The following people are considered by Pantheon to be the top 10 most legendary South African Politicians of all time. This list of famous South African Politicians is sorted by HPI (Historical Popularity Index), a metric that aggregates information on a biography’s online popularity. Visit the rankings page to view the entire list of South African Politicians.
With an HPI of 69.03, Shaka is the most famous South African Politician. His biography has been translated into 89 different languages on wikipedia.
Shaka kaSenzangakhona (c. 1787–22 September 1828), also known as Shaka Zulu (Zulu pronunciation: [ˈʃaːɠa]) and Sigidi kaSenzangakhona, was the king of the Zulu Kingdom from 1816 to 1828. One of the most influential monarchs of the Zulus, he ordered wide-reaching reforms that reorganized the military into a formidable force. King Shaka was born in the lunar month of uNtulikazi (July) in the year 1787, in Melmoth, KwaZulu-Natal Province, South Africa. He, the son of the Zulu King Senzankakhona ka'Jama, was spurned as an illegitimate son. Shaka spent his childhood in his mother's settlements, where he was initiated into an ibutho lempi (fighting unit), serving as a warrior under Inkosi Dingiswayo.King Shaka further refined the ibutho military system with the Mthethwa Paramountcy's support over the next several years. He forged alliances with his smaller neighbor's to counter Ndwandwe raids from the north. The initial Zulu maneuvers were primarily defensive, as King Shaka preferred to apply pressure diplomatically, with an occasional strategic assassination. His reforms of local society built on existing structures. Although he preferred social and propagandistic political methods, he also engaged in a number of battles.King Shaka's reign coincided with the start of the Mfecane/Difaqane ("upheaval" or "crushing"), a period of devastating warfare and chaos in southern Africa between 1815 and 1840 that depopulated the region. His role in the Mfecane/Difaqane is highly controversial. He was ultimately assassinated by his half-brothers, King Dingane and Prince Mhlangana.
With an HPI of 67.53, F. W. de Klerk is the 2nd most famous South African Politician. His biography has been translated into 74 different languages.
Frederik Willem de Klerk ( də-KLURK, də-KLAIRK, Afrikaans: [ˈfriədərək ˈvələm də ˈklɛrk]; 18 March 1936 – 11 November 2021) was a South African politician who served as state president of South Africa from 1989 to 1994 and as deputy president from 1994 to 1996. As South Africa's last head of state from the era of white-minority rule, he and his government dismantled the apartheid system and introduced universal suffrage. Ideologically a social conservative and an economic liberal, he led the National Party (NP) from 1989 to 1997. Born in Johannesburg to an influential Afrikaner family, de Klerk studied at Potchefstroom University before pursuing a career in law. Joining the NP, to which he had family ties, he was elected to parliament and sat in the white-minority government of P. W. Botha, holding a succession of ministerial posts. As a minister, he supported and enforced apartheid, a system of racial segregation that privileged white South Africans. After Botha resigned in 1989, de Klerk replaced him, first as leader of the NP and then as State President. Although observers expected him to continue Botha's defence of apartheid, de Klerk decided to end the policy. He was aware that growing ethnic animosity and violence was leading South Africa into a racial civil war. Amid this violence, the state security forces committed widespread human rights abuses and encouraged violence between the Xhosa and Zulu people, although de Klerk later denied sanctioning such actions. He permitted anti-apartheid marches to take place, legalised a range of previously banned anti-apartheid political parties, and freed imprisoned anti-apartheid activists such as Nelson Mandela. He also dismantled South Africa's nuclear weapons program. De Klerk negotiated with Mandela to fully dismantle apartheid and establish a transition to universal suffrage. In 1993, he publicly apologised for apartheid's harmful effects. He oversaw the 1994 non-racial election in which Mandela led the African National Congress (ANC) to victory; de Klerk's NP took second place. De Klerk then became Deputy President in Mandela's ANC-led coalition, the Government of National Unity. In this position, he supported the government's continued liberal economic policies but opposed the Truth and Reconciliation Commission set up to investigate past human rights abuses because he wanted total amnesty for political crimes. His working relationship with Mandela was strained, although he later spoke fondly of him. In May 1996, after the NP objected to the new constitution, de Klerk withdrew it from the coalition government; the party disbanded the following year and reformed as the New National Party. In 1997, he retired from active politics and thereafter lectured internationally. De Klerk was a controversial figure among many sections of South African society. He received many awards, including the Nobel Peace Prize for dismantling apartheid and bringing universal suffrage to South Africa. Conversely, he received criticism from anti-apartheid activists for offering only a qualified apology for apartheid, and for ignoring the human rights abuses by state security forces. He was also condemned by pro-apartheid Afrikaners, who contended that by abandoning apartheid, he betrayed the interests of the country's Afrikaner minority.
