The word multilingualism can be used to refer to the use or maintenance of more than one language in a certain context. In this regard it may refer to the fact that many languages are spoken in South Africa but also that many South Africans know more than one language. Here the focus will be on the use of various languages by South Africans.

English in South Africa

Since English speakers came to South Africa from 1795 onwards the language has had an influence. Especially after the political power shifted from the Dutch to the English speaking colonists during the British occupations in the 1800s. From 1814 the language has been an official language. English has experienced two - almost conflicting - sources of support. Firstly as language of political power it was seen in high regard by European colonists (apart from a strong Dutch/Afrikaans movement that existed at the same time). Secondly later as language of the struggle in resistance to Afrikaans which was seen as the language of Apartheid. This was especially due to the Apartheid laws forcing the teaching of Afrikaans and the subsequent riots in Soweto.

Today as English is seen as a very important international language and its domination of science, media and the Internet is unquestionable. In South Africa the language is associated with power and financial prosperity. English is also the language most often used in the media and even by politicians or government officials even though attempts have been made to promote multilingualism.

English knowledge by South Africans
According to the 2001 census by Statistics South Africa there are 3 673 203 (8.2%) first language speakers of English in South Africa.

With regards to English as a second language figures vary quite a lot - here's some of the available figure:

The 1991 national census indicated that around 45% of South African population had a basic knowledge of English.

E. de Kadt (1993) cited a figure of 29% for spoken English competence in the South African general population.

A survey by RCM in 1993 determined that 61% of South African blacks have a knowledge of English.

The 1996 census determined that there's 2 199 408 second language speakers of English.

In 2002 the Pan South African Language Board (PanSALB) did a national sociolinguistic survey and the following findings were made with regard to English:

African languages

Among African language speakers knowledge of other African languages are often at the order of the day. Especially in the following instances:

The 2002 Pan South African Language Board (PanSALB) national sociolinguistic survey determined the following levels of understanding of African languages (for language other than a home language):

Language Percentage
Afrikaans 11%
English 14%
Northern Sotho 13%
Sesotho 30%
Setswana 20%
SiSwati 42%
IsiNdebele 19%
IsiXhosa 13%
IsiZulu 16%
Tshivenda 13%
Xitsonga 21%

From these figures it is evident that no clear lingua franca exists amongst the African languages spoken in South Africa.

Also see...
Language & Media
Language & Education

J. Olivier (2009)