Location: Southern Africa, at the southern tip of the continent
Geographic coordinates: 29 00 S, 24 00 E
Map references: Africa
total: 1,219,912 sq km
land: 1,219,912 sq km
water: 0 sq km
note: includes Prince Edward Islands (Marion Island and Prince
Area - comparative: slightly less than twice the size of
total: 4,750 km
border countries: Botswana 1,840 km, Lesotho 909 km, Mozambique
491 km, Namibia 855 km, Swaziland 430 km, Zimbabwe 225 km
Coastline: 2,798 km
contiguous zone: 24 nm
continental shelf: 200-m depth or to the depth of exploitation
exclusive economic zone: 200 nm
territorial sea: 12 nm
Climate: mostly semiarid; subtropical along east coast;
sunny days, cool nights
Terrain: vast interior plateau rimmed by rugged hills and
narrow coastal plain
lowest point: Atlantic Ocean 0 m
highest point: Njesuthi 3,408 m
Natural resources: gold, chromium, antimony, coal, iron
ore, manganese, nickel, phosphates, tin, uranium, gem diamonds,
platinum, copper, vanadium, salt, natural gas
arable land: 10%
permanent crops: 1%
permanent pastures: 67%
forests and woodland: 7%
other: 15% (1993 est.)
Irrigated land: 12,700 sq km (1993 est.)
Natural hazards: prolonged droughts
Environment - current issues: lack of important arterial
rivers or lakes requires extensive water conservation and control
measures; growth in water usage threatens to outpace supply; pollution
of rivers from agricultural runoff and urban discharge; air pollution
resulting in acid rain; soil erosion; desertification
Environment - international agreements:
party to: Antarctic-Environmental Protocol, Antarctic Treaty,
Biodiversity, Climate Change, Desertification, Endangered Species,
Hazardous Wastes, Law of the Sea, Marine Dumping, Marine Life Conservation,
Nuclear Test Ban, Ozone Layer Protection, Ship Pollution, Wetlands,
signed, but not ratified: none of the selected agreements
Geography - note: South Africa completely surrounds Lesotho
and almost completely surrounds Swaziland
South Africa is located to the West ,South ,and East,borders of
the South Atlantic and southern Indian Oceans. Its coastline is
swept by the cold ,north flowing ‘Benguela’ and the warm south flowing
‘Agulhas’ systems respectively.
The country is dry, with an average annually rainfall of only 464
mm. Temperatures above 32ºC are fairly common in summer. April and
May are usually the most pleasant months.
South Africa‘s climate covers a wide spectrum of different weather
zones, the Western Cape has a Mediterranean climate with warm, dry
summers and cold, wet winters, while the temperate northern areas
have hot summer days ending in spectacular evening thunderstorms
and frosty ,clear, dry winters.
The coastal areas of KwaZulu–Natal are sub–tropical which means
year–round beach weather with very high humidity in summer and ‘balmy
winter’ conditions.Midsummer in December, South Africa is a welcome
winter gateaway for visitors from the Nothern Hemisphere. The South
African sun is strong,with a high ultravoilet rating, so screening
products with SPF of 15 and over are highly recommended.
South Africa lies at the southern tip of the continent Africa,
with the Indian Ocean on its eastern and southern coasts and the
South Atlantic Ocean on its western coast.
The country is more than twice as
large as France. South Africa is the richest and most highly developed
country in sub-Saharan Africa. It occupies only about 4 per cent
of the continent's area and has only about 6 per cent of its people.
After the British seized the Cape of Good Hope area in 1806, many
of the Dutch settlers (the Boers) trekked north to found their own
The discovery of diamonds (1867) and gold (1886) spurred wealth
and immigration and intensified the subjugation of the native inhabitants.
The Boers resisted British encroachments, but were defeated in the
Boer War (1899-1902). The resulting Union of South Africa operated
under a policy of apartheid - the separate development of the races.