With an HPI of 63.88, Jacob Zuma is the 3rd most famous South African Politician. His biography has been translated into 89 different languages.
Jacob Gedleyihlekisa Zuma (Zulu: [geɮʱejiɬeˈkisa ˈzʱuma]; born 12 April 1942) is a South African politician who served as the fourth president of South Africa from 2009 to 2018. He is also referred to by his initials JZ and clan names Nxamalala and Msholozi. Zuma was a former anti-apartheid activist, member of uMkhonto we Sizwe, and president of the African National Congress (ANC) from 2007 to 2017. Zuma was born in the rural region of Nkandla, which is now part of the KwaZulu-Natal province and the centre of Zuma's support base. He joined the ANC at the age of 17 in 1959 and spent ten years in Robben Island Prison as a political prisoner. He went into exile in 1975 and was ultimately appointed head of the ANC's intelligence department. After the ANC was unbanned in 1990, he quickly rose through the party's national leadership and became deputy secretary general in 1991, national chairperson in 1994, and deputy president in 1997. He was the deputy president of South Africa from 1999 to 2005 under President Thabo Mbeki, Nelson Mandela's successor. Mbeki dismissed Zuma on 14 June 2005 after Zuma's financial adviser, Schabir Shaik, was convicted of making corrupt payments to Zuma in connection with the Arms Deal. Zuma was charged with corruption and was also acquitted on rape charges in the highly publicised 2006 trial. He managed to retain the support of a left-wing coalition inside the ANC, which allowed him to remove Mbeki as ANC president in December 2007 at the ANC's Polokwane elective conference. Zuma was elected president of South Africa in the 2009 general election and took office on 9 May. The criminal charges against him were formally withdrawn the same week. As president, he launched the R4-trillion National Infrastructure Plan and signed a controversial nuclear power deal with the Russian government, which was blocked by the Western Cape High Court in 2017. As a former member of the South African Communist Party, he increasingly relied on left-wing populist rhetoric, and in his 2017 State of the Nation address he announced a new policy of "radical economic transformation". Among the few policy initiatives that had actually been implemented before the end of his presidency were land expropriation without compensation, free higher education, a series of attempted structural reforms in key sectors involving restrictions on foreign ownership, and more stringent black economic empowerment requirements. In the international arena, Zuma emphasised South-South cooperation and economic diplomacy. The admission of South Africa to the BRICS grouping has been described as a major triumph for Zuma, and he has been praised for his HIV/AIDS policy. Zuma's presidency was beset by controversy, especially during his second term. In 2014, the Public Protector found that Zuma had improperly benefited from state expenditure on upgrades to his Nkandla homestead, and in 2016, the Constitutional Court ruled that Zuma had failed to uphold the Constitution, leading to calls for his resignation and a failed impeachment attempt in the National Assembly. By early 2016, there were also widespread allegations, later investigated by the Zondo Commission, that the Gupta family had acquired immense corrupt influence over Zuma's administration, amounting to state capture. Several weeks after Deputy President Cyril Ramaphosa was elected to succeed Zuma as ANC president in December 2017, the ANC National Executive Committee recalled Zuma. After a fifth vote of no confidence in Parliament, he resigned on 14 February 2018 and was replaced by Ramaphosa the next day. Shortly after his resignation, on 16 March 2018, the National Prosecuting Authority announced that it would reinstate corruption charges against Zuma in relation to the 1999 Arms Deal. He pleaded not guilty on 26 May 2021, but the trial was not scheduled to take place until early 2023. In a separate matter, in June 2021, the Constitutional Court convicted Zuma of contempt of court for his failure to comply with a court order compelling his testimony before the Zondo Commission. He was sentenced to 15 months' imprisonment and was arrested on 7 July 2021 in Estcourt, KwaZulu-Natal. However, he was released on medical parole two months later on 5 September. The high court rescinded his parole on 15 December. The parole was declared unlawful by the Supreme Court of Appeal, but it allowed the Department of Correctional Services to consider whether to deduct the time spent under it from his sentence. On 11 August 2023, the Department of Correctional Services granted Zuma remission of his 15-month sentence.
