South Africa has one of the world's most complex ethnic patterns. Furthermore, legal separation of the racial communities was a cornerstone of government policy through most of the 20th century. This racial policy, often called apartheid but referred to in South African government circles as "separate development," created and maintained one of the most rigidly segregated societies in the world. During the 1970s and 1980s, enforcement of separatist policies eased, but the division of the population into four racial communities remained. According to 1998 estimates, blacks formed the largest segment of the population, constituting 75.2% of the total. Whites accounted for 13.6%; Cape Coloureds for 8.6%; and Asians 2.6%.
The black population includes a large number of peoples. The largest groups include the Zulu, Xhosa, Northern Sotho, Southern Sotho, Tswana, Shangana-Tsongo, and Swazi.
About 60% of the whites are descendants of Dutch, French Huguenot, and German settlers, and about 40% are of British descent; South Africans of European, especially Dutch, descent are called Afrikaners. The Cape Coloureds are a long-established racial amalgam of white, Hottentot, and other African, Indian, and Malay lineage. Some 86% live in Cape Province.
The Asians include descendants of Indian, East Indian, and Chinese indentured laborers who were not repatriated after their brief period of service as miners.