Where it is
South Africa is situated at the southern tip of Africa, covering more than 1.2-million square kilometres – almost the size of Germany, France and Italy combined. The Atlantic Ocean flows up the west coast of the country and the Indian Ocean flows down the east.
South Africa’s 2,500km coastline stretches from a desert border in the north-west, down the cold and arid but diamond-rich West Coast to Cape Agulhas, where the two oceans meet.
Then it stretches up along rolling green hills, treacherous rocks and wide beaches fronting the Indian Ocean, to a border with subtropical Mozambique in the north-east.
South Africa shares land boundaries with Namibia, Botswana, Zimbabwe, Swaziland and Mozambique and completely encircles the small mountain kingdom of Lesotho.
South Africa is sunshine country – and the Eastern Cape has more ‘sunshine days’ than any other of the country’s provinces. Rainfall is divided, from roughly around Port Elizabeth, into winter and summer rainfall areas.
In Gauteng, the winters tend to be dry and summers are warm and sunny with regular afternoon showers.
Cape Town in the Western Cape has a Mediterranean climate, with hot, dry summers and cool, moist winters.
Durban in KwaZulu-Natal is hot and humid in summer and warm in winter.
South Africa is home to 47.9-million people, according to Statistics South Africa mid-2007 estimates, up from 44.8-million in 2001. Black Africans make up 79.6% of the population, whites make up 9.1%, coloureds 8.9%, and Indians/Asians 2.5%.
Black Africans include the Nguni people, comprising the Zulu, Xhosa, Ndebele and Swazi; the Sotho-Tswana people, comprising the Southern, Northern and Western Sotho (Tswana); the Tsonga; and the Venda. The white population descends mostly from the Dutch, German, French Huguenot and British immigrants of the late 17th, 18th and 19th centuries.
The label ‘coloured’, although contentious, is still used for people of mixed race. Most of the Asian population is Indian in origin, with many descended from indentured labourers brought to work on the sugar plantations of the eastern coastal area in the 19th century.
About two-thirds of South Africans are Christian. A variety of churches are active in the country, and some combine Christian and traditional African beliefs. Other significant religions are Islam, Hinduism and Judaism.
South Africa is a parliamentary democracy with a system of proportional representation. The ruling party is the African National Congress (ANC).
In South Africa’s third post-apartheid election in April 2004, the ANC won 69.7%% of the votes, giving it 279 of 400 seats in Parliament.
A third of parliamentary posts are reserved for women, including those in the Cabinet, the executive arm of government. The President is Thabo Mbeki and his deputy is Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka.
Representative democratic government came to South Africa for the first time in 1994 after more than four decades of apartheid government.
The ANC, then led by one of the world’s most beloved icons and statesmen, Nelson Mandela, won 63% of the vote and 252 of the 400 seats in the national parliament.
In the second national elections in 1999, the ANC increased its majority to 66.3%.
There are three tiers of government – national, provincial, and local. Parliament consists of the National Assembly and the National Council of Provinces.
The National Assembly’s members, elected via a system of proportional representation, elect the State President from among their members.
The President leads the Cabinet and selects the ministerial team that he or she wishes to work with. Not more than two Ministers may be drawn from outside the Assembly.
After 1994, when apartheid ended, South Africa’s new constitution established nine provinces – the Eastern Cape, Free State, Gauteng, KwaZulu-Natal, Mpumalanga, North West Province, Northern Cape, Northern Province and the Western Cape.
Each has a legislature of between 30 and 80 members. The Executive Council of each province consists of a Premier and a number of members.
South Africa’s Constitution is recognised as one of the world’s most progressive: it protects everything from gay rights to the rights of women, children and the disabled.
The country has an independent judiciary and a free and diverse press. Elections are held every five years in South Africa and the next national and provincial elections will be in 2009.
South Africa has 11 official languages: Afrikaans, English, isiNdebele, isiXhosa, isiZulu, Sependi, Sesotho, Setswana, siSwati, Tshivenda and Xitsonga.
The Constitution prescribes that each language be accorded recognition and respect. English is widely spoken, and is the dominant language in business.
South Africa has a rich and varied culture – seen in everything from food to music – reflected in the histories of all its people, starting with the hunter gatherer Bushmen (San) and Khoi people and Bantu tribes that migrated south from east and west Africa, as well as early Indian, Portuguese and Arab traders.
The earliest colonisers were the Dutch in the 17th century, who brought with them slaves from Sri Lanka, Malaysia and Indonesia.
They were followed by French Huguenots escaping religious persecution in Europe, and three centuries later, they would be followed by Jews escaping persecution in Lithuania and Germany.
The English arrived in a great wave in 1820. Other Europeans, from Germans to Italians and Greek, also settled in South Africa. At the turn of the 20th century, indentured labourers were brought from India and China.
South Africa is a sports mad country, with numerous since it re-entered world sport in 1992 after decades of isolation. Its soccer team – affectionately known as Bafana Bafana (‘the boys, the boys’) – has won the African Cup of Nations.
Much preparation is going into the country’s hosting of the 2010 Soccer World Cup. The country’s winning of the 2007 Rugby World Cup has been broadly celebrated; South Africa also won the Rugby World Cup in 1995. The country’s national cricket team is ranked among the top sides of the world.
Some of world’s greatest athletes are South African: they include Olympic gold medallist Penny Heyns and disabled swimming star Natalie du Toit.
The Comrades Marathon, run between Durban and Pietermaritzburg in June each year, is a world-renowned road race, and one of the toughest ultra-marathons anywhere.
South Africa’s golf courses are world renowned. So are some of its players: Ernie Els and Retief Goosen, for instance. The polo-playing circuit is extremely popular, as is horse riding and horse racing (celebrated each winter at the Durban July).
All kinds of watersports are enjoyed along the long coastline and in the plentiful lakes, dams and rivers.