified 1.4 percent, none 15.1 percent.

Erin Russell Thiessen / Expatica