Top 20 most famous South Africans of all time: who are they?

Top 20 most famous South Africans of all time: who are they?

South Africa has produced celebrities and famous people in the world spanning from Nobel Prize winners to comedians to actors and even athletes. The list of famous South Africans is a long one, thus a source of pride in Mzansi. It is by no mere coincidence, but a majority of famous South Africans were involved with fighting off the apartheid rule.

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Most famous South Africans of all time
Photo: (modified by author)
Source: UGC

South Africa, a country in the southern part of the continent with the second best economy in Africa, has produced celebrities and famous people in the world, spanning from Nobel Prize winners to comedians to actors and even athletes. The list of famous South Africans is a source of pride in Mzansi.

Top 20 most famous South Africans of all time

Many icons have made a significant impact on South Africa and its people. These heroes and heroines come from all walks of life and represent the best of South African culture. Here is a brief mention of just 20 of them.

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1. Nelson Mandela

most famous South Africans
Nelson Mandela hosts the 46664 World AIDS Day Concert at Ellis Park Stadium in Johannesburg - South Africa. Photo: Michelly Rall
Source: Getty Images

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  • Full name: Nelson Rolihlahla Mandela
  • Age: Died December, 5th 2013, aged 95
  • Birthday: 18 July 1918
  • Famous for: Fighting against Apartheid and Nobel Peace Prize

Who is Africa's most famous person? Nelson Mandela is one of the most famous people in Africa. He is the nation's father and the first black head of state in South Africa. Mandela played perhaps the most significant role in the fight against Apartheid and ended up serving a 27-year jail term as part of a life sentence for treason. In 1993 Nelson Mandela won the Nobel Peace Prize for ending Apartheid.

2. Zenzile Miriam Makeba

  • Full name: Zenzile Miriam Makeba
  • Age: Died November 2008, aged 76
  • Birthday: 4 March 1932
  • Famous for: Bringing African music to a Western audience

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Miriam Makeba is one of the most famous female South Africans. She was a telented singer who took Africa's ideas to the world. Her music, according to Nelson Mandela, inspired a sense of hope.

She is a Grammy Award-winning singer and songwriter. Miriam Makeba performed alongside great acts such as; the Cuban Brother, Manhattan Brothers, The Skylarks, Paul Simon, Nina Simone, and the legendary Hugh Masekela.

3. Desmond Tutu

famous white South Africans
Desmond Tutu takes up his position as Visiting Professor in Post Conflict Societies at Kings College London at the university's campus in central London, England. Photo: Scott Barbour
Source: Getty Images
  • Full name: Desmond Mpilo Tutu
  • Age: Died on 26 December 2021, aged 90
  • Birthday: 7 October 1931
  • Famous for: Nobel Peace Prize winner

Before the years of Apartheid came to an end, another formidable force that fought the great oppression publicly was Desmond Tutu. He was the first black person to become the Bishop of Johannesburg in 1985, and later, he became the Archbishop of Cape Town.

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Desmond Tutu was also a part of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of South Africa. He is famous for the term "Rainbow Nation" to describe South Africa after Apartheid.

4. Bantu Stephen Biko

famous female South Africans
This 1977 photo shows Black Consciousness Movement (BCM) founder Steve Biko. Photo: The Sowetan
Source: Getty Images
  • Full name: Bantu Stephen Biko
  • Age: Died September 1977, aged 30
  • Birthday: 18 December 1946
  • Famous for: Creation of the South African Students' Organization

Stephen Biko is known for the ideologies he spread as the leader of the Black Consciousness Movement. He advocated for the fight against Apartheid.

The term was used at the time to involve not just black people but also people of colour and Indians. He spread his ideas on Black Consciousness through various articles he authored under a pseudonym, Frank Talk.

Biko was eventually arrested on 18 August 1977, and while in custody, he sustained injuries that led to his death a month later

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5. Winnie Madikizela-Mandela

famous south African women
Winnie Madikizela-Mandela greets the audience during the 54th national conference of the African National Congress party (ANC) in Johannesburg, South Africa. Photo: Waldo Swiegers
Source: Getty Images
  • Full name: Nomzamo Winifred Zanyiwe Madikizela
  • Age: Died September 1977, aged 30
  • Birthday: 2 April 2018 (aged 81)
  • Famous for: fighting against Apartheid

The Mother of the Nation was an anti-Apartheid activist. Winnie popularly endorsed the necklacing of police informers and kidnapping. She became a senior ANC figure and led the post-Apartheid government efforts to remove institutionalized racism.