With an HPI of 63.09, Thabo Mbeki is the 4th most famous South African Politician. His biography has been translated into 85 different languages.
Thabo Mvuyelwa Mbeki (Xhosa: [tʰaɓɔ mbɛːkʼi]; born 18 June 1942) is a South African politician who served as the second president of South Africa from 14 June 1999 to 24 September 2008, when he resigned at the request of his party, the African National Congress (ANC). Before that, he was deputy president under Nelson Mandela from 1994 to 1999. The son of Govan Mbeki, a renowned ANC intellectual, Mbeki has been involved in ANC politics since 1956, when he joined the ANC Youth League, and has been a member of the party's National Executive Committee since 1975. Born in the Transkei, he left South Africa aged twenty to attend university in England, and spent almost three decades in exile abroad, until the ANC was unbanned in 1990. He rose through the organisation in its information and publicity section and as Oliver Tambo's protégé, but he was also an experienced diplomat, serving as the ANC's official representative in several of its African outposts. He was an early advocate for and leader of the diplomatic engagements which led to the negotiations to end apartheid. After South Africa's first democratic elections in 1994, he was appointed national deputy president. In subsequent years, it became apparent that he was Mandela's chosen successor, and he was elected unopposed as ANC president in 1997, enabling his rise to the presidency as the ANC's candidate in the 1999 elections. While deputy president, Mbeki had been regarded as a steward of the government's Growth, Employment and Redistribution policy, introduced in 1996, and as president he continued to subscribe to relatively conservative, market-friendly macroeconomic policies. During his presidency, South Africa experienced falling public debt, a narrowing budget deficit, and consistent, moderate economic growth. However, despite his retention of various social democratic programmes, and notable expansions to the black economic empowerment programme, critics often regarded Mbeki's economic policies as neoliberal, with insufficient consideration for developmental and redistributive objectives. On these grounds, Mbeki grew increasingly alienated from the left wing of the ANC, and from the leaders of the ANC's Tripartite Alliance partners, the Congress of South African Trade Unions and South African Communist Party. It was these leftist elements which supported Jacob Zuma over Mbeki in the political rivalry that erupted after Mbeki removed the latter from his post as deputy president in 2005. As president, Mbeki had an apparent predilection for foreign policy and particularly for multilateralism. His Pan-Africanism and vision for an "African renaissance" are central parts of his political persona, and commentators suggest that he secured for South Africa a role in African and global politics that was disproportionate to the country's size and historical influence. He was the central architect of the New Partnership for Africa's Development and, as the inaugural chairperson of the African Union, spearheaded the introduction of the African Peer Review Mechanism. After the IBSA Dialogue Forum was launched in 2003, his government collaborated with India and Brazil to lobby for reforms at the United Nations, advocating for a stronger role for developing countries. Among South Africa's various peacekeeping commitments during his presidency, Mbeki was the primary mediator in the conflict between ZANU-PF and the Zimbabwean opposition in the 2000s. However, he was frequently criticised for his policy of "quiet diplomacy" in Zimbabwe, under which he refused to condemn Robert Mugabe's regime or institute sanctions against it. Also highly controversial worldwide was Mbeki's HIV/AIDS policy. His government did not introduce a national mother-to-child transmission prevention programme until 2002, when it was mandated by the Constitutional Court, nor did it make antiretroviral therapy available in the public healthcare system until late 2003. Subsequent studies have estimated that these delays caused hundreds of thousands of preventable deaths. Mbeki himself, like his Health Minister Manto Tshabalala-Msimang, has been described as an AIDS denialist, "dissident," or sceptic. Although he did not explicitly deny the causal link between HIV and AIDS, he often posited a need to investigate alternate causes of and alternative treatments for AIDS, frequently suggesting that immunodeficiency was the indirect result of poverty. His political descent began at the ANC's Polokwane conference in December 2007, when he was replaced as ANC president by Zuma. His term as national president was not due to expire until June 2009, but, on 20 September 2008, he announced that he would resign at the request of the ANC National Executive Committee. The ANC's decision to "recall" Mbeki was understood to be linked to a high court judgement, handed down earlier that month, in which judge Chris Nicholson had alleged improper political interference in the National Prosecuting Authority and specifically in the corruption charges against Zuma. Nicholson's judgement was overturned by the Supreme Court of Appeal in January 2009, by which time Mbeki had been replaced as president by Kgalema Motlanthe.