The 1990s brought an end to apartheid politically and ushered in
black majority rule.
Size: South Africa occupies 1,227,200 square kilometers
at the southern tip of Africa; seventh largest African country;
twice the size of Texas. Coastline nearly 3,000 kilometers. Extraterritorial
holdings: Prince Edward Island and Marion Island (Indian Ocean).
Topography: Interior highlands continuation of
African plateau stretching north to Sahara, 1,200 meters average
elevation. Plateau rises to Drakensberg Mountains (3,300 meters)
south and east; Great Escarpment descends to coastal lowlands. Marginal
coastal lowlands vary from eighty to 240 kilometers wide. Regular
coastline, few natural harbors.
Climate: Variable; warm temperate climate overall;
Mediterranean conditions far southwest; subtropical northeast; desert
northwest. Moderating influence of ocean currents: East coast warmed
by Agulhas current, west coast cooled by Benguela current. Dry,
sunny winters (April-October), summer rains (November-March) except
in southwest, where rainfall yearround; average annual rainfall
Time: 2 hours ahead of Greenwich Mean Time.
Population: 41.2 million, 1995 estimate (1996
census not yet final). Annual population growth 2.2 percent. Fertility:
4.4 births per female; crude birth rate: 23.4 per 1,000; 12 percent
of births to teenagers. Population to double in twenty-five years.
Life expectancy: sixty-three years males, sixty-eight years females,
marked racial differences. Crude death rate: 9.4 per 1,000. Median
age 19.2, declining; 37 percent under age fifteen. Density 33.8
persons per square kilometer, uneven distribution; concentrations
in KwaZulu-Natal (21 percent of population), Gauteng (17 percent),
Eastern Cape (17 percent). Estimated urban population, 57 to 63
percent; rural, 37 to 43 percent. Major urban areas: Cape Town,
2.2 million; Johannesburg, 1.9 million; Durban, 1.1 million; Pretoria,
1.1 million; Port Elizabeth, 854,000. Ethnic heterogeneity: estimated
76 percent black Africans--Nguni (Zulu, Xhosa, Swazi, Ndebele),
Sotho-Tswana, Venda, Tsonga-Shangaan, Khoisan; 13 percent whites--Afrikaners,
British, other Europeans; 11 percent Asians and others. Government
estimates at least 2 million foreign workers (1996).
Languages: Eleven official languages. Most widely
used: isiZulu, isiXhosa, Afrikaans, English, and sePedi; also seSotho,
seTswana, xiTsonga, siSwati, tshiVenda (luVenda), and isiNdebele.
English important in commerce.
Religion: No government restrictions. Population
80 percent Christians, mostly Protestant. Of these, 8 million members
of African Independent churches; 4 million, of Dutch Reformed churches.
Traditional African beliefs remain important, especially in rural
areas. Asians almost equally Hindu and Muslim; Islamic community
Education and Literacy: Superior education system
primarily served racial minority until 1990s. Nine years compulsory
education universal after 1994; shortages of schools, teachers.
Estimated 7.17 million primary pupils, 4.59 million secondary pupils;
20,780 primary and secondary schools, of which 20,303 government
operated; 336,653 primary and secondary teachers. Adult literacy
estimated 61 percent. Nineteen major universities, two correspondence;
extensive vocational and technical training available.
Health: Health problems reflect racial, class
differences. Physicians 1 per 1,200 people in wealthy areas (1 per
10,000 in poor, rural areas). Acquired immune deficiency syndrome
(AIDS): 10,351 reported cases (1996); human immunodefi-ciency virus
(HIV) infection estimated close to 1 million. Infant mortality declining:
43.1 deaths first year per 1,000 live births (54.3 blacks, 7.3 whites).
National health insurance system being phased in.