6. Lucas Radebe

  • Full name: Lucas Valeriu Ntuba Radebe
  • Age: 43 years (as of 2022)
  • Birthday: 12 April 1969
  • Famous for: Captain of South African National team

In the late 80s and early 90s, Lucas Radebe was a defender every striker in football would dread facing. Then, Lucas Radebe captained Leeds United on the Yorkshire side.

He also continued to captain the South African national team until the 2002 World Cup. English Football Association picked him as an ambassador, and he was awarded the FIFA Fair Play Award in the year 2000 for his efforts to end racism in football and for his charity work in South Africa

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7. Terry Pheto

actors born in South Africa
Actress Terry Pheto arrives at the Essence 10th Annual Black Women in Hollywood Awards Gala at the Beverly Wilshire Four Seasons Hotel in Beverly Hills, California. Photo: Amanda Edwards
Source: Getty Images
  • Full name: Moitheri Pheto
  • Age: 41 years (as of 2022)
  • Birthday: 11 May 1981
  • Famous for: Leading role as Miriam in the film Tsotsi

Terry Pheto is an award-winning South African actress best known for her role in the 2005 film Tsotsi. Her talent landed her the lead role for the movie, which went on to win an Oscar when a casting agent spotted her as part of a theatre group in Soweto.

She has since gone on to star in several other movies and television shows, including Goodbye Bafana, Catch a Fire and more popularly in Jacob's Cross playing Mbali.

8. Leon Schuster

  • Full name: Leon Ernest Schuster
  • Age: 71 years (as of 2022)
  • Birthday: 21 May 1951
  • Famous for: Role in films such as Mama Jack, Yankee Zulu and Mr Bones

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Leon Schuster is a singer, songwriter, and filmmaker. He is among the famous white South Africans who has worn many hats in his colourful career in the entertainment industry and, for the most part, has helped shape the future of the South African film industry.

His music has also brought him a considerable chunk of fame over the years selling close to half a million copies of his albums. Schuster also made many iconic movies in his career as a filmmaker, the best of which includes Mr Bones 2: Back from the Past, Millenium Menace, and You Must Be Joking!

9. Yvonne Chaka Chaka

  • Full name: Yvonne Chaka Chaka
  • Age: 57 years (as of 2022)
  • Birthday: 18 March 1965
  • Famous for: Her music and humanitarian work

Yvonne Chaka Chaka is among the most famous South African women who has used her music to put South Africa on the global stage in the entertainment industry. She made multiple hit songs throughout her career, including Umqombothi, Thank you, Mr DJ, and I'm Burning Up.

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Later in her career, Yvonne Chaka Chaka began focusing on humanitarian efforts to fight against AIDS, joining the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, TB, and Malaria. She also established her charity organization, the Princess of Africa Foundation.

10. Hugh Masekela

famous white South Africans
Hugh Masekela performs on stage at the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival in New Orleans. Photo: David Redfern
Source: Getty Images
  • Full name: Hugh Ramapolo Masekela
  • Age: Died on 23 January 2018, at 78
  • Birthday: 4 April 1939
  • Famous for: the song Bring Him Back Home

Hugh Masekela is an award-winning trumpeter, flugelhornist, singer, and songwriter. He has performed alongside worldwide sensations throughout his musical career.

During Apartheid, Hugh Masekela used his talent to compose and write some of the best anti-apartheid songs, Soweto Blues. The song Bring Him Back Home became the anthem championing the end of Apartheid and the release of Nelson Mandela from prison.

11. Brenda Nokuzola Fassie

famous south African women
South African singer, Brenda Fassie, also known as Ma Brrr. Photo: Foto24
Source: Getty Images
  • Full name: Brenda Nokuzola Fassie
  • Age: 9 May 2004, aged 39
  • Birthday: 3 November 1964
  • Famous for: Her music

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Famously known as the Madonna of the Townships, Brenda Fassie was loved by many. Her music was about life in the townships that many could easily relate to.

