Who is the most famous South African? This seems quite obvious, right? No doubt if this question was asked in a local or international poll, the answer would be Nelson Mandela, crusader against apartheid and our first democratically-elected president. But who would be next? Desmond Tutu, surely, and maybe Mbeki… or Zuma? More interestingly, what would happen if you could go back in history and ask the same question – Name the most famous South African – annually to an English-speaking world.

Google’s Ngram Reader allows us to do exactly that: it measures the number of times per year a word or phrase has appeared in all English-language books printed globally. So I’ve searched for what I believe are the best candidates for ‘The Most Famous South African’-title. The figure below plots the results; the y-axis reflects the percentage of English-language books that includes the name.

The results provide much food for thought. As predicted, Nelson Mandela currently has the largest global reach. His name appeared in slightly more than 0.000065% of all English-language books published globally in 2012. He is far beyond our second most famous leader, Thabo Mbeki, who by 2012 was appearing less than a quarter as frequently as Madiba in books. Just behind Mbeki is Desmond Tutu. Again, the the popularity of this Nobel Peace Prize winner should not be surprising.

But some will certainly be surprised to see Cecil Rhodes in fourth spot. A mining magnate (Chairperson of De Beers when it was founded in 1888), businessman and politician at the end of the nineteenth century, Rhodes was the most famous South African from 1890 to 1983, when he was surpassed by Mandela. Even today, more than a century after his death, his name continues to appear in books with remarkable frequency. Why would that be? It does perhaps help that Rhodes was born in England and educated at Oxford, as most English books of the late nineteenth and early twentieth century would have been written by British authors. Yet Rhodes gave them ample opportunity to make him the subject of their books; not only did Rhodes leave an immense legacy, for good or bad, in South Africa, but so too in Zimbabwe (formerly known as Rhodesia), where he is buried. The Rhodes scholarships, awarded annually, continue this legacy. It is therefore a bit ironic that Rhodes was only included at number 56 on the Greatest South Africans television series which aired on SABC in 2004.

Jan Smuts, soldier during the Second South African War and international statesman, also continues to be frequently mentioned. I’ve written about Smuts’ legacy before, and it is interesting to see how Smuts’ familiarity has continued to rise, even after his death in 1950. Shaka Zulu surely also warrants inclusion, but because the word ‘Shaka’ has many different uses (including a sign used in Hawaiian surf culture!), its usage patterns are not comparable. Instead, I’ve included Zulu chief Dingane, who became King of the Zulus in 1828. Surprisingly, Dingane is found frequently in books, most ironically during the mid-twentieth century at the height of South Africa’s apartheid regime. In fact, Dingane was the second most-famous South African during apartheid (after Rhodes). Paul Kruger makes his appearance during the end of the nineteenth century, and then again during the rise of Afrikaner nationalism during the 1930s and 1940s. It is worth noting that both Dingane and Paul Kruger’s names appeared more frequently in books than Jacob Zuma’s in 2012. Finally, Hendrik Verwoerd, seen by many as the charismatic father of apartheid, performs relatively poorly, even during the height of his reign. (Other Afrikaner leaders, like Piet Retief, or even the Dutch commander Jan van Riebeeck, registers even fewer appearances.)

Other leaders (not included in the figure) like Steve Biko, Winnie Mandela and FW de Klerk can all claim some recognizability. De Klerk may be underrepresented, because his name can be spelt F.W. or FW. Steve Biko is the most interesting: by 1977, the year he died, he had the same recognizability as Nelson Mandela. How different history would have remembered him had he not died in prison? In contrast, when I try to include Julius Malema, Google just says: Not Found.
And then there are the non-political figures. I included Gary Player (golf), Miriam Makeba (music), Anton Rupert (business), Christiaan Barnard (medicine), Hansie Cronje (cricket), and Charlize Theron (Hollywood celebrity). Of those, Player is the most recognizable, but in 2012 still had fewer mentions than Jan Smuts.


Finally, there is of course one leader with strong South African connections that outperforms everyone else: Mahatma Gandhi. The above figure shows how his recognizability is far superior to any other South African leader. This is, of course, unsurprising, given that Gandhi led India, one of the most populous nations on earth, to independence and inspired civil rights movements across the globe. Should Gandhi be considered the most famous South African? There is no doubt that he profoundly influenced South African history; a new book, Gandhi before India, explains how. But it is perhaps more appropriate to divide his total recognizability by the share of his adult life spent in South Africa.

And how do our most famous leaders weigh up against the world’s most famous? Not great. The figure below compares Nelson Mandela to my very subjective choice of leaders in history. The results show that it helps to be an American president: George Washington, Thomas Jefferson and even Bill Clinton sits at the top, followed by several of history’s most illustrious characters. Of course, Madiba is still ‘young’ in historical terms.


Based on Google’s Ngram Reader (and weighing the most recent period slightly more), my list of Top Ten Most Famous South Africans of All Time would be:

  1. Nelson Mandela
  2. Cecil Rhodes
  3. Desmond Tutu
  4. Mahatma Gandhi
  5. Thabo Mbeki
  6. Paul Kruger
  7. Dingane (shared with Shaka, if we could measure him accurately)
  8. Jan Smuts
  9. Steve Biko
  10. Winnie Mandela

This list is available here. Who would be on your list?