South Africa occupies the southern tip of Africa, its long coastline stretching from the desert border with Namibia on the Atlantic coast southwards around the tip of Africa and then north to the border with subtropical Mozambique on the Indian Ocean. On dry land, going from west to east, the country shares long borders with Namibia and Botswana, touches Zimbabwe, has a small strip of border with Mozambique to the east, and lastly curves in around Swaziland before rejoining Mozambique’s southern border. In the interior, nestled in the curve of the bean-shaped Free State, is the small mountainous country of Lesotho, completely surrounded by South African territory.
South Africa features large urban areas such as Cape Town, Johannesburg, and Durban; coastal retreats, mountains, national parks and game reserves.
In the far south, Cape Town nestles in the curve of Table Mountain at the start of the hook-shaped Cape Peninsula, which ends in the jagged cliffs of Cape Point. The Western Cape lies on the southern tip of Africa. It is a region of mountains, farmland set in valleys, beaches and, further inland, the wide-open landscape of the semi-desert Karoo.
The garden province of South Africa, KwaZulu-Natal is a subtropical region of lush and well-watered valleys. Its western part is marked by the dramatic Drakensberg mountain range, with several peaks well over 3,000 meters. The range has been awarded World Heritage status for its dramatic natural beauty and the wealth of San Bushman rock art found in its caves – the richest concentration on the continent of Africa.
Between the mountains and the humid, subtropical coastline is savannah grassland, but there are also areas of indigenous forest along the coast. The largest of its many rivers is the Thukela.
Durban is one of the fastest-growing urban areas in the world. Its harbor is the busiest in South Africa and one of the 10 largest in the world.
The bush areas in the northeastern section of the country contains Kruger National Park and many private game reserves where visitors experience the thrill of close encounters with the big five elephant, lion, leopard, rhinoceros and buffalo. This area has an extraordinary range of ecosystems and wildlife.
The earliest people to inhabit the area today known as South Africa were probably the San and Khoekhoe peoples (otherwise known individually as the Bushmen and Hottentots or Khoikhoi; collectively called the Khoisan). Other long-term inhabitants of the area that was to become South Africa were the Bantu-speaking people who had moved into the north-eastern and eastern regions from the north, starting at least many hundreds of years before the arrival of the Europeans. Europeans arrived in 1652 at the Cape of Good Hope making it a stopping place for the Eastern trade route.
The descendants of some of the Khoisan, slaves from elsewhere in Africa and the East, and white colonists formed the basis of the mixed-race group now known as “colored”. It is noteworthy that the slaves from the East brought a potent new ingredient to South Africa’s racial and cultural mix, especially with their religion of Islam.
As the colonists began moving east, they encountered the Xhosa-speaking people living in the region that is today’s Eastern Cape. By this time, the second half of the 18th century, the colonists – mainly of Dutch, German and French Huguenot stock – had begun to lose their sense of identification with Europe. The Afrikaner nation was coming into being. Later, two Boer republics were formed: the central Orange Free State and South African Republic (Transvaal or ZAR – Zuid-Afrikaansche Republiek) to its north.
In some areas the indigenous Bantu-speakers maintained their independence, most notably in the northern Natal territories which were still unmistakably the kingdom of the Zulu. Almost all were eventually to lose the struggle against white overlordship – British or Boer.
The Boer War between the British and the Boers ended with a victory by the British. Many blacks saw the British victory as the hoped-for opportunity to put all four colonies on an equal and just footing, but the treaty left their franchise rights to be decided by the white authorities. The ex-Boer republics retained the whites-only franchise. When the Union of South Africa came into being in 1910, the only province with a non-racial franchise was the Cape, and blacks were barred from being members of parliament.
Repressive measures to entrench white power were not long in coming – the Masters and Servants Act, the reservation of skilled work for whites, the pass laws, the Native Poll Tax and the 1913 Land Act which reserved 90% of the country for white ownership. By the time this Act was passed, the African National Congress (ANC) had come into being in 1912. This was one of the major organizations to work for the equality of blacks.
The Indian community was also suffering under viciously racist treatment – in 1891 they had been expelled from the Orange Free State altogether. Mohandas Gandhi, then a young lawyer who had arrived in South Africa in 1892, had become a leading figure in Indian resistance.
South Africa declared itself a republic in 1961 and apartheid laws continued to be enacted.
After many years of violence and repressive laws aimed at blacks and coloreds, South Africa’s first democratic election was held in April 1994, with victory going to the African National Congress in an alliance with the Communist Party and Cosatu. Nelson Mandela was sworn in as President with FW de Klerk and the African National Congress’s Thabo Mbeki as Deputy Presidents. Thabo Mbeki became the second elected president.
A subtropical location, moderated by ocean on three sides of the country and the altitude of the interior plateau, accounts for the warm temperate conditions so typical of South Africa.
Over much of South Africa, summer (mid-October to mid-February) is characterized by hot, sunny weather – often with afternoon thunderstorms that clear quickly, leaving a warm, earthy, uniquely African smell in the air. The Western Cape, with its Mediterranean climate, is the exception, getting its rain in winter.
Autumn (fall) in South Africa (mid-February to April) offers in some ways the best weather. Very little rain falls over the whole country, and it is warm but not too hot, getting colder as the season progresses. In Cape Town, autumn is fantastic, with hot sunny days and warm, balmy nights which many people spend at outdoor cafes.
Winter in South Africa (May to July) is characterized in the higher-lying areas of the interior plateau by dry, sunny, crisp days and cold nights. The hot, humid KwaZulu-Natal coast, as well as the Lowveld (lower-lying areas) of Mpumalanga and Limpopo provinces, offer fantastic winter weather with sunny, warmish days and virtually no wind or rain. The Western Cape gets most of its rain in winter, with quite a few days of cloudy, rainy weather. However, these are always interspersed with wonderful days to rival the best of a British summer. The high mountains of the Cape and the Drakensberg in KwaZulu-Natal usually get snow in winter.
Nowhere in South Africa is spring (August to mid-October) more spectacular than in the Cape provinces. Here the grey winter is forgotten as thousands of small, otherwise insignificant plants cover the plains in an iridescent carpet of flowers. The journey to see the flowers of the Namaqualand in the Western and Northern Cape is an annual pilgrimage for many South Africans.
Temperature (F) – These are the average lows and highs.
Average Rainfall (inches). This varies according to the year and your location.
JNB = Johannesburg
DBN = Durban
CPT = Cape Town
South Africa is a multilingual country. Besides the 11 officially recognized languages, scores of others – African, European, Asian and more – are spoken, as the country lies at the crossroads of southern Africa.
The country’s Constitution guarantees equal status to 11 official languages to cater for the country’s diverse peoples and their cultures. These are: Afrikaans, English, IsiNdebele, IsiXhosa, IsiZulu, Sepedi, Sesotho, Setswana, SiSwati, Tshivenda, and Xitsonga
Other languages spoken in South Africa and mentioned in the Constitution are the Khoi, Nama and San languages, sign language, Arabic, German, Greek, Gujarati, Hebrew, Hindi, Portuguese, Sanskrit, Tamil, Telegu and Urdu. There are also a few indigenous creoles and pidgins.
English is generally understood across the country, being the language of business, politics and the media, and the country’s lingua franca. But it only ranks joint fifth out of 11 as a home language.
For more information on South Africa, visit the Tourist Board web site.