Brenda Fassie struggled through a cocaine addiction in the 90s, going in and out of rehabilitation centres. She had the best-selling album in South Africa after her addiction called, Memeza, which was released in 1998.

Brenda died in 2004 after slipping into a coma brought on by an overdose of cocaine the night before she died.

12. Lucky Phillip Dube

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South African singer Lucky Dube performs at the Africa festival in Delft, Netherlands. Photo: Frans Schellekens
Source: Getty Images
  • Full name: Lucky Philip Dube
  • Age: 18 October 2007, aged 43
  • Birthday: 3 August 1964
  • Famous for: Reggae music

Lucky Dube is the biggest-selling African reggae artist releasing 22 albums. He was shot dead on 18 October 2007. His killers were arrested, tried, found guilty of murder, and sentenced to life in prison. Lucky Dube was a pioneer for many African reggae artists.

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13. Trevor Noah

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Trevor Noah attends the 64th Annual GRAMMY Awards at MGM Grand Garden Arena in Las Vegas, Nevada. Photo: Axelle
Source: Getty Images
  • Full name: Trevor Noah
  • Age: 38 years (as of 2022)
  • Birthday: 20 February 1984
  • Famous for: Comedy

Trevor Noah is a comedian, TV host and author. He was born and raised in South Africa under the harsh ethos of Apartheid and being, in his own words, "Born a Crime". He has survived a dysfunctional family and extreme poverty to rise to the helm of late-night TV comedy.

Trevor is a true icon of how young South Africans have gone ahead to overcome the challenges of Apartheid and change the course of many young people's lives by showing them a different way.

14. J. R. R. Tolkien

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John Ronald Reuel Tolkien (1892 - 1973) was a South African-born philologist and author of 'The Hobbit' and 'The Lord Of The Rings. Photo: Haywood Magee
Source: Getty Images
  • Full name: John Ronald Reuel Tolkien
  • Age: Died 2 September 1973, aged 81
  • Birthday: 3 January 1892
  • Famous for: The Lord of The Rings trilogy

John Ronald Reuel Tolkien was a famous author of The Hobbit and The Lord of The Rings trilogy. He was born in Bloemfontein, Orange Free State. Some of his famous publications include Beowulf: The Monsters and the Critics, The Silmarillion and Unfinished Tales and The History of Middle-earth.

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15. Nkosi Johnson

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Nkosi Johnson, age 12, rests his head on a pillow in his home in Melville, a suburb of Johannesburg, South Africa. Photo: Per-Anders Pettersson
Source: Getty Images
  • Full name: Nkosi Johnson
  • Age: Died 1 June 2001, aged 12
  • Birthday: 4 February 1989
  • Famous for: Destigmatizing HIV and AIDS

Nkosi Johnson was born in 1989 with HIV. He was born to a teenage mother who didn't know she had the virus, and Nkosi's father died of AIDS when he was just a baby.

Nkosi himself was diagnosed with HIV at the age of two. Nkosi Johnson's story is one of courage and hope. Despite his prejudice and discrimination, he spoke out about living with HIV and AIDS. He became a powerful voice for change, and his work helped to destigmatize HIV and AIDS

16. Thabo Mbeki

most famous South Africans
Former South African President Thabo Mbeki's speeches during the meeting of Valdai Discussion Club in Sochi, Russia, on October 27, 2016. Photo: Mikhail Svetlov
Source: Getty Images
  • Full name: Thabo Mvuyelwa Mbeki
  • Age: 80 years (as of 2022)
  • Birthday: 18 June 1942
  • Famous for: Politiciananti-apartheid activist

Thabo, a politician from South Africa, served as the country's second president from 14 June 1999 to 24 September 2008. His political character revolves around his pan-Africanism and desire for an "African rebirth." Thao Mbeki gave South Africa a voice in African and international affairs.

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He has received numerous honours and awards over the years and is the patron of the Thabo Mbeki Foundation and Thabo Mbeki African Leadership Institute.

