South Africa’s population

South Africa has 56.5-million people, according to 2017 estimates. The 2011 census puts it at 51.5-million. Black South Africans make up around 81% of the total, coloured people 9%, whites 8% and Indians 3%.

A child plays in a local restaurant in Vosloorus, a large township in Gauteng province. (Media Club South Africa)

A child plays in a local restaurant in Vosloorus, a large township in Gauteng province. (Media Club)

The country has the fourth-largest population in Africa – after Nigeria, Ethiopia and Egypt – and the 25th-largest in the world.

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According to Statistics South Africa’s 2017 mid-year population estimates, South Africa is home to 56,521,900 people.

Black South Africans are in the majority, with a population of 45.7-million – 80.8% of the total. The rest is made up of 5-million coloured South Africans (8.7%), 1.4-million Indian or Asian South Africans (2.6%) and 4.5-million white South Africans (7.9%).

Bar graph and pie chart showing South Africa's population in 2017, according to four main population groups: African, coloured, Indian or Asian and white. Data sourced from Statistics South Africa's 2017 mid-year population estimates.

These ratios have changed slightly since the country held its last census, in 2011. The proportion of black people has increased, that of coloured and Indian South Africans has stayed the same, and the percentage of white people has shrunk.

Census 2011 recorded South Africa’s population 51.8-million, up from the Census 2001 count of 44.8-million. Black South Africans made up 79.2% of the population, coloured and white people each 8.9%, the Indian or Asian population 2.5%, and “other” people – who did not want to be categorised by race – 0.5% of the total.

Population of the provinces

The population of each of South Africa’s provinces varies enormously.

Bar graph and pie chart comparing the different populations of each of South Africa's nine provinces in 2017. The provinces are the Eastern Cape, Free State, Gauteng, KwaZulu-Natal, Limpopo, Mpumalanga, Northern Cape, North West and Western Cape.

The most striking difference is between Gauteng and the Northern Cape. Gauteng is a city region of just 18,178 square kilometres, 1.4% of South Africa’s land area, yet it’s home to over a quarter of the country’s people. The Northern Cape takes up almost a third of South Africa, but it is a region of arid wilderness and hardscrabble farmland in which only 2.1% of the population live.

Then there’s KwaZulu-Natal, home to almost a fifth of the population, and the Free State, home to only 5%.

In 2017 South Africa’s provincial populations, and their share of the total, were:

  • Eastern Cape: 6,497,100 (11.5%)
  • Free State: 2,889,900 (5.1%)
  • Gauteng: 14,273,800 (25.3%)
  • KwaZulu-Natal: 11,067,500 (19.6%)
  • Limpopo: 5,774,600 (10.2%)
  • Mpumalanga: 4,442,500 (7.9%)
  • Northern Cape: 1,213,500 (2.1%)
  • North West: 3,854,400 (6.8%)
  • Western Cape: 6,508,700 (11.5%)

Bar graph and pie chart comparing the land area of South Africa's nine provinces. The provinces are the Eastern Cape, Free State, Gauteng, KwaZulu-Natal, Limpopo, Mpumalanga, Northern Cape, North West and Western Cape.

Population density

South Africa’s population density is 46 people per square kilometre.

In the provinces, differences in size and population mean different population densities. Gauteng, small but populous, has an average of 785 people for every square kilometre. KwaZulu-Natal has 117 people per square kilometre. The empty Northern Cape has a population density of only three people for each square kilometre.

Infographic with maps showing the population density of South Africa and each of South Africa's nine provinces, and comparing it to population density in Brazil, China, Kenya, Nigeria and the UK.

Life, death and HIV

In 2017, South Africans’ life expectancy at birth is an estimated 64 years – 66.7 years for females and 61.2 years for males. This is up from around 55 years in 2002, before any serious effort to tackle the HIV and Aids epidemic began.

Infant mortality (babies who die in their first year of birth) is at an estimated 32.8 deaths for every 1,000 live births. The under-five mortality rate is 42.4 deaths per 1,000 live births. These rates are down from a peak in 2002, when the infant mortality rate was 48.1 and the mortality rate for under-fives at 71.3.

Statistics South Africa estimates the country’s overall HIV prevalence rate at about 12.6%. In 2017, the total number of people living with HIV was some 7-million. About 18% of adults aged 15 to 49 are HIV-positive.

Age structure

Population pyramid for South Africa

Click image to find out more.

Some 16.7-million South Africans are 15 or younger – nearly a third of the population. The provinces with the highest proportion of children are Limpopo, where 35.2% of the population is under 15, the Eastern Cape (33.6%) and KwaZulu-Natal (31.9%).

Around 15.7-million people are 15 to 29 years old, or 26.8% of the total population. A further 12.8 million are aged 30 to 44 (22.8%), and 7.1 million aged 45 to 60 (12.7%).

South Africans aged 60 years or older number 4.6-million people, making up 8.1% of the total. The country’s older population has steadily increased over the last few decades as South Africans live longer. The provinces with the highest proportion of people aged 60 or older are the Eastern Cape (9.9%), the Northern Cape (9.8%) and the Western Cape (9.1%).