With an HPI of 62.46, Paul Kruger is the 5th most famous South African Politician. His biography has been translated into 42 different languages.
Stephanus Johannes Paulus Kruger (Afrikaans pronunciation: [ˈkry.(j)ər]; 10 October 1825 – 14 July 1904), better known as Paul Kruger, was a South African politician. He was one of the dominant political and military figures in 19th-century South Africa, and State President of the South African Republic (or Transvaal) from 1883 to 1900. Nicknamed Oom Paul ("Uncle Paul"), he came to international prominence as the face of the Boer cause—that of the Transvaal and its neighbour the Orange Free State—against Britain during the Second Boer War of 1899–1902. He has been called a personification of Afrikanerdom, and remains a controversial figure; admirers venerate him as a tragic folk hero. Born near the eastern edge of the Cape Colony, Kruger took part in the Great Trek as a child during the late 1830s. He had almost no education apart from the Bible. A protégé of the Voortrekker leader Andries Pretorius, he witnessed the signing of the Sand River Convention with Britain in 1852 and over the next decade played a prominent role in the forging of the South African Republic, leading its commandos and resolving disputes between the rival Boer leaders and factions. In 1863 he was elected Commandant-General, a post he held for a decade before he resigned soon after the election of President Thomas François Burgers. Kruger was appointed Vice President in March 1877, shortly before the South African Republic was annexed by Britain as the Transvaal. Over the next three years he headed two deputations to London to try to have this overturned. He became the leading figure in the movement to restore the South African Republic's independence, culminating in the Boers' victory in the First Boer War of 1880–1881. Kruger served until 1883 as a member of an executive triumvirate, then was elected President. In 1884 he headed a third deputation that brokered the London Convention, under which Britain recognised the South African Republic as a completely independent state. Following the influx of thousands of predominantly British settlers with the Witwatersrand Gold Rush of 1886, "uitlanders" (foreigners) provided almost all of the South African Republic's tax revenues but lacked civic representation; Boer burghers retained control of the government. The uitlander problem and the associated tensions with Britain dominated Kruger's attention for the rest of his presidency, to which he was re-elected in 1888, 1893 and 1898, and led to the Jameson Raid of 1895–1896 and ultimately the Second Boer War. Kruger left for Europe as the war turned against the Boers in 1900 and spent the rest of his life in exile, refusing to return home following the British victory. After he died in Switzerland at the age of 78 in 1904, his body was returned to South Africa for a state funeral, and buried in the Heroes' Acre in Pretoria.
With an HPI of 62.45, Princess Irene of Greece and Denmark is the 6th most famous South African Politician. Her biography has been translated into 27 different languages.
Princess Irene of Greece and Denmark (Greek: Ειρήνη; born 11 May 1942) is the youngest child and second daughter of King Paul of the Hellenes and his wife, Queen Frederica. She is the younger sister of Queen Sofía of Spain and King Constantine II of the Hellenes. She is also the great-granddaughter of Wilhelm II, German Emperor, who was the first grandson of Queen Victoria.
With an HPI of 61.39, P. W. Botha is the 7th most famous South African Politician. His biography has been translated into 49 different languages.