17. Oliver Tambo

most famous South Africans
ANC President Oliver Tambo during a visit to State Department. Photo: Cynthia Johnson
Source: Getty Images
  • Full name: Oliver Reginald Kaizana Tambo
  • Age: Died 24 April 1993, aged 75
  • Birthday: 27 October 1917
  • Famous for: His fight against the Apartheid

Oliver Tambo was one of the most important figures in the struggle against Apartheid in South Africa. In 1955, he was elected president of the ANC's Transvaal branch, and in 1960 he became deputy president of the organization.

Tambo spent much of the 1960s and 1970s in exile, working to build international support for the anti-apartheid movement.

18. Walter Sisulu

actors born in South Africa
African National Congress (ANC) general secretary and former Robben Island prison inmate of Nelson Mandela, Walter Sisulu, holds a speech during a rally in Soweto. Photo: Georges De Keerle
Source: Getty Images
  • Full name: Walter Max Ulyate Sisulu
  • Age: Died 5 May 2003, aged 90
  • Birthday: 18 May 1912
  • Famous for: His strive for freedom and equality

Walter Sisulu was a South African anti-apartheid activist and African National Congress (ANC) member. Sisulu began his political career as a member of the ANC Youth League, and he quickly rose through the ranks to become one of the organization's most influential leaders.

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He played a key role in organizing resistance to Apartheid and was jailed several times for his activism. Walter Sisulu was a courageous leader who dedicated his life to fighting for justice in South Africa. His legacy continues to inspire people around the world who are striving for freedom and equality.

19. Chris Hani

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In Soweto, Chris Hani speaks at a press conference on the third day of the first SACP legal congress inside South Africa in 41 years. Photo: Walter Dhladhla
Source: Getty Images
  • Full name: Martin Thembisile Hani
  • Age: Died 10 April 1993, aged 50
  • Birthday: 28 June 1942
  • Famous for: Fighting against Apartheid

Chris Hani was a South African political leader who was an ardent opponent of Apartheid. He fought for the rights of all people, regardless of race.

He was a leading figure in the struggle to create a non-racial democracy in South Africa. Chris Hani was assassinated in 1993, but his legacy inspires those fighting for justice worldwide.

20. Albert Luthuli

famous South Africans
Chief Albert John Luthuli, former Zulu chief at London Airport. Photo: Keystone
Source: Getty Images
  • Full name: Inkosi Albert John Luthuli
  • Age: Died 21 July 1967, aged 69
  • Birthday: 1898
  • Famous for: Activist, Nobel Peace Prize winner, and politician

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Albert Luthuli, a South African anti-apartheid activist and once a Zulu chief, is another famous person. His works and fame are widespread, and a street is named after him in countries such as Kenya. He was the first black South African to be a Nobel laureate.

Who are the popular actors born in South Africa?

In South Africa, there are a lot of people that are talented in both acting and music. Several of the country's well-known actors include:

  • Charlize Theron
  • Tony Kgoroge
  • Sharlto Copley
  • Zakes Mokae
  • Zethu Dlomo
  • Leon Schuster
  • Basil Rathbone
  • Adhir Kalyan
  • John Kani
  • Justine Waddell

Is Elon Musk South African?

Yes, he was born in Pretoria. He is an investor and a business tycoon. His father, Errol Musk, is a South African electromechanical engineer, pilot, sailor, consultant, and property developer, while his mother, Maye Musk, is a model and dietitian who was born in Saskatchewan, Canada, and raised in South Africa.

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Is South Africa famous for anything?

The country is well known for its extraordinary vistas and distinctive and plentiful wildlife. Due to the huge amount of mineral resources in the distinctive and varied landscapes, it is also one of the world's greatest diamonds and precious metals producers.

Who is the most famous person in Africa?

Aliko Dangote is one of Africa's most well-known individuals. He is a Nigerian tycoon with several billion-dollar businesses. He is often recognised as Africa's wealthiest man.

South Africans have endured one of the toughest racially oppressive periods, apartheid. Their hardship left the country resilient, forgiving and determined to forge ahead for a better South Africa. The above famous South Africans are among the many who have carried the South African name worldwide.

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