South Africa is located at Africa’s southern tip and has 2,798 km of coastline on the Atlantic and Indian Oceans. It borders Namibia, Botswana, Zimbabwe, and Swaziland. Lesotho is a country completely surrounded by South Africa.

South Africa has diverse cultures and languages with eleven officially recognized languages in the constitution. Two originated in Europe: (1) Afrikaans came from Dutch and is spoken mostly by white South Africans and (2) South African English.

South Africa sports fans in a stadium

79.5 percent of the country is of black African ancestry. These people are divided among a number of ethnic groups. The country contains the largest racially mixed communities in Africa. 25 percent of the country’s people are unemployed. The country is the largest to have legitimized same sex marriage.

South Africa is a parliamentary republic. The head of state and head of government are merged in a parliamentary dependent president. It has the largest economy of any African Union member and is also a founding member of the U.N. and NEPAD.

South Africa: History

Fossil remains in South Africa suggest various australopithecines existed in the area from about 3 million years ago. Several species followed, including Homo habilis, Homo erectus, and Homo sapiens.

By the fourth or fifth century, settlements of Bantu speaking people were already in the region. They conquered, absorbed, or displaced the original Khoisans. The Bantu continued to move south. The Xhosa people were the southernmost group who reached the Great Fish River. When Europeans first contacted southern Africa, the main tribes present were the Xhosa and the Zulu.

The Portuguese were the first Europeans to reach Africa’s southernmost point in 1487. The King of Portugal renamed the cape the Cape of Good Hope since it led to India’s riches.

In 1652, Jan van Riebeeck, on behalf of the Dutch East India Company, founded a station at the Cape of Good Hope that would later become Cape Town. The Dutch moved slaves as labor for the Cape Town colonists. Dutch settlers moved east and met and fought the Xhosa in the Cape Frontier Wars.

The Anglo-Boer War began after the discovery of diamonds and gold in the 1800s. The Boers, the original Dutch, Flemish, German, and French settlers, and the British fought for control of the mineral wealth. In 1806, Cape Town became a British colony. Europeans moved north and east in the 1820s. This led to fights for territory with the Zulu, Afrikaner, and Xhosa groups.

Pressure at home led Britain to end its global slave trade in 1807 and completely abolish slavery in all its colonies in 1833.

The Zulu grew in power in the early 1800s under their leader, Shaka. The Marabele, a Zulu offshoot, created an even larger empire.

12,000 Boers left the Cape Colony in the 1830s to the future Natal, Orange Free State, and Transvaal regions. These settlers founded the Boer Republics, the South African Republic, and the Orange Free State.

Diamonds were discovered in 1867 and gold in 1884. This led to even more subjugation of the indigenous people. These resources were a focus of struggle between the Boers, British, and indigenous people.

During the First Boer War, the Boer Republics resisted British incursions by implementing guerilla tactics. When the British returned, they had greater numbers and better tactics and defeated the Boers in the Second Boer War.

south africa museum guide

20th Century

White South Africans focused on independence and implemented anti-British policies. Racial segregation was informal in the Dutch and British colonial years. European colonists held the power.

The South Africa Act in 1909 formed the Union of South Africa out of the Natal and Cape colonies. In 1910, the Orange Free State and Transvaal joined and the new Union of South Africa was a part of the British Empire. “Blacks” had their land ownership restricted by the Natives’ Land Act of 1913.

Legally institutionalized segregation, later known as apartheid, formed in the Boer Republics and later in the South African governments. There were three racial classes, white, colored, and black. Each class had different rights and restrictions. The Union was granted independence in 1931 when the Statute of Westminster was passed. The South Africa Party and National Party joined to form the United Party in 1934. This group sought to reconcile English-speaking “whites” and Afrikaners. The Union’s entry into World War II as the U.K.’s ally split the party in 1939.

The National Party came to power in 1948 and it intensified the previously implemented segregation. Existing segregation laws were systemized. Despite being a minority, the white controlled the black majority.

The whites’ living standards were on par with First World western nations but the black majority suffered. The standard of living for blacks was higher than in some other African nations. The country became a republic in 1961 after a whites only referendum and left the British Commonwealth.

Despite opposition, the government continued the apartheid system. This became increasingly controversial and some nations even boycotted South Africa. The government suppressed the people harshly. This led to violence, marches, strikes, and other activities by anti-apartheid movements. The most notable of these was the African National Congress (ANC). The government was able to produce nuclear weapons in the 1970s.

In 1974, the Mahlabatini Declaration of Faith set forth the principles of a peaceful transition and universal equality.

Protests, activism, and attacks by black South Africans led the National Party government to begin steps to end discrimination in 1990 when it lifted the ban on the ANC. Nelson Mandela was released from prison after 27 years. After negotiations, the government repealed the apartheid legislation. The nation dismantled its nuclear weapons and held its first universal elections in 1994. The ANC won by an overwhelming majority and has been in power ever since. After the elections, South Africa rejoined the British Commonwealth.

