country briefing: South Africa – culture

by admin on September 1, 2010

Section 3: History, culture, society, politics, education

Overview of the nation’s history and recent events

History of South Africa

Before AD 100: Most of today’s black South Africans belong to the Bantu language group, which migrated south from central Africa, settling in the Transvaal region sometime before AD 100.

1500: The Nguni, ancestors of the Zulu and Xhosa, occupied most of the eastern coast.

1488: The Portuguese were the first Europeans to reach the Cape of Good Hope.

1652: Permanent white settlement began 1652 when the Dutch East India Company established a provisioning station on the Cape. Collectively, French Huguenot refugees, the Dutch, and Germans form the Afrikaner component of today’s population.
1870: The discovery of diamonds at Kimberley and the discovery of large gold deposits in the Witwatersrand region of the Transvaal in 1886 caused an influx of European (mainly British) immigration and investment. In addition to resident black Africans, many blacks from neighboring countries also moved into the area to work in the mines. The construction by mine owners of hostels to house and control their workers set patterns that later extended throughout the region.

May 1910: Various territories form into the Union of South Africa, a self-governing dominion of the British Empire. The Union’s constitution kept all political power in the hands of whites.

1912: the South Africa Native National Congress was founded in Bloemfontein and eventually became known as the African National Congress (ANC). Its goals were the elimination of restrictions based on color and the enfranchisement of and parliamentary representation for blacks.
1948: the National Party (NP) won the all-white elections and began passing legislation codifying and enforcing an even stricter policy of white domination and racial separation known as “apartheid” (separateness).

Early 1960s: Following a protest in Sharpeville in which 69 protesters were killed by police and 180 injured, the ANC and Pan-African Congress (PAC) were banned. Nelson Mandela and many other anti-apartheid leaders were convicted and imprisoned on charges of treason.

May 1961: South Africa abandoned its British dominion status and declared itself a republic, withdrawing from the Commonwealth in part because of international protests against apartheid.

1976/1985: Popular uprisings in black and colored townships helped to convince some NP members of the need for change. Secret discussions between those members and Nelson Mandela began in 1986.

February 1990: State President F.W. de Klerk announced the unbanning of the ANC, the PAC, and all other anti-apartheid groups. Two weeks later, Nelson Mandela was released from prison.

1991: The Group Areas Act, Land Acts, and the Population Registration Act–the last of the so-called “pillars of apartheid”–were abolished.

April 26-28, 1994: The country’s first nonracial elections were held, resulting in the installation of Nelson Mandela as President on May 10, 1994.  President Mandela signed the new constitution into law on December 10, and it entered into force on February 3, 1997.

1994-1999: During Nelson Mandela’s term as President of South Africa, the government committed itself to reforming the country. The ANC-led government focused on social issues such as unemployment, housing shortages, and crime; and economic issues of growth and redistribution. The government created the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) under the leadership of Archbishop Desmond Tutu to address the lasting effects of apartheid.

Source: U.S. Department of State South Africa page,

Music, food, and other aspects of its culture


Music in South Africa can be divided into folk and pop (jive) music, but every genre of music exists.  In many cases, international music has been imported and influenced local tribal music, thus creating a hybrid style.

“Music of South Africa”, Wikipedia,


South African cuisine includes traditional main courses like barbeque or “braais,” strips of dried meat called “biltong,” and meat and vegetable stew called “potjiekos.”  A major staple is a corn meal mix called Mielie Pap.  If you want to eat with men, “skop,” or the head of a cow, sheep, or goat may be on the menu.  However, Chinese, Indian, and English cuisines are also readily available for the less adventurous. South Africans have a large, exporting wine industry, and beer is enjoyed widely including the local brew Castle.

“Food”, Explore South Africa website,

Other Aspects of Culture:

Religion: South Africa has quite a fragmented religious profile.

South African Religions
Zion Christian 11.1%
Pentecostal/ Charismatic 8.2%
Catholic 7.1%
Methodist 6.8%
Dutch Reform 6.7%
Anglican 3.8%
Muslim 1.5%
Other Christian 36.0%
Other 18.8%

Source: “South Africa”, CIA Factbook,

Sports: South Africa hosted the 2010 FIFA World Cup last summer.  If you did not watch the event, you at least heard about the Swazi horn called a vuvuzela, South African’s soccer stadium instrument of choice, and the loud monotonous tone that they make.   Cricket and rugby are also popular sports.