Data as of May 1996
South Africa occupies the southern tip of the African continent,
stretching from 22°S to 35°S latitude and from 17°E
to 33°E longitude. The northeastern corner of the country lies
within the tropics, astride the Tropic of Capricorn. South Africa
covers 1.2 million square kilometers of land, one-seventh the area
of the United States, or roughly twice the area of Texas. Nearly
4,900 kilometers of international boundaries separate South Africa
from Namibia, Botswana, Zimbabwe, Mozambique, and Swaziland--from
northwest to northeast--and South Africa completely surrounds the
small nation of Lesotho. In addition, the 2,881-kilometer coastline
borders the Atlantic Ocean on the west and the Indian Ocean on the
south and east. South Africa's extraterritorial holdings include
Robben Island, Dassen Island, and Bird Island in the Atlantic Ocean,
and Prince Edward Island and Marion Island about 1,920 kilometers
southeast of Cape Town in the Indian Ocean. Marion Island, at 46°S
latitude, is the site of an important weather research station.
South Africa forms a distinct region, or subcontinent, divided
from the rest of Africa by the rivers that mark its northern border.
In the northwest, the Orange River cuts through the Namib Desert
and divides South Africa from Namibia. In the east, the Limpopo
River traverses large areas of arid grassland along the common border
with Zimbabwe and southeastern Botswana. Between these two, the
Molopo River winds through the southern basin of the Kalahari Desert,
also dividing South Africa from Botswana. Populations have moved
across these rivers almost continuously over the centuries, but,
in general, the northern border region of South Africa is sparsely
The geological substratum of the subcontinent was formed at least
3.8 billion years ago, according to geologists, and most of the
country's natural features evolved into their present form more
than 200 million years ago. Especially since the early twentieth-century
writings of Alfred Wegener, geologists have hypothesized that South
Africa was once part of a large land mass, now known as Gondwana,
or Gondwanaland, that slowly fractured along the African coastline
millions of years ago. Theories of such a supercontinent are bolstered
by geological continuities and mineral similarities between South
Africa and South America, by fossil similarities between South Africa
and the Indian Ocean island of Madagascar, and by the sharp escarpments,
or geological fractures, that encircle most of southern Africa near
The ancient rock substratum is overlain by sedimentary and volcanic
rock formations. Because ground cover is sparse, only about 11 percent
of the land in South Africa is arable. More than 20 percent of the
land is too arid or the soil is too poor for any agricultural activity
without irrigation; roughly 66 percent is suitable only for livestock
grazing. Even the thin soil cover has been severely eroded, especially
in the country's most overpopulated and impoverished rural areas.
The relatively poor land conceals enormous wealth in minerals, however,
including gold, diamonds, copper, platinum, asbestos, and coal.
Like much of the African continent, South Africa's landscape is
dominated by a high plateau in the interior, surrounded by a narrow
strip of coastal lowlands. Unlike most of Africa, however, the perimeter
of South Africa's inland plateau rises abruptly to form a series
of mountain ranges before dropping to sea level. These mountains,
known as the Great Escarpment, vary between 2,000 meters and 3,300
meters in elevation. The coastline is fairly regular and has few
natural harbors. Each of the dominant land features--the inland
plateau, the encircling mountain ranges, and the coastal lowlands--exhibits
a wide range of variation in topography and in natural resources
The interior plateau consists of a series of rolling grasslands
("veld," in Afrikaans), arising out of the Kalahari Desert in the
north. The largest subregion in the plateau is the 1,200-meter to
1,800-meter-high central area known as the Highveld. The Highveld
stretches from Western Cape province to the northeast, encompassing
the entire Free State (formerly, Orange Free State). In the north,
it rises into a series of rock formations known as the Witwatersrand
(literally, "Ridge of White Waters" in Afrikaans, commonly shortened
to Rand--see Glossary). The Rand is a ridge of gold-bearing rock,
roughly 100 kilometers by thirty-seven kilometers, that serves as
a watershed for numerous rivers and streams. It is also the site
of the world's largest proven gold deposits and the country's leading
industrial city, Johannesburg.
