Table of Contents

1. Overview

South Africa has a variety of genetically diverse breeds of livestock that have played a major role in the social, cultural and economic history of the country. These include breeds of cattle, sheep, goats, pigs, poultry and equines that have adapted over centuries to a range of natural and socio cultural environments.

Goats and sheep were introduced between 200 and 400 AD when the Khoi-Khoi people settled in South Africa. One of the oldest sheep breeds in South Africa is the Namakwa Afrikaner sheep, that was kept in the north westerns parts of the Cape and southern Namibia by the Nama people. Archaeological evidence indicates by 700 AD there were both Zebu and Taurine cattle present in Africa and evidence suggest that Sanga cattle came to Southern Africa with their nomadic owners between 600 and 700 AD. The introduction of the domesticated chicken to Africa and South Africa is not well documented. Faunal samples have shown that fowls were associated with Early Iron Age communities (ca. 1000 BC) in southern Africa (Plug, 1996). Various domesticated chicken breeds were introduced from Europe during the era of African colonization, leading to extensive mixing of local and domesticated chicken populations.

Over the past 400 years, a number of exotic cattle, sheep and pig breeds have been imported to South Africa and used in livestock production systems in the region. Exotic breeds have been used with indigenous breeds to develop composite breeds that are well adapted and highly productive in various South African production environments. Some indigenous breeds in South Africa are well established such as the Nguni cattle breed, while some sheep breeds such as the Namakwa Afrikaner are on the list for endangered breeds. It is therefore extremely important that strategies be in place to maintain and conserve indigenous populations where required. Indiscriminate crossbreeding must be avoided to ensure long term sustainability of both indigenous and composites developed for South African systems.

The value of indigenous livestock

During their protracted journey from the north of the continent, the livestock adapted to a variety of biomes. Most of the areas had periodic droughts, seasonal dry periods, nutritional shortages and an array of parasites and diseases. Adaptation to these conditions made the animals hardy and well suited to the harsh South African environment where they can survive without additional feed or medication. These traits are important for sustainable livestock production and make them a viable alternative to imported breeds in the more challenging climatic conditions of Southern Africa. In addition, parasites and diseases are showing an increasing resistance to drugs which makes the natural tolerance of indigenous breeds all the more valuable.

The perception problem

The smaller frame and lack of uniform colour of indigenous livestock breeds led the colonial settlers of South Africa to believe that indigenous breeds were inferior when compared to European breeds. Recent scientific evaluations of indigenous livestock has shown that, far from being inferior, the animals produce more than exotic breeds under the low maintenance conditions that are typically found in the marginal areas of the country.

Conservation through sustainable use

Conservation has never been effective where people are hungry. This has made it difficult to protect small nucleus herds and flocks in order to maintain purebred indigenous livestock breeds. A recent conservation approach is one of sustainable use that includes the commercialisation of indigenous breeds and the marketing of products such as hides and meat in niche markets. In South Africa, this strategy has proved successful with breeds such as the Nguni, Afrikaner and Drakensberger cattle, the Dorper sheep and the Boer goat. The establishment of markets and the development of products for indigenous livestock has the potential to mushroom in the future.


2. Breeds of indigenous and locally developed (Landrace) livestock

2.1 Beef cattle

In South Africa both Zebu and Taurus breeds are present that can be classified into the following groups: Bos taurus (e.g. Angus, Hereford and Holstein), Bos indicus (e.g. Brahman), Sanga (e.g. Afrikaner and Nguni), those of unclear origins (e.g. Drakensberger) and locally developed composite breeds (e.g. Bonsmara, Afrism and Brangus).

The indigenous and locally developed cattle are well adapted to the South African environment and known for their ability to adapt to regions with high temperatures and humidity and changes in the availability of feed. They can tolerate heat, drought, and an array of parasites and tick borne diseases.

In traditional extensive systems, cattle are used for beef, milk and hide production, as a form of security, for religious ceremonies and as fuel and floor covering. In table 1 a summary is provided of the oldest indigenous and locally developed composite beef breeds. More recently other composites have been established by crossing these breeds with exotic breeds, for e.g Nguni with a Pinzgauer resulting in a Pinzyl or Brahman with Hereford (Braford) or Angus (Brangus).

Table 1 Indigenous and locally developed South African composite beef breeds 
Breed Ecotype/Composition Phenotypic characteristics Maturity type
Nguni Venda, Pedi, Makathini/Zulu, Tswana & Shangaan

Small frame, mostly horned,

Unique colour patterns with white and black/red,

Black muzzle

Early maturing type
Afrikaner Sanga Medium frame, red coat colour, large horns Early maturing type
Drakensbergers Origin unclear – developed from local cattle in Cape also to referred to as Uys cattle

Large frame, black in colour,

Horns and scurs/ polled

Medium to late maturing
SA Bonsmara  5/8 Afrikaner and 3/8 Hereford & Milk Shorthorn

Medium to large frame,

Red colour, horns and scurs/polled

Medium to late maturing
Tuli Originally from Zimbabwe

Medium to large frame, yellowish red coat

Mostly polled

Medium to late maturing