LOCATION: South Africa

ALTERNATE NAMES: Whites (a generic term that includes Afrikaners)

POPULATION: About 3.1 million


RELIGION: Christianity


About 14 percent, or 6.3 million, of the population of South Africa is white. English South Africans make up just under half of that group, or about 6 percent. Despite their small numbers, English culture and language are powerful influences. English is the principal language of business and tourism, English-language newspapers are published daily in the urban centers, and public signs and notices are posted in English. A visitor to South Africa who speaks only English would have no difficulty getting about and being understood.

Throughout most of the twentieth century, South Africa's political life was dominated by white Afrikaners. (See the article on "Afrikaners" in this volume. Afrikaners are descendants of settlers mostly from the Netherlands.) English South Africans were prominent in commerce, industry, and the professions throughout much of this period. They remain influential as one of the best-educated and most affluent sectors of the population.


English South Africans have historic and language ties to England, but they see themselves as South African, not British. English are concentrated in and around South Africa's urban areas—the coastal cities of Cape Town, Port Elizabeth, East London and Durban, and the inland cities of Johannesburg, Pretoria, Bloemfontein, and Kimberley.

English presence in South Africa goes back to the end of the eighteenth century when Britain seized control of the Cape of Good Hope, the first white settlement area in Cape Town. The British government encouraged its citizens to emigrate to the Cape—mostly to establish a buffer between African tribesmen and farming colonists on the eastern frontier—and the first sizable group of 4,000 began to arrive in 1820.

Eventually the British government went to war with the native Zulus (see the article on Zulus in this volume), defeating them after a number of bloody battles. At the turn of the century, British forces fought the Anglo-Boer war and defeated the Afrikaners. South Africa was incorporated into the British Empire. In 1910 the Union of South Africa, a self-governing dominion within the British Empire, was created. Throughout this turbulent history, English South Africans settled all over the country.


English has been spoken in South Africa since the nineteenth century. It is the same as English spoken elsewhere in the world, but it has a distinctive South African accent and vocabulary. South African English pronunciation of the words yes, kettle, and axle are yis, kittle, and eksel.

South African English slang has borrowed some structures from Afrikaans, such as "I am going to the shop, will you come with?" It has also taken some words from African languages, such as indaba (gathering).


English South Africans share in holidays, legends, and myths with others in the English-speaking world. They celebrate Christmas with gifts, family gatherings, and dinner. They get together for parties and celebrations on New Year's Eve, and sing Auld Lang Syne at midnight.


Religious beliefs are an important part of the daily life of many South Africans. Most English South Africans belong to Protestant Christian denominations; a lesser number adhere to the Catholic church. Religion played a key role in opposition to the racial discrimination known as apartheid. Religious leaders such as Archbishop Desmond Tutu of the Anglican Church in South Africa became politically prominent in their campaigns for equality and democracy.


The English of South Africa observe national and religious holidays. These include Republic Day, May 31, honoring the date in 1961 that South Africa became a republic; Kruger Day, October 10, honoring the birth of Stephanus Johannus Paulus Kruger (1925–1904), an early Afrikaner political leader.


The rites of passage for English South Africans would be familiar to their counterparts in other parts of the world. After graduation from high school—known as matriculation in South Africa—it is common to go on to a technical college or to a university.

Few South African youths own cars before they get full-time jobs. The purchase of the first car is an important rite of passage, as is reaching the age of eighteen when it becomes legal to drive, to vote, and to drink alcohol. On the twenty-first birthday, it is usual to present the celebrant with a symbolic silver key to adulthood. Marriage usually occurs in the mid-twenties.

After university graduation—and sometimes before—it is common for young English South Africans to try to travel abroad. Typically, they travel to Britain and the European continent (fourteen hours away by air) but increasing numbers are traveling to the United States, Asia, Australia, and New Zealand. Because of the expense involved, many try to get work during their travels. It is not uncommon to find young English South Africans working in other countries as farm laborers, maids, nannies, and in other casual jobs.

In the past, military service was compulsory at age eighteen for white males only. Army duty brought English and Afrikaner South Africans together. As of the late 1990s, all races served in a volunteer defense force, further demolishing past racial barriers.


