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South Africa

Family Life In Black Communities, Family Life In Asian Communities, Family Life In Colored Families


South Africa, with its 40 million residents, is a multicultural society with eleven official languages. Although most residents (76.7%) speak an indigenous African language (Xhosa 23.4%; Zulu 29.9%; and Sepedi 12%), English is the language that most people understand (Statistics South Africa 1996). Family life must thus also be seen against the background of cultural diversity and extreme socioeconomic differences. Most families—primarily nonwhites—are poor and struggle to satisfy their daily needs. Contributing in complex ways to different types of family structures are traditional practices, historical events—especially the racially discriminatory and disruptive effect of apartheid laws, which placed restrictions on movement, provided inferior education and limited employment opportunities, and enforced compulsory shifting of families—and the demands of modern society (Ross 1995).

When the first whites arrived from Europe in the seventeenth century, there were various dominant black groups with established cultural patterns in the country. After some internal conflicts between whites and black races (for example, the nine border wars on the Cape's eastern boundary between 1778 and 1878 and the Anglo-Zulu war of 1878), two wars were also fought against domination by the United Kingdom, originally from December 1880 to February 1881 and then again from 1899 to 1902 (Davenport 1978). The Union of South Africa, with a white minority government in power, was established in 1910. Afrikaner nationalism (supported by a white group with Afrikaans as its mother tongue) reached a climax with the formation of the Republic of South Africa in 1961. The National Party had come into power in 1948, and this is viewed as the beginning of legal apartheid (separate development), which lasted until 1994. With the first true democratic election in 1994, a predominantly black political party came into power and immediately began to transform society at all levels—economical, social, and educational. The main focus of this transformation process had as its objective the empowerment of nonwhite South Africans in particular.

Although the white population flourished economically and progressed in various ways during the greater part of the twentieth century, various factors had a negative effect on nonwhite families. Urbanization increased rapidly, especially after the abolishment of the influx control regulations—legislation prohibiting people from moving and settling freely to any part of the country—in 1986. However, with the precarious circumstances in which many families had to live (in cities and rural areas), as well as physical separation between husband and wife in many cases (primarily as a result of the migrant labor system), large-scale family disruption occurred in traditional black, colored, and Indian families.

The arrival of political freedom and power in 1994 did not automatically bring about economic power for the nonwhite majority. Most nonwhite families still cannot satisfy their basic needs. The consequences of the previous political era are, therefore, still visible in the low educational and living standard of many nonwhite South Africans (uneducated 21.6%; Statistics South Africa 1996). As a result, the high crime statistics are ascribed to, among other things, poor socioeconomic circumstances, high unemployment (24%), circumstantial frustration, and the failure of politicians to meet campaign promises. Signs of tension are evident in many families in high divorce rates (whites 357 per 100,000 of the population; Indians 142 per 100,000; coloreds 116 per 100,000; and blacks 23 per 100,000; Statistics South Africa 1996), family violence that takes place in many households, and the high rate of teenage pregnancies and out-of-wedlock births. At the same time, the adverse effects of the AIDS epidemic (11% of the population) are already affecting many families and will continue to do so. Given this context, a general description will be given of family structures as they occur in the various population groups.


Additional topics

Marriage and Family EncyclopediaMarriage: Cultural Aspects