North of the Witwatersrand is a dry savanna subregion, known as
the Bushveld, characterized by open grasslands with scattered trees
and bushes. Elevation varies between 600 meters and about 900 meters
above sea level. The Bushveld, like the Rand, houses a virtual treasure
chest of minerals, one of the largest and best known layered igneous
(volcanic) mineral complexes in the world. Covering an area roughly
350 kilometers by 150 kilometers, the Bushveld has extensive deposits
of platinum and chromium and significant reserves of copper, fluorspar,
gold, nickel, and iron.
Along the northern edge of the Bushveld, the plains rise to a
series of high plateaus and low mountain ranges, which form the
southern edge of the Limpopo River Valley in Northern Province.
These mountains include the Waterberg and the Strypoortberg ranges,
and, in the far north, the Soutpansberg Mountains. The Soutpansberg
range reaches an elevation of 1,700 meters before dropping off into
the Limpopo River Valley and the border between South Africa and
Zimbabwe. The Kruger National Park, which is known for its diverse
terrain and wildlife, abuts most of the north-south border with
West of the Bushveld is the southern basin of the Kalahari Desert,
which borders Namibia and Botswana at an elevation of 600 meters
to 900 meters. Farther south, the Southern Namib Desert stretches
south from Namibia along the Atlantic coastline. Between these two
deserts lies the Cape Middleveld subregion, an arid expanse of undulating
plains that sometimes reaches an elevation of 900 meters. The Cape
Middleveld is also characterized by large depressions, or "pans,"
where rainfall collects, providing sustenance for a variety of plants
The southern border of the Highveld rises to form the Great Escarpment,
the semicircle of mountain ranges roughly paralleling South Africa's
coastline. The Drakensberg Mountains, the country's largest mountain
range, dominate the southern and the eastern border of the Highveld
from the Eastern Cape province to the border with Swaziland. The
highest peaks of the Drakensberg Mountains in KwaZulu-Natal exceed
3,300 meters and are even higher in Lesotho, which is known as the
In the west and the southwest, the Cape Ranges, the country's
only "fold mountains"--formed by the folding of the continental
crust--form an "L," where the north-south ranges meet several east-west
ranges. The north-south Cape Ranges, paralleling the Atlantic coastline,
include the Cedarberg Mountains, the Witsenberg Mountains, and the
Great Winterhoek Mountains, and have peaks close to 2,000 meters
high. The east-west ranges, paralleling the southern coastline,
include the Swartberg Mountains and the Langeberg Mountains, with
peaks exceeding 2,200 meters.
The Cape Ranges are separated from the Highveld by a narrow strip
of semidesert, known as the Great Karoo (Karoo is a Khoisan term
for "land of thirst"). Lying between 450 meters and 750 meters above
sea level, the Great Karoo is crossed by several rivers that have
carved canyons and valleys in their southward descent from the Highveld
into the ocean. Another narrow strip of arid savanna lies south
of the Great Karoo, between the Swartberg Mountains and the Langeberg
Mountains. This high plain, known as the Little Karoo, has a more
temperate climate and more diverse flora and fauna than the Great
The narrow coastal strip between the Great Escarpment and the
ocean, called the Lowveld, varies in width from about sixty kilometers
to more than 200 kilometers. Beyond the coastline, the continental
shelf is narrow in the west but widens along the south coast, where
exploitable deposits of oil and natural gas have been found. The
south coast is also an important spawning ground for many species
of fish that eventually migrate to the Atlantic Ocean fishing zones.
Data as of May 1996
Lakes and Rivers
Water shortages are a chronic and severe problem in much of South
Africa. The country has no commercially navigable rivers and no
significant natural lakes. Along the coastline are several large
lagoons and estuarine lakes, such as Lake Saint Lucia in KwaZulu-Natal.