In the past, English South Africans—like other ethnic and racial groups in the country—tended to keep to themselves with most social contacts confined to members of their own group. With the end of separation of the races (which began by stages in the 1980s and reached its peak with the beginning of democracy in 1994), whites and blacks have been brought together in schools, colleges, the workplace, and sports fields. As a result, people are being exposed to customs that may be different than their own. For instance, in some African cultures it is considered polite to sit down when a prominent person or someone elderly enters a room. English South Africans have been taught traditionally that younger people should stand up as a mark of respect. They are learning that their way is not necessarily practiced by everyone.


Under the apartheid system, whites (both English and Afrikaner) were afforded many advantages. For instance, they had better schools, better job opportunities, and better recreation and health facilities. English-speaking South Africans were part of that elite. As of the late 1990s, there are no longer legal barriers to race groups living anywhere. The typical English South African lives in a single family house on a wide suburban street or in an apartment or semi-detached row house with neighborhood playgrounds, shopping centers, and cinemas (movie theaters).


In English South African families, both parents typically work. Younger children are cared for after school by live-in domestic workers. With high interest rates and sharply rising property prices, it has become fairly common for young adults to continue to live at home for longer than they would have in the past. Sometimes families build separate structures on their property for their adult children or elderly parents.

English South African families celebrate birthdays, anniversaries, special achievements in school or in sports, and often take vacations together, renting cottages or apartments at the seaside. Many families keep one or two dogs or cats as pets.


Everyday clothing is similar to that worn by middle-class people throughout the world. It is common to find men giving up traditional Western business suits at work for a more casual style of dress. This trend was set by President Nelson Mandela who wore colorful open-neck shirts even at formal meetings. Schoolchildren wear school uniforms. Sometimes these uniforms include the traditional blazer and tie for boys and girls, but this is hot and uncomfortable during the summer. Many schools have opted for open-neck clothes. Shorts and T-shirts are popular on weekends.

12 • FOOD

English South Africans traditionally enjoyed roast beef or lamb with roasted potatoes and Yorkshire pudding, prepared on Sunday morning and eaten at a family lunch (followed by a nap). Lifestyles and dietary changes are changing this tradition. The traditional breakfast of bacon and eggs has also been given up on most mornings. English South Africans drink coffee or tea, and eat toast, breakfast cereal, or fruit. Lunch is often a sandwich or slice of pizza. Dinner might by grilled steak with fried or baked potatoes. Fried or baked fish is popular in coastal cities. In winter, bredies (stews) are popular. English South Africans like to garnish their food with chutney (pickled relish). Many enjoy a bread spread called Marmite, a dark-colored yeast extract with a salty taste. Fast foods are gaining in popularity.


Almost all English South Africans are literate (can read and write). Education is compulsory to the age of sixteen. It generally takes twelve years to obtain a high school diploma or senior certificate which is required to continue studies at a technical college or university. University undergraduate degrees generally take three years to complete. (The academic year is longer than in the United States.) An additional year of study after a bachelor's degree can lead to an honors degree, followed by further work for master's degrees or doctorates.

It is becoming more difficult to get a good job without a bachelor's degree or a technical college diploma. Many families will sacrifice to ensure that their children are educated.


English South African writers have achieved international renown for their depiction of dramatic events in South Africa. Probably the best-known such writer is Alan Paton (1903–88). His novel, Cry the Beloved Country , explores the impact of racism on whites as well as blacks. Another writer who has achieved international fame is Nadine Gordimer (1923–). Playwright Athol Fugard (1932–) has also achieved international fame with his dramatic portrayals of life through South Africa's racetinged prism. Many English South Africans have developed a taste for African music, as performed by groups like Ladysmith Black Mambazo. American musician and entertainer Paul Simon has done much to bring this music to an international audience.


A typical work week ranges from forty to forty-six hours. There is no legally mandated minimum wage. Until 1979, special classes of labor were reserved for workers by race. The more highly paid jobs were reserved for, and are still largely held by, whites. After apartheid, this situation was changing. Some English South Africans express concern over affirmative action programs to correct the inequities created by apartheid. Some claim now that this has led to a new kind of apartheid in which whites are unable to get jobs and promotion because of their skin color.