The Eastern Cape is South Africa’s poorest province with the highest rate of outward migration to other provinces. This leaves it with the highest proportion of both children and the elderly, as working-age people leave for elsewhere to find jobs.

South Africa’s population structure reveals facts of history and continued inequality. While black South Africans are in the majority in every age group, this majority decreases as the age of the population rises. Coloured, Indian and especially white South Africans tend to live longer.

The dent in South Africa’s population pyramid at ages 10 to 24 may be a legacy of South Africa’s Aids epidemic of the 1990s and 2000s.

Animation of the racial composition of different age groups in South Africa.

Click image to find out more.

The benefits of increasing economic opportunity, extensive social welfare and access to healthcare since democracy in 1994 are shown by the fact that the population structure remains pretty much unchanged from age zero to about 39 – people born from 1978 onwards.


Map showing the distribution of South Africa's population, as well as the population distribution of black, coloured, Indian and white South Africans.

Click image to find out more.

South Africans migrate away from poverty to where the jobs are. They move from poorer provinces to the richer ones, and from rural areas to the cities.

Gauteng is South Africa’s wealthiest province, mostly a city region and the centre of the country’s economy. It has the largest population, constantly swelled by migration – its net migration rate (number of people moving in minus people moving out) was nearly a million between 2011 and 2016.

The Eastern Cape is the poorest province. Between 2011 and 2016 nearly half a million of its people migrated to other provinces, while only 170 000 or so moved into the province.

South Africa’s international migration rates tend to be positive – more people move here, particularly from the rest of Africa, than leave. Between 2011 and 2016 net migration of black Africans to South Africa was 940 352 people, and a further 1.1-million is expected between 2016 and 2021.

The exception is in the white population. A total of 108 269 more white people emigrated out of South Africa than immigrated here in the five years from 2011 to 2016. Statistics South Africa estimates that between 2016 and 2021 a further 112 740 people will be added to the outflow of white people from South Africa.

Animation of migration between South Africa's nine provinces from 2002 to 2017

Click animation to view from the start.

Census counts of South Africa’s population

South Africa has held three official censuses in its modern democratic history: in 1996, 2001 and 2011.

These have revealed a growing population, and a significant if not dramatic shift in the country’s racial profile. In the 15 years between the 1996 and 2011 censuses, the total population has increased by 11.2-million people.

Infographic: The population of South Africa and ratio of the four main population groups according to Census 1996, Census 2001, Census 2011 and the 2017 mid-year population estimates

In those 15 years, the black population has increased by 9.9-million, the coloured population by 1-million, the Indian population by 240,000 and the white population by 150,000. The ratio by population group has gone from 76.7% black, 8.9% coloured, 2.6% Indian and 10.9% white in 1996, to 79.2% black, 8.9% coloured, 2.5% Indian and 8.9% white in 2011.

Trends in South Africa’s population from 1960

Age structure

There’s a lot of talk of South Africa’s population being dominated by the youth. But as the graphic below shows, we’re less youthful than we have been for decades.

Stacked graph showing South Africa's total population in millions from 1960 to 2016, divided into six age bands: 0-14 years, 15-29 years, 30-44 years, 45-59 years, 60-74 years, and 75 years and above.

The end of apartheid, better healthcare, widespread social welfare and greater economic opportunities all mean South Africans are now able to live longer lives – reducing the proportion of children and youth in our total population. See the actual figures for selected years.


From 1960 to the late 1980s, apartheid laws kept families and communities in poor rural areas. Young men alone were allowed to move to the cities, where their labour was valuable.

Stacked graph showing the population of South Africa from 1960 to 2016 according to urban population, the population of the largest city (Johannesburg) and rural population.

After the end of apartheid, from the mid-1990s, urbanisation increased rapidly. In the last 20 years, much of the migration from rural areas has been to Johannesburg, which has been South Africa’s largest city since 1950.

Life expectancy

Charting South Africans’ life expectancy is to track the country’s modern history. In 1960, a time of terrible apartheid abuse, an average newborn child was expected to have a lifespan of only 52 years – 50 years for boys. In 2015, life expectancy was 62 years.

Line graph showing the life expectancy of South Africans from 1960 to 2016. Total life expectancy in 1960 was 52 years; in 2015 it was 62 years.

In between, life expectancy has risen and fallen. The most severe drop was during the crisis of the HIV and Aids epidemic, from 1995 to 2005. In 2005, life expectancy was the same as it had been in 1960.

Child mortality

The death rate of children is the starkest indicator of the health of a country’s society and economy. In 1974 South Africa’s mortality rate – deaths per 1,000 live births – was 88.1 for infants under a year and 125.5 for under-fives. By 2016 it had dropped to 34.2 for infants and 43.3 for under-fives – the lowest rate yet recorded.

Line graph showing the child mortality rate in South Africa from 1960 to 2016. The child mortality rate is defined as the number of deaths per 1,000 live births. Both the infant (0 to 12 months) and under-5 mortality rate is shown.

Researched, written and designed by MC Alexander.
Updated 9 July 2018.
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