Unemployment remains very high in post-apartheid South Africa. Blacks have seen a rise in social status, but the overall unemployment rate worsened from 1994 to 2003. The cause of this is disputed in that some blame the effects of apartheid and others the government’s failed policies.

South Africa: Government and Politics

There are three capital cities, Cape Town (the legislative capital), Pretoria (the administrative capital), and Bloemfontein (the judicial capital). The parliament is bicameral and the two branches are the National Council of Provinces (90 members) and the National Assembly (400 members).

The lower house members are election on a population basis. Ten members are elected to represent each province in the National Council of Provinces. Both chambers’ elections are held every five years.

South Africa’s legal system is based on Roman-Dutch mercantile law and English Common Law. Beginning in 1910, South Africa’s parliament passed its own laws which built on the ones passed in the prior colonies.

Since apartheid’s end, the ANC has dominated politics. The Democratic Alliance has been the main opposition. Other parties are the Economic Freedom Front and the Inkatha Freedom Party.

After apartheid ended in 1994, nine fully integrated provinces were created. These allowed local governments to distribute resources over smaller areas. These are further divided into 52 districts, with 46 of these district municipalities and 6 metropolitan districts. The municipalities are subdivided into 231 local municipalities.

The last general elections was held in May 2014, the first since Nelson Mandela’s passing in December 2013. Jacob Zuma was re-elected as president, with Cyril Ramaphosa taking office as the vice president.

South Africa: Foreign Relations and Military

The country has focused on its African partners more since apartheid ended. It has mediated African conflicts such as the ones in the Democratic Republic of Congo, Burundi, the Comoros, and Zimbabwe.

South Africa was one of the U.N.’s founding members and the Prime Minister at that time, Jan Smuts, wrote the U.N. Charter’s preamble. South Africa is part of the Group of 77 and the South Atlantic Peace and Cooperation Zone. It also belongs to the African Union, the Southern African Customs Union, the World Trade Organization, the International Monetary Fund, the G20, and the G8+5.

In 1994, the country created the South African National Defense Force. It is an all-volunteer force composed of the former South African Defense Force, the Bantustan Defense Force and the African nationalist groups. There are four branches which are the Army, Navy, Air Force, and the Medical Service.

The SANDF has been involved in a number of peacekeeping operations in Africa.

South Africa began a nuclear weapons program in the 1970s and may have tested a device in 1979. It is the only African nation to have developed nuclear weapons and was also the first country to voluntarily give up its nuclear weapons. In 1991, it signed the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty.

South Africa: Geography

South Africa is located in Africa’s southernmost region with a coastline 2,500 km long. This is one both the Atlantic and Indian Oceans. Its total area is 1,219,912 sq. km. The highest peak is Njesuthi in the Drakensberg at 3,408 meters.

Since it is surrounded by oceans, there is a generally temperate climate. Multiple climatic zones exist due to the topography and the oceans’ influence.

There are extreme deserts in the northwest and subtropical climate in the east. The land rises quickly from the east over an escarpment to a plateau called the Highveld.

The interior is flat, vast, and sparsely populated. The east coastline is well-watered and has a tropical climate.

In the southwest, the climate is similar to the Mediterranean. The area is famous for producing much of South Africa’s wine. Severe winds also blow in the area nearly all year. This caused the Cape of Good Hope to be dangerous for sailors.

Sitting on a high plateau, the Free State is particularly flat. The Highveld is better watered north of the Vaal River and does not have heat extremes.

North of Johannesburg, the altitude drops and becomes the low lying Bushveld. The Lowveld goes to the Indian Ocean beyond the eastern escarpment.

There are limited skiing opportunities in the Drakensberg Mountains. The Prince Edward Islands are South Africa’s single possession.

South Africa: Flora and Fauna

There are more than 20,000 different plants in South Africa, which are about 10 percent of those found on Earth. The grassland is the most prevalent biome. Low rainfall in the northwest makes vegetation sparse.

One of the richest floral biodiversity regions is the Fynbos Biome. It is located in a small region of Western Cape.

Only 1 percent of South Africa is forested. Overpopulation in the last four decades has caused a large amount of natural habitat. Alien species are a major problem in South Africa.

Mammals in the Bushveld are lions, leopards, kudus, blue wildebeest, white rhinos, impalas, hyenas, hippopotamus, and giraffes. Much of this area is part of Kruger National Park and the Mala Mala Reserve.

South Africa: Economy

The U.N. classifies South Africa as a middle income country. It has abundant natural resources and well developed industries. Its stock exchange is one of the top twenty in the world.

Outside of Cape Town, Port Elizabeth, Durban, and Pretoria/Johannesburg, development is poor. There is high unemployment and a large amount of income inequality.

After labor laws were relaxed and privatization increased after 2000, economic growth increased. South Africa is the largest consumer and producer of energy in Africa. A large amount of revenue comes from tourism.

Its currency, the South African rand, is on of the most traded currency of any emerging economy in the world. From 2002 to 2005, it was the best performing currency against the U.S. dollar. The rand has been volatile in the past. Immigration, both legal and illegal, is unpopular with some South Africans due to the perceived effect on jobs.

