South Africa’s Official Languages: A Multilingual Identity and Cultural Heritage

South Africa sets itself apart from the rest of the world as a culturally rich and multilingual country with about 30 languages spoken over its nine provinces. It is known as the “rainbow nation” since the rainbow is a symbol of hope and refers to diversity and inclusivity in its societies. In the past, only the European languages were dominant in the country and were used in all the official sectors such as government, business, media, and education. South Africa official languages were English, Dutch, and Afrikaans. While the ethnic African languages which are spoken by around 80% of the South African population were totally marginalized. 

In 1996, a new constitution came into existence which aimed at giving the African languages more importance. It has stated that the official languages of South Africa include 8 indigenous African languages which has given the South African population more confidence and fostered their sense of belonging and inclusivity. Now, the official languages of South Africa are English, Afrikaans, Xhosa, Zulu, Sesotho, Pedi, Tswana, Tsonga, Venda, Swati, and Ndebele. There are other unofficial languages which are regarded as the oldest South African languages such as Khoekhoegowab, Orakobab, Xirikobab, N|uuki, and Xunthali. 

This great multilingualism has enriched the cultural heritage of South Africa with people speaking different languages and belonging to various cultures. In this article, we will give you an overview of some of the eleven official languages in South Africa. Let’s get started!

A Closer Look at South Africa’s Official Languages

South Africa has eleven official languages, of which Zulu is the most widely spoken language. It has been estimated that around a quarter of the South African population speaks Zulu. After Zulu comes Xhosa which is spoken by 16% and Afrikaans by 13.5% of the total population. Apart from English and Afrikaans, the nine African languages, which are recognized by the new constitution, belong to two main families of languages:

  • Nguni-Tsonga languages: This family includes Ndebele, Xhosa, Zulu, Swati, and Tsonga.
  • Sotho-Makua-Venda languages: Sesotho, Pedi, Tswana, and Venda fall under this group of languages. 


Most South Africans can speak more than one language, some are bilingual and others are multilingual, which gives them a strong advantage to communicate smoothly with other communities. English, in South Africa, is an urban language that is mainly used in the cities. According to the South African Embassy, it is the language of official business and commerce.  

Now, let’s shine a spotlight on some of the most important languages to allow you to get an overview of each language and its significance. Scroll down to find out!


Besides being one of the official languages, English is one of the country’s lingua franca. It is spoken as a first language by 10% of the population. It is the most widespread language in the cities and widely spoken as a second language across the country. The language was brought to the country by the British colonization in 1795, and they declared English an official language in 1822. They forced the usage of the English language in schools and Churches. The influxes of British settlers brought different dialects of English. In 1910, English and Dutch were the official languages of South Africa. Many years later, nine indigenous African languages got equal official status.

South African English follows the same British grammatical system; however, it has been impacted by many other accents and languages. It has some unique phonetic features that are different from those of the British English. South African English is usually referred to as “SAE” being a distinct variant of the English language that has many borrowed words and expressions from other African languages.


Afrikaans is a West-Germanic language that belongs to the 17th-century Dutch. It is related to the Dutch vernacular of Holland proper which was spoken by Dutch, French, and German settlers and people enslaved by them. Although it has a Dutch origin with many shared features with the Dutch language, it is regarded as a language of its own. Afrikaans is spoken in South Africa, Namibia, Botswana, Zambia, and Lesotho, Malawi, and Zimbabwe. It has the highest number of speakers in South Africa with more than 6.9 million people. 

Afrikaans has many dialects, the most important of which are Cape Afrikaans, Orange River Afrikaans, and East Cape Afrikaans. The Afrikaans culture is a combination of the African cultures and those of the European immigrants. The Afrikaans-speaking populations care about music, dance, and festivals.


Zulu, also known as Isizulu, is a Southern Bantu language that belongs to the Nguni branch of languages. It is the most home language that is widely spoken in South Africa with more than 12 million native speakers who are scattered in the province of KwaZulu-Natal. It is also spoken as a second language by almost 15.7 million people as reported by South Africa Gateway. This means that more than 50% of the population understands Zulu, making it one of the largest languages in South Africa.

Zulu was first documented by the European missionaries using the Latin script. It is first grammar book was published in Norway in 1850 by the Norwegian missionary Hans Schreuder. Standard Zulu is quite different from Urban Zulu. Standard Zulu is used in schools using pure Zulu words in teaching different concepts, while Urban Zulu has many borrowed words from other languages such as English, and it is mainly spoken by people living in the cities. 


Xhosa, also called IsiXhosa, is an official language in South Africa and Zimbabwe. The name “Xhosa” is taken from the Khoisan language and means “angry men”. Xhosa is a Naguni language and one of the Bantu languages that is spoken as a first language by almost 10 million people, most of whom live in South Africa. It is one of the Zunda languages that also include Zulu, Southern Ndebele, and Northern Ndebele. The language is popular for its numerous clicking sounds, which are formed by the tongue. In South Africa’s Eastern Cape, you can find how Xhosa is broadly spoken and used in schools. You will also see many Xhosa people in Cape Town, the Western Cape, and Gauteng. Xhosa has several dialects like Bhaca, Ngqika, Thembu, Mpondomise, and Mfengu. 

The Xhosa nation is divided into tribes and clans. Each clan has a group of families that have different surnames but use the same clan name. The Xhosa people are characterized by their cotton-woven clothes. The Xhosa women are known for their special jewellery that is made of beads. 


Summing up

South Africa’s official languages represent the country’s multilingual identity and cultural heritage. Recognizing and preserving linguistic diversity is crucial for promoting inclusivity, communication, and the empowerment of marginalized communities. By embracing and celebrating multilingualism, South Africa can continue to foster a strong sense of national unity while honouring the unique linguistic and cultural traditions of its diverse population.

Afrolingo is a reliable language service provider in South Africa that offers best-in-class translation and localization services for many South African languages such as Xhosa, Zulu, Tsonga, Ndebele, Afrikaans, Venda, Sesotho, and Setswana. At Afrolingo, we make sure that our employed translators are in-country native speakers with profound knowledge of the linguistic and cultural nuances of the source and target languages. Talk to us today!