Outdoor sports are very popular. Cricket and rugby are national obsessions. Other popular sports are soccer, field hockey (mostly female participants) played in winter, tennis, track and field athletics, competitive cycling, and swimming. Lawn bowls (bowling) is played mostly by older adults. Windsurfing, surfing, yachting, hiking, and mountaineering are all popular. Events that attract thousands of spectators and participants include annual road marathon races in Cape Town and Natal. Horse racing also has a large following, and two races in particular—the Cape Metropolitan handicap and the Durban July—are major media events. The fashions worn by the spectators get as much attention as the horses.


Popular recreation attractions in South Africa include Kruger National Park and several game reserves. Entertainment facilities include symphony halls, theaters, movies, nightclubs, and discos.


English in South Africa enjoy the varied hobbies of citizens of any industrialized nation.


South Africa's transition to democracy in 1994 brought equal rights and new opportunities to the disadvantaged sectors of the population. It also sparked a dramatic increase in the rate of crime and violence—an result of poverty and high unemployment. Burglaries, muggings, carjackings, rapes, and murders all increased in the late 1990s. As a result, there is a growing interest in the possibility of emigration (moving out of the country), and growth of home security services and the development of gated communities.

South Africa's transition also made it a target for foreign narcotics traffickers who saw an opportunity to ship drugs through the newly opened borders. Illegal drugs are shipped through South Africa to North America and Europe in a complex network that makes themt difficult to trace.


Crocker, Chester A. High Noon in Southern Africa. New York: Norton, 1992.

Mallaby, Sebastian. After Apartheid. New York: Random House, 1992.

Morris, Donald R. The Washing of the Spears. London, England: Jonathan Cape, 1972.

Paton, Alan. Towards the Mountain, An Autobiography. Cape Town: David Philip, 1980 (also published in the United States by Charles Scribner's Sons).

Reader's Digest Illustrated History of South Africa. Cape Town: Reader's Digest Association, 1994.

Suzman, Helen. In No Uncertain Terms, A South African Memoir. New York: Knopf, 1993.


Embassy of South Africa, Washington, D.C. [Online] Available http://www.southafrica.net/ , 1998.

Government of South Africa. [Online] http://www.polity.org.za/gnu.html , 1998.

Interknowledge Corp. South Africa. [Online] Available http://www.geographia.com/south-africa/ , 1998.

Southern African Development Community. South Africa. [Online] Available http://www.sadcusa.net/members/safrica/ , 1998.

Also read article about English from Wikipedia

User Contributions:

interesting article. After studying in South Africa. I can see how apartheid really created such inequality. It is a miracle SA is still going. I pray things become much better for the previously disadvantaged communitities. If I were white, I would really sympathize with them instead of always trying to find an explanation for apartheid.

Awsome stuff.
Great article but as a member of this cultural group I must comment on the notes about language and accent. The example you give there is of a very stereotypical person, something you would see in a cartoon or comedy sketch. South African English accents depend highly on where you come from. Johannesburgers speak a very pure received pronunciation of English, Cape Townians have a drawn out drawl to their tone and Durbanites might be mistaken for Australians to the untrained ear (again not the crocodile Dundee Australian accent).

You should also mention that a significant portion of the South African English are ex Rhodesians, from both North and South Rhodesia, fleeing political struggles in the 60's, 70's and 80's. The culture amongst these population groups is so similar its was easy to assimilate, but its a very common thing for South Africans to sit around the braai and talk of the good old days in Rhodesia.

One last note... There are small but active populations of Greek and Portuguese descendants who are put into this cultural group purely on linguistic grounds, but have distinct elements to their culture.
Hello, there might be a chance I won't get an answer since it seems this article was written a long time ago, but I got a few questions. I am right now writing a country report of English in South Africa and used some information from this text. However there is no name of an author or date it was published. Who is the author, what is the name of the article and what is the publishing date? Thanks in advance

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