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 76.31, Shaka is the most famous South African Politician. His biography has been translated into 87 different languages on wikipedia.
Shaka kaSenzangakhona (c. July 1787 – 22 September 1828), also known as Shaka Zulu (Zulu pronunciation: [ˈʃaːɠa]) and Sigidi kaSenzangakhona, was the founder of the Zulu Kingdom from 1816 to 1828. He was one of the most influential monarchs of the Zulu, responsible for re-organizing the military into a formidable force via a series of wide-reaching and influential reforms. Shaka was born in the lunar month of uNtulikazi (July) in the year of 1787 near present-day Melmoth, KwaZulu-Natal Province, the son of the Zulu chief Senzangakhona. 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 Dingiswayo.Shaka further refined the ibutho military system and, with the Mthethwa empire's support over the next several years, forged alliances with his smaller neighbours to counter the growing threat from Ndwandwe raids from the north. The initial Zulu maneuvers were primarily defensive, as 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.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 about 1840 that depopulated the region. His role in the Mfecane/Difaqane is highly controversial. He was ultimately assassinated by his half brothers Dingane and Mhlangana.
With an HPI of 75.67, F. W. de Klerk is the 2nd most famous South African Politician. His biography has been translated into 70 different languages.
Frederik Willem de Klerk (, Afrikaans: [ˈfriədərək ˈvələm də ˈklɛrk]; born 18 March 1936) is a retired 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 conservative and an economic liberal, he led the National Party from 1989 to 1997. Born in Johannesburg, South Africa to an influential Afrikaner family, de Klerk studied at Potchefstroom University before pursuing a career in law. Joining the National Party, 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 National Party 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, including 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, but not for apartheid itself. He oversaw the 1994 non-racial election in which Mandela led the African National Congress (ANC) to victory; de Klerk's National Party 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 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 National Party 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 has since then lectured internationally. De Klerk is a controversial figure. He received many awards, including the Nobel Peace Prize, earning wide praise for dismantling apartheid and bringing universal suffrage to South Africa. Conversely, anti-apartheid activists criticised him for offering only a qualified apology for apartheid and for ignoring the human rights abuses by state security forces. Meanwhile, some white South Africans accused him of betrayal for abandoning apartheid.
With an HPI of 71.81, Paul Kruger is the 3rd most famous South African Politician. His biography has been translated into 41 different languages.
Stephanus Johannes Paulus Kruger (Afrikaans pronunciation: [ˈkry.ər]; 10 October 1825 – 14 July 1904) was a South African politician. He was one of the dominant political and military figures in 19th-century South Africa, and 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 1880–81. 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" (out-landers) 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 1895–96 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 71.71, Thabo Mbeki is the 4th most famous South African Politician. His biography has been translated into 82 different languages.
Thabo Mvuyelwa Mbeki (Xhosa pronunciation: [tʰaɓɔ mbɛːkʼi]; born 18 June 1942) is a South African politician who served as the second president of South Africa from 16 June 1999 to 24 September 2008. On 20 September 2008, with about nine months left in his second term, Mbeki announced his resignation after being recalled by the National Executive Committee of the ANC, following a conclusion by judge C. R. Nicholson of improper interference in the National Prosecuting Authority (NPA), including the prosecution of Jacob Zuma for corruption. On 12 January 2009, the Supreme Court of Appeal unanimously overturned judge Nicholson's judgement but the resignation stood. During his tenure in office, the South African economy grew at an average rate of 4.5% per year, creating employment in the middle sectors of the economy. The Black middle-class was significantly expanded with the implementation of Black Economic Empowerment (BEE). This growth increased the demand for trained professionals, whose numbers were strained by emigration due to violent crime, but failed to address unemployment amongst the unskilled bulk of the population. He attracted the bulk of Africa's Foreign Direct Investment (FDI) and made South Africa the focal point of African growth. He was the architect of NEPAD whose aim is to develop an integrated socio-economic development framework for Africa. He also oversaw the successful building of economic bridges to BRIC (Brazil, Russia, India and China) nations with the eventual formation of the India-Brazil-South Africa (IBSA) Dialogue Forum to "further political consultation and co-ordination as well as strengthening sectoral co-operation, and economic relations".Mbeki mediated in issues on the African continent including: Burundi, the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), Ivory Coast, and some important peace agreements. Mbeki oversaw the transition from the Organisation of African Unity (OAU) to the African Union (AU). His "quiet diplomacy" in Zimbabwe, however, is blamed for protracting the survival of Robert Mugabe's regime at the cost of thousands of lives and intense economic pressure on Zimbabwe's neighbours. He became a vocal leader of the Non-Aligned Movement in the United Nations, and, while leveraging South Africa's seat on the Security Council, he agitated for reform of that body.Mbeki has received worldwide criticism for his stance on AIDS. He questioned the link between HIV and AIDS, and believed that the correlation between poverty and the AIDS rate in Africa was a challenge to the viral theory of AIDS. His ban on antiretroviral drugs in public hospitals is estimated to be responsible for the premature deaths of between 330,000 and 365,000 people.