Source: “South Africa”, New York Times Travel,

Recent changes in country’s culture:

Whereas President Mandela had focused on national reconciliation in an attempt to create a unified South African identity and national objectives from a diverse and fragmented population, Thabo Mbeki focused government toward transformation.  Focusing on economic issues, the ANC moved in 1999 toward the empowerment of the black majority in South Africa.  After political reshuffling in 2009, Jacob Zuma assumed the presidency and the recent World Cup is an indication of how far the country has come in reconciling its past (the term “rainbow nation” captures the diversity of the country’s current population).  The rise of a black middle class in South Africa is of particular note, as is a rising trend in “brain drain,” where skilled workers are leaving the country for better professional opportunities abroad.

Source: U.S. Department of State South Africa page,

Ethnic groups, languages

Ethnic groups in South Africa

South Africa has approximately 50 million people in 2010. Among the 50 million people, Black African accounts for 79.4%, White for 9.2%, Colored for 8.8%, and Indian or Asian for 2.6%.

The major part of the population classified itself as African or black and it includes culturally different ethnic groups such as Zulu, Xhosa, Basotho (South Sotho), Bapedi (North Sotho), Venda, Tswana, Tsonga, Swazi and Ndebele.

Census 2001, Statistics South Africa
Midyear population estimates: 2010, Statistics South Africa

Language in South Africa

South Africa has 11 official languages, and scores of unofficial ones besides. 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 fifth out of 11 as a home language.

Census 2001, Statistics South Africa

How social factors may affect health issues

The HIV/AIDs epidemic has had epic consequences in South Africa.  The country ranks first in the world for the number of deaths due to HIV/AIDS, and second in the number of people living with the disease. The median age is 24.7 years, which means that a large proportion of the population is under the age of 25.  Additionally, South Africa has the 4th highest death rate in the world at 16.99 deaths per 1,000 people (established July 2010); for infant mortality, the country ranks 61st in the world.  A South African adult can expect to live to the age of 49 – currently there are only eight other countries in the world where people die at a younger age.

On other demographic issues, we see that a full 61 percent of people live in cities and that proportion is growing by about 1.4 percent per year.  About 86 percent of the population over age 15 can read and write, and people go to school on average for about 13 years of primary to tertiary education.

This combination of factors suggest that, while the country has been severely affected by HIV/AIDS, it is in a good position to take advantage of improving educational outcomes, a strengthening political process, and a natural trend toward urbanization to improve socio-economic outcomes for its citizens.

Source: CIA World Factbook,

What is the impact of culture on enterprises’ roles in delivering health care?

The coexistence of traditional health care alongside modern health care in South Africa highlights the impact of the country’s culture on its health care system. The South African Traditional Health Practitioners Act requires traditional healers to register with the national government. Over 190,000 practitioners of traditional medicine were registered in 2007 including herbalists, diviners, traditional surgeons who mainly perform circumcisions, and traditional birth attendants. This registry however excludes the more prevalent and widely sought after spiritual or faith healers in the country.

Although some survey-based research has pointed to a decline in the use traditional health care, other research estimates traditional medical care utilization for six to 39 percent of the population. The purported decline in traditional health care may be attributed to an increase in the “physical and cultural accessibility and acceptability of biomedical medicine.” It is also worth noting that traditional medicine is a part of the private health care sector since patients pay out of pocket for treatment.

Patients in South Africa see no dissonance in receiving both traditional and modern health care. Doctors are seen as diagnosticians and treatment providers whereas traditional healers diagnose problems within the “body-mind complex” and identify spirits that caused the pathology.

Currently, there is no cooperation between traditional and modern medicine practitioners. South Africa has made an effort to incorporate traditional care into its national health care system by establishing a traditional medicine directorate within its Department of Health, a traditional medicine research institute, and postgraduate education program in herbal science.

South Africa’s culture mediates the impact of state-imposed structural forces that continue to have an impact today on health care delivery and outcome. For instance, the inequality that exists between various socioeconomic groups dictates the level and quality of health care for South Africans and potentially contributes to reliance on more accessible traditional health care practitioners. It is important to realize that South Africa’s culture can be used as a tool in improving the health care system in the country. Community empowerment and South Africa’s civic-minded citizens have had an important role in advocating for people’s rights and setting an example for other countries in the continent as it pertains to health care.


The Lancet, “Traditional Health Practitioners in South Africa,” Vol. 374 pp. 956-57

The Lancet, “Health Systems in Africa: Learning from South Africa,” Vol. 374 pp, 957-59

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