The government has created several artificial lakes, primarily for
South Africa's largest river, the Orange River, rises in the Drakensberg
Mountains and flows to the west and northwest, draining the highlands
of Lesotho before being joined by the Caledon River between the
Eastern Cape province and the Free State. The Orange River forms
the border with Namibia before emptying into the Atlantic Ocean.
The major tributary of the Orange River, the Vaal ("foul"--for
its murky cast) River, rises in the Drakensbergs and flows westward,
joining the Orange River from the north in Northern Cape province.
Together, the Orange and the Vaal rivers drain almost two-thirds
of the interior plateau of South Africa. Other major rivers are
the Breede River, the Komati River, the Olifants River, the Tugela
River, and the Umzimvubu River, which run fairly short distances
from the interior plateau to the ocean, and the Limpopo and Molopo
rivers along the northern border with Botswana and Zimbabwe.
Climate and Rainfall
Climatic conditions generally range from Mediterranean in the
southwestern corner of the country to temperate in the interior
plateau, and subtropical in the northeast. A small area in the northwest
has a desert climate. Most of the country has warm, sunny days and
cool nights. Rainfall generally occurs during summer (November through
March), although in the southwest, around the Cape of Good Hope,
rainfall often occurs in winter (June through August). Temperatures
are influenced by variations in elevation, terrain, and ocean currents
more than latitude.
Temperature and rainfall patterns vary in response to the movement
of a high-pressure belt that circles the globe between 25° and
30° south latitude during the winter and low-pressure systems
that occur during summer. There is very little difference in average
temperatures from south to north, however, in part because the inland
plateau rises slightly in the northeast. For example, the average
annual temperature in Cape Town is 17°C, and in Pretoria, 17.5°C,
although these cities are separated by almost ten degrees of latitude.
Maximum temperatures often exceed 32°C in the summer, and reach
38°C in some areas of the far north. The country's highest recorded
temperatures, close to 48°C, have occurred in both the Northern
Cape and Mpumalanga (formerly Eastern Transvaal).
Frost occurs in high altitudes during the winter months. The coldest
temperatures have been recorded about 250 kilometers northeast of
Cape Town, where the average annual minimum temperature is -6.1°C.
Record snowfalls (almost fifty centimeters) occurred in July 1994
in mountainous areas bordering Lesotho.
Climatic conditions vary noticeably between east and west, largely
in response to the warm Agulhas ocean current, which sweeps southward
along the Indian Ocean coastline in the east for several months
of the year, and the cold Benguela current, which sweeps northward
along the Atlantic Ocean coastline in the west. Air temperatures
in Durban, on the Indian Ocean, average nearly 6°C warmer than
temperatures at the same latitude on the Atlantic Ocean coast. The
effects of these two currents can be seen even at the narrow peninsula
of the Cape of Good Hope, where water temperatures average 4°C
higher on the east side than on the west.
Rainfall varies considerably from west to east. In the northwest,
annual rainfall often remains below 200 millimeters. Much of the
eastern Highveld, in contrast, receives 500 millimeters to 900 millimeters
of rainfall per year; occasionally, rainfall there exceeds 2,000
millimeters. A large area of the center of the country receives
about 400 millimeters of rain, on average, and there are wide variations
closer to the coast. The 400-millimeter "rainfall line" has been
significant because land east of the rainfall line is generally
suitable for growing crops, and land west of the rainfall line,
only for livestock grazing or crop cultivation on irrigated land
(see fig. 2).
Data as of May 1996
South Africa has a wealth of natural resources, but also some
severe environmental problems. The mainstay of the economy, the
mining industry, has introduced environmental concerns, and mineowners
have taken some steps in recent years to minimize the damage from
this enterprise (see Environmental Protection and Tourism, ch. 3).
Agriculture suffers from both land and water shortages, and commercial
farming practices have taken a toll on the land. Energy production,
too, has often contributed to environmental neglect.