With an HPI of 71.60, Jacob Zuma is the 5th most famous South African Politician. His biography has been translated into 82 different languages.
Jacob Gedleyihlekisa Zuma (Zulu: [geɮʱejiɬeˈkisa ˈzʱuma]; born 12 April 1942) is a South African politician who was the fourth president of South Africa from 2009 to 2018. He is also referred to by his initials JZ and his clan name Msholozi.Zuma was Deputy President of South Africa from 1999 to 2005, but was dismissed by President Thabo Mbeki in 2005 after Zuma's financial adviser, Schabir Shaik, was convicted of soliciting a bribe. Zuma was elected President of the African National Congress (ANC) on 18 December 2007 after defeating Mbeki at the ANC conference in Polokwane. On 20 September 2008, Mbeki announced his resignation after being recalled by the ANC's National Executive Committee. The recall came after South African High Court Judge Christopher Nicholson ruled Mbeki had improperly interfered with the operations of the National Prosecuting Authority (NPA), including the prosecution of Jacob Zuma for corruption. However, Nicholson's ruling dismissing the charges against Zuma was unanimously overturned by the Supreme Court of Appeal in January 2009, in a ruling which was critical of Nicholson's judgement in the case, including his addition of personal opinions to the ruling, and of including "gratuitous findings" about Mbeki and others in his judgement.Zuma led the ANC to victory in the 2009 general election and was elected President of South Africa. He was re-elected as ANC leader at the ANC conference in Mangaung on 18 December 2012, defeating challenger Kgalema Motlanthe by a large majority, and remained president of South Africa after the 2014 general election, although his party suffered a decline in support, partly due to growing dissatisfaction with Zuma as president. On 18 December 2017, Cyril Ramaphosa was elected to succeed Zuma as President of the ANC at the ANC Conference at Nasrec, Johannesburg. Subsequent months saw growing pressure on Zuma to resign as President of South Africa, culminating in the ANC "recalling" him as President of South Africa. Facing a motion of no confidence in parliament, Zuma announced his resignation on 14 February 2018, and was succeeded by Ramaphosa the next day.Zuma has faced significant legal challenges before, during, and after his presidency. He was charged with rape in 2005, but was acquitted. He has fought a long legal battle over allegations of racketeering and corruption, resulting from his financial advisor Schabir Shaik's conviction for corruption and fraud. On 6 April 2009, the NPA dropped the charges against Zuma, citing political interference, although the decision was successfully challenged by opposition parties. After extensive state-funded upgrades to his rural homestead at Nkandla, the Public Protector found that Zuma had benefited improperly from the expenditure, and the Constitutional Court unanimously held in 2016's Economic Freedom Fighters v Speaker of the National Assembly that Zuma had failed to uphold the country's constitution, resulting in calls for his resignation and a failed impeachment attempt in the National Assembly. Zuma's presidency is estimated to have cost the South African economy R1 trillion (approximately US$83 billion). He has also been implicated in reports of state capture through his friendship with the influential Gupta family. He survived multiple motions of no confidence, both in parliament and within the ANC. Since 2018, the Zondo Commission established by Zuma has been investigating corruption and fraud in the government, and Zuma himself has been called to testify before the commission. He has not returned to the inquiry since withdrawing on the fourth day of his testimony in July 2019. In a separate legal matter, in 2018 the High Court of South Africa backed a decision to reinstate charges from 2009 of corruption against Zuma relating to a $5bn arms deal from the 1990s. He faces 16 counts of corruption, racketeering, fraud, and money laundering, accepting a total of 783 illegal payments. Zuma pleaded not guilty in May 2021.On 29 June 2021, he became the first South African president since the end of white-minority rule in 1994 to receive a prison sentence. The Constitutional Court issued a 15-month sentence for contempt of court after Zuma defied an earlier court order to return and testify before the Zondo Commission. On 7 July 2021, Zuma handed himself over to the police and was admitted to the Estcourt Correctional Centre in his home province of KwaZulu-Natal. He was released on 5 September after being granted a medical parole.