Pieter Willem Botha, (Afrikaans pronunciation: [ˈpitər ˈvələm ˈbuəta]; 12 January 1916 – 31 October 2006) was a South African politician. He served as the last prime minister of South Africa from 1978 to 1984 and the first executive state president of South Africa from 1984 to 1989. First elected to Parliament in 1948, Botha was an opponent of black majority rule and international communism. However, his administration did make concessions towards political reform, whereas internal unrest saw widespread human rights abuses at the hands of his government. Botha resigned as leader of the ruling National Party (NP) in February 1989 after suffering a stroke and six months later was also coerced to leave the presidency. In F. W. de Klerk's 1992 apartheid referendum, Botha campaigned for a No vote and denounced De Klerk's administration as irresponsible for opening the door to black majority rule. In early 1998, when Botha refused to testify at the Mandela government's Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC), he was supported by the Conservative Party, which had earlier contested his rule as the official opposition. For his refusal, he was fined and given a suspended jail sentence. The sentence was overturned on appeal.
With an HPI of 61.29, Cyril Ramaphosa is the 8th most famous South African Politician. His biography has been translated into 76 different languages.
Matamela Cyril Ramaphosa (born 17 November 1952) is a South African businessman and politician serving as the fifth and current president of South Africa since 2018. A former anti-apartheid activist, trade union leader, and businessman, Ramaphosa is also the president of the African National Congress (ANC). Ramaphosa rose to national prominence as secretary general of South Africa's biggest and most powerful trade union, the National Union of Mineworkers. In 1991, he was elected ANC secretary general under ANC president Nelson Mandela and became the ANC's chief negotiator during the negotiations that ended apartheid. He was elected chairperson of the Constitutional Assembly after the country's first fully democratic elections in 1994 and some observers believed that he was Mandela's preferred successor. However, Ramaphosa resigned from politics in 1996 and became well known as a businessman, including as an owner of McDonald's South Africa, chair of the board for MTN, member of the board for Lonmin, and founder of the Shanduka Group. He returned to politics in December 2012 at the ANC's 53rd National Conference and served as the deputy president of South Africa under President Jacob Zuma from 2014 to 2018. He was also chairman of the National Planning Commission. At the ANC's 54th National Conference on 18 December 2017, he was elected president of the ANC. Two months later, the day after Zuma resigned on 14 February 2018, the National Assembly (NA) elected Ramaphosa as president of South Africa. He began his first full term as president in May 2019 following the ANC's victory in the 2019 general election. While president, Ramaphosa served as chairperson of the African Union from 2020 to 2021 and led South Africa's response to the COVID-19 pandemic. Ramaphosa's net worth was estimated at over R6.4 billion ($450 million) as of 2018. He has been criticised for his conduct and involvement in his business interests, including his harsh posture as a Lonmin director towards the Marikana miners' strike in the week ahead of the Marikana massacre. On 19 December 2022, it was announced that the ANC's 55th National Conference had elected Ramaphosa to a second term as president of the ANC.
With an HPI of 59.62, Jan Smuts is the 9th most famous South African Politician. His biography has been translated into 42 different languages.
Field Marshal Jan Christian Smuts, (baptismal name Jan Christiaan Smuts, 24 May 1870 – 11 September 1950) was a South African statesman, military leader and philosopher. In addition to holding various military and cabinet posts, he served as prime minister of the Union of South Africa from 1919 to 1924 and 1939 to 1948. Smuts was born to Afrikaner parents in the British Cape Colony. He was educated at Victoria College, Stellenbosch before reading law at Christ's College, Cambridge on a scholarship. He was called to the bar at the Middle Temple in 1894 but returned home the following year. In the leadup to the Second Boer War, Smuts practised law in Pretoria, the capital of the South African Republic. He led the republic's delegation to the Bloemfontein Conference and served as an officer in a commando unit following the outbreak of war in 1899. In 1902, he played a key role in negotiating the Treaty of Vereeniging, which ended the war and resulted in the annexation of the South African Republic and Orange Free State into the British Empire. He subsequently helped negotiate self-government for the Transvaal Colony, becoming a cabinet minister under Louis Botha. Smuts played a leading role in the creation of the Union of South Africa in 1910, helping shape its constitution. He and Botha established the South African Party, with Botha becoming the union's first prime minister and Smuts