South African Culture

There is no single Culture of South Africa. As South Africa is so ethnically diverse, it is not surprising that there are vast cultural differences as well. South Africans have been referred to as the “rainbow nation”, a title which illuminates the country’s cultural diversity.

The population of South Africa is one of the most complex and diverse in the world. Of the 47 million South Africans, black people number about 37 million, whites nearly 5 million, those of Asian origin around a million and the coloured community approximately 4 million.
The Black population is divided into four major ethnic groups, namely Nguni, Sotho, Shangaan-Tsonga and Venda. There are numerous subgroups of which the Zulu and Xhosa (two subgroups of the Nguni) are the largest. The majority of the White population is of Afrikaans descent (60%), with many of the remaining 40% being of British descent. Most of the Coloured population live in the Northern and Western Cape provinces, whilst most of the Indian population live in KwaZulu Natal. The Afrikaaner population is concentrated in the Gauteng and Orange Free State provinces and the English population in the Western, Eastern Cape and Kwazulu-Natal.

There are 11 official languages in South Africa: English, Afrikaans, Ndebele, Northern Sotho, Southern Sotho, Xhosa, Venda, Tswana, Zulu, Swazi and Tsonga. While most South Africans can communicate in more than one language, English is the most commonly spoken and the language of official business and commerce.

The mingling and melding in South Africa’s urban areas, along with the suppression of traditional cultures during the apartheid years, means that the old ways of life are fading, but traditional black cultures are still strong in much of the countryside. Across the different groups, marriage customs and taboos differ, but most traditional cultures are based on beliefs in a masculine deity, ancestral spirits and supernatural forces. In general, polygamy is permitted and a lobolo (dowry) is usually paid. Cattle play an important part in many cultures, as symbols of wealth and as sacrificial animals.

The heritage is also there in more obvious, more visible forms. Wander off the beaten track in Zululand and you will see, here and there, beautifully crafted “beehive” homes and, occasionally, the plumed and feathered ceremonial regalia of an earlier and perhaps more romantic age.
Some Ndbele women decorate their houses in strikingly colourful geometric patterns and a few of them still wear tight, multi-ringed anklets, armlets and necklaces that can never be removed. Venda girls perform the sinuous domba snake-dance on their journey into womanhood. The Swazi of the KaNgwane region honour their ancestors and their chiefs, affirm their nationhood and celebrate the first fruit of the soil in an exuberant, week-long festival called the Great Incwala.

The art of South Africa’s indigenous populations can be one of the only ways to connect with lost cultures. Rock and cave paintings by the San, some of which date back 26,000 years, are a case in point. In other cases, such as the elaborate ‘coded’ beadwork of the Zulus, traditional art has been adapted to survive in different circumstances. Zulu is one of the strongest surviving black cultures and massed Zulu singing at Inkatha Freedom Party demonstrations is a powerful expression of this ancient culture. The Xhosa also have a strong presence; they are known as the red people because of the red-dyed clothing worn by most adults. The Ndebele are a related group, who live in the north-western corner of what is now Mpumalanga in strikingly painted houses.


There are many different people groups and tribes across the continent of Africa – with their culture varying from tribe to tribe.