With an HPI of 71.51, P. W. Botha is the 6th most famous South African Politician. His biography has been translated into 50 different languages.
Pieter Willem Botha, (Afrikaans pronunciation: [ˈpitər ˈvələm ˈbuəta]; 12 January 1916 – 31 October 2006), commonly known as P. W. and Afrikaans: Die Groot Krokodil (The Big Crocodile), 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 outspoken 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 the 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 right-wing 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 71.41, Princess Irene of Greece and Denmark is the 7th 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 Greece and his wife Queen Frederica. She is the younger sister of Queen Sofía of Spain and of the deposed King Constantine II of Greece, Prince of Denmark and maternal aunt of King Felipe VI of Spain.
With an HPI of 70.77, Winnie Madikizela-Mandela is the 8th most famous South African Politician. Her biography has been translated into 47 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 Mpondo 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.
With an HPI of 69.61, Jan Smuts is the 9th most famous South African Politician. His biography has been translated into 42 different languages.
Field Marshal Jan Christian 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 locally 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 practiced 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 World War I. 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 World War II 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 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, although at the end of his career his support of the Fagan Commission's recommendations marked him as a liberal by South African standards.
With an HPI of 68.39, Cyril Ramaphosa is the 10th most famous South African Politician. His biography has been translated into 67 different languages.
Matamela Cyril Ramaphosa (born 17 November 1952) is a South African politician serving as fifth president of South Africa since 2018 and president of the African National Congress (ANC) since 2017. Previously an anti-apartheid activist, trade union leader and businessman, Ramaphosa served as secretary general to ANC President Nelson Mandela, deputy president to President Jacob Zuma, and chairman of the National Planning Commission from 2014 to 2018. He has been called a skillful negotiator and strategist who acted as the ANC's Chief Negotiator during South Africa's transition to democracy. Ramaphosa built up the biggest and most powerful trade union in the country, the National Union of Mineworkers (NUM). He played a crucial role, with Roelf Meyer of the National Party, during the negotiations to bring about a peaceful end to apartheid and steer the country towards its first fully democratic elections in April 1994. Ramaphosa was Nelson Mandela's choice for future president. Ramaphosa is well known as a businessman, and his estimated net worth is over R6.4 billion ($450 million) as of 2018, with 31 properties and previously-held notable ownership in companies such as McDonald's South Africa, chair of the board for MTN and member of the board for Lonmin. Ramaphosa served as the Deputy President of South Africa from 2014 to 2018. He was later elected President of the African National Congress (ANC) at the ANC National Conference in December 2017. Ramaphosa is the former Chairman of the National Planning Commission, which is responsible for strategic planning for the future of the country, with the goal of rallying South Africa "around a common set of objectives and priorities to drive development over the longer term". In 2018 he became President of South Africa without a general election, after Jacob Zuma resigned. Ramaphosa was re-elected president by the National Assembly to his first full term in May 2019 following the ANC's victory in the 2019 South African general election. Ramaphosa served as Chairperson of the African Union from 2020 to 2021.Despite his credentials as an important proponent of his country's peaceful transition to democracy, he has also been criticised for the conduct of his business interests, although he has never been indicted for illegal activity in any of these controversies. Controversial business dealings include his joint venture with Glencore and allegations of benefitting illegally from coal deals with Eskom which he has staunchly denied, during which Glencore was in the public spotlight for its tendentious business activities involving Tony Blair in the Middle East; his son, Andile Ramaphosa, has also been found to have accepted payments totalling R2 million from Bosasa, the security company implicated in corruption and state capture by the Zondo commission; and his employment on the board of directors of Lonmin while taking an active stance when the Marikana Massacre took place on Lonmin's Marikana premises. On 15 August 2012 he called for action against the Marikana miners' strike, which he called "dastardly criminal" conduct that needed "concomitant action" to be taken. He later admitted and regretted his involvement in the act and said that it could have been avoided if contingency plans had been made prior to the labour strike.
Pantheon has 52 people classified as politicians born between 1787 and 1981. Of these 52, 15 (28.85%) of them are still alive today. The most famous living politicians include F. W. de Klerk, Thabo Mbeki, and Jacob Zuma. The most famous deceased politicians include Shaka, Paul Kruger, and P. W. Botha. As of October 2020, 6 new politicians have been added to Pantheon including Winnie Madikizela-Mandela, Zindzi Mandela, and Sol Plaatje.
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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.