Because of the generally steep grade of the Great Escarpment as
it descends from the interior to the coastal lowlands, many of South
Africa's rivers have an unusually high rate of runoff and contribute
to serious soil erosion. In addition, water consumption needs and
irrigation for agriculture have required building numerous dams.
As of the mid-1990s, the country has 519 dams with a total capacity
of 50 billion cubic meters. Water management engineers estimate
that the Vaal River, which provides most of the water for the industrial
hub around the Witwatersrand, has reached its maximum capacity for
The Lesotho Highlands Water Project, the largest hydroelectric
project ever undertaken in Africa, is a thirty-year joint endeavor
between South Africa and Lesotho that is due for completion in the
year 2020. Through a series of dams on the headwaters of the Orange
River, it will alleviate water shortages in South Africa and is
expected to provide enough electrical power to enable Lesotho to
become virtually self-sufficient in energy.
Much of the land in South Africa has been seriously overgrazed
and overcultivated. During the apartheid era, black African farmers
were denied many government benefits, such as fertilizers, which
were available to white farmers. Settlement patterns, too, have
contributed to land degradation, particularly in overcrowded black
homelands, and the inadequate and poorly administered homelands'
budgets have allowed few improvements in land use.
The environmental impacts of the mining industry have been devastating
to some areas of the Witwatersrand, the country's most densely populated
region. Some of the gold deposits located here have been mined for
more than a century. According to South African geographer Malcolm
Lupton and South African urban planning expert Tony Wolfson, mine
shafts--the deepest is 3,793 meters--have made hillsides and ridges
less stable. Pumping water from subterranean aquifers has caused
the natural water table to subside, and the resulting cavities within
the dolomite rock formations that overlie many gold deposits sometimes
collapse, causing sinkholes. Moreover, these impacts of the mining
industry could worsen over time.
Industrial wastes and pollutants are another mining-related environmental
hazard. Solid wastes produced by the separation of gold from ore
are placed in dumps, and liquid wastes are collected in pits, called
slimes dams. Both of these contain small amounts of radioactive
uranium. Radon gas emitted by the uranium poses a health threat
when inhaled and can contribute to lung cancer and other ailments.
Furthermore, the dust from mine dumps can contribute to respiratory
diseases, such as silicosis.
Acids and chemicals used to reduce the ore to gold also leave
dangerous contaminants in the water table. Streams around Johannesburg
townships, such as Soweto, have been found to contain uranium, sulfates,
cyanide, and arsenic. Land near mining operations is sometimes rendered
"sterile" or too contaminated for farming, and efforts to reclaim
the land have often proved too costly for industry or government.
Air pollution is a serious problem in some areas. Most homes lack
electricity in the mid-1990s, and coal is used for cooking and heating.
Air-quality tests have revealed high levels of particulate pollution,
as a result, especially during cold weather. The World Health Organization
(WHO) reported in the early 1990s that air-quality measurements
in Soweto and surrounding townships outside Johannesburg exceeded
recommended levels of particulate pollution for at least three months
of the year. Other studies suggest that air pollution contributes
to child health problems, especially respiratory ailments, in densely
Electricity for industrial and commercial use and for consumption
in urban areas is often produced in coal-burning power stations.
These electric power stations lack sulfur "scrubbers," and air-quality
surveys have shown that they emit as much as 1.2 million tons of
sulfur dioxide a year. A 1991 government-appointed panel of researchers
reported that South Africa had contributed about 2 percent of the
so-called greenhouse gases in the global environment.
Many government officials in 1995 had been among the strongest
critics of earlier governments, and a frequent topic of criticism
was environmental neglect. Preserving the environment, therefore,
was important in the mid-1990s, but financial constraints were limiting
the government's ability to enact or implement such measures. Economic
development and improved living standards among the poor appeared
likely to outweigh long-range environmental concerns for at least
the remainder of the 1990s.
Data as of May 1996