South Africa’s trading partners outside of Africa are the U.S., China, Germany, Japan, the U.K., and Spain. Major exports include diamonds, corn, fruit, gold, metals and minerals, sugar, and wool.

South Africa: Agriculture

South Africa is a net exporter of farm products and a thousand cooperatives exist.

Some in rural areas do still live on subsistence farming. South Africa is one of the world’s top wine producers. The government has recently introduced land reform and market deregulation. These efforts remain controversial.

South Africa: Demographics

South Africans have diverse origins, languages, religions, and cultures. Racially, the most recent census shows that 79.2 percent of the population is black Africans, 8.9 percent whites, Colored also at 8.9 percent and Indian or Asian at 2.5 percent.

The black population does not share a common language. The major ethnic groups are the Basotho, Xhosa, Zulu, Bapedi, Venda, Tsonga, Tswana, Swazi, and Ndebele. Some groups are unique to South Africa but other are also found in neighboring countries.

The white population is similarly not homogeneous. They descend from Dutch, Portuguese, Flemish, Norwegian, German, Greek, English, French Huguenot, Polish, Italian, Irish, Welsh, and Scottish. Typically, they are divided between those who speak Afrikaans and those who speak English. A number of non-South African whites have settled in the country, mainly from Zimbabwe and Britain.

Those of mixed race still use the term “colored” and descend from slaves brought from other parts of Africa. Most speak Afrikaans. Most of the Asian population is of Indian origin. Many descend from workers brought to work on plantations in the 1800s.

A large number of refugees live in South Africa.

South Africa: Health

AIDS is a major problem, with 6,070,800 million people living with the disease. The adult infection rate is estimated at 17.9 percent. The government denied the extent of the problem for many years.

The infant mortality rate is 41.61 deaths for every 1,000 live births. Life expectancy for males in 50.25 years, and 48.58 years for females.

South Africa: Science and Technology

Several scientific developments originated in South Africa, including the first human to human heart transplant. Other achievements have been in the areas of vaccines, Computed tomography, and electron microscopes.

The country contains the Southern African Large telescope, the southern hemisphere’s largest optical telescope.

South Africa: Society and Culture

The country’s cuisine is meat-based and the braai, or barbecue, is a well-known gathering. Some of the best vineyards in South Africa are around Franschoek, Paarl, Stellenbosch, and Barrydale.

The black majority in South Africa are where most traditions survive. There are small groups of Khoisan language speakers. Other languages in that family are still spoken, but are considered endangered.

The middle class in South Africa lead similar lives to those in the Western world. Indian and Chinese communities exist and preserve their native heritage, including language.

South Africa: Music

Music is very diverse and many artists who formerly sang in English or Afrikaans now use native languages. A unique style known as Kwaito has developed. European music styles influence South African artists. Prominent jazz musicians also originate in the country.

South Africa: Religion

Christians are 79.7 percent of the people in South Africa and includes Zion Christian, Pentecostal, Roman Catholic, Methodist, Dutch Reformed, and Anglican denominations among others. Muslims were only 1.5 percent of the people. Hindu and Judaism are also present in South Africa. Approximately 15 percent claim no affiliation. Many believe those claiming no affiliation practice indigenous religions. These indigenous beliefs are also combined with other religions. Sikhism, Baha’i Faith, and Jainism are minority religions.

South Africa: Languages

South Africa’s official languages are Afrikaans, English, Ndebele, Sotho, Northern Sotho, Tswana, Swazi, Tsonga, Xhosa, Venda, and Zulu. Formally, all languages are equal, but some are more spoken than others. The three most spoken home languages are Zulu, Xhosa, and Afrikaans. English is the language of commerce but few South Africans speak it at home.

Several unofficial languages are recognized, including Khoe, Fanagalo, Lobedu, Nama, Phuthi, Northern Ndebele, San, and South African Sign Language. Other European languages are also spoken in the country.

South Africa: Sports

Football is the most popular sport along with rugby and cricket. Boxing is also popular as are other sports. Many South Africans have played for football clubs in other countries.

Numerous world class rugby players are from South Africa. The country hosted the 1995 Rugby World Cup and won the 2007 event in France. The national team won the 1996 African Cup of Nations. The 2010 FIFA World Cup took place in South Africa, the first time it was held in Africa. Several famous golfers are also from South Africa.

South Africa: Education

Twelve years of formal schooling are part of the South African system. There are three types of public universities, traditional, technology, and comprehensive. Most schools instruct in English, but some use Afrikaans as well. Public education spending is 6 percent of GDP. The country has a literacy rate of 93 percent.

Under apartheid, schools for blacks were discriminated against and correcting these imbalances has been a major part of education policy.

South Africa: Social Issues

Most South Africans in the middle class live in gated communities. Those leaving the country often mention crime as a major motivator. One major problem has been crime against the farming communities.

“Brain drain” has been a problem over the last two decades. This is believed to have an effect on the economy into the future, especially in areas like healthcare.