holding multiple cabinet portfolios. As defence minister he was responsible for the Union Defence Force during the First World War. Smuts personally led troops in the East African campaign in 1916 and the following year joined the Imperial War Cabinet in London. He played a leading role at the Paris Peace Conference of 1919, advocating for the creation of the League of Nations and securing South African control over the former German South-West Africa. In 1919, Smuts replaced Botha as prime minister, holding the office until the South African Party's defeat at the 1924 general election by J. B. M. Hertzog's National Party. He spent several years in academia, during which he coined the term "holism", before eventually re-entering politics as deputy prime minister in a coalition with Hertzog; in 1934 their parties subsequently merged to form the United Party. Smuts returned as prime minister in 1939, leading South Africa into the Second World War at the head of a pro-interventionist faction. He was appointed field marshal in 1941 and in 1945 signed the UN Charter, the only signer of the Treaty of Versailles to do so. His second term in office ended with the victory of his political opponents, the reconstituted National Party at the 1948 general election, with the new government beginning the implementation of apartheid. Smuts was an internationalist who played a key role in establishing and defining the League of Nations, United Nations and Commonwealth of Nations. He supported racial segregation and opposed democratic non-racial rule. At the end of his career, Smuts supported the Fagan Commission's recommendations to relax restrictions on blacks living and working in urban areas.
With an HPI of 59.39, Winnie Madikizela-Mandela is the 10th most famous South African Politician. Her biography has been translated into 50 different languages.
Winnie Madikizela-Mandela (born Nomzamo Winifred Zanyiwe Madikizela; 26 September 1936 – 2 April 2018), also known as Winnie Mandela, was a South African anti-apartheid activist and politician, and the second wife of Nelson Mandela. She served as a Member of Parliament from 1994 to 2003, and from 2009 until her death, and was a deputy minister of arts and culture from 1994 to 1996. A member of the African National Congress (ANC) political party, she served on the ANC's National Executive Committee and headed its Women's League. Madikizela-Mandela was known to her supporters as the "Mother of the Nation".Born to a Xhosa royal family in Bizana, and a qualified social worker, she married anti-apartheid activist Nelson Mandela in Johannesburg in 1958; they remained married for 38 years and had two children together. In 1963, after Mandela was imprisoned following the Rivonia Trial, she became his public face during the 27 years he spent in jail. During that period, she rose to prominence within the domestic anti-apartheid movement. Madikizela-Mandela was detained by apartheid state security services on various occasions, tortured, subjected to banning orders, and banished to a rural town, and she spent several months in solitary confinement.In the mid-1980s, Madikizela-Mandela exerted a "reign of terror", and was "at the centre of an orgy of violence" in Soweto, which led to condemnation by the anti-apartheid movement in South Africa, and a rebuke by the ANC in exile. During this period, her home was burned down by residents of Soweto. The Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) established by Nelson Mandela's government to investigate human rights abuses found Madikizela-Mandela to have been "politically and morally accountable for the gross violations of human rights committed by the Mandela United Football Club", her security detail. Madikizela-Mandela endorsed the necklacing of alleged police informers and apartheid government collaborators, and her security detail carried out kidnapping, torture, and murder, most notoriously the killing of 14-year-old Stompie Sepei whose kidnapping she was convicted of.Nelson Mandela was released from prison on 11 February 1990, and the couple separated in 1992; their divorce was finalised in March 1996. She visited him during his final illness. As a senior ANC figure, she took part in the post-apartheid ANC government, although she was dismissed from her post amid allegations of corruption. In 2003, Madikizela-Mandela was convicted of theft and fraud, and she temporarily withdrew from active politics before returning several years later.
Pantheon has 59 people classified as politicians born between 1787 and 1981. Of these 59, 16 (27.12%) of them are still alive today. The most famous living politicians include Jacob Zuma, Thabo Mbeki, and Princess Irene of Greece and Denmark. The most famous deceased politicians include Shaka, F. W. de Klerk, and Paul Kruger. As of April 2022, 6 new politicians have been added to Pantheon including Goodwill Zwelithini, Ted Moore, and Thomas François Burgers.
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Which Politicians were alive at the same time? This visualization shows the lifespans of the 25 most globally memorable Politicians since 1700.