South Africa lies at the southern-most end of the African continent, stretching from latitude 22� to 35� S and from longitude 17� to 33� E. The surface area is over 1.2 million square kilometres. That’s five times the size of Britain!
There are two sovereign states within South Africa’s borders – Lesotho and Swaziland. On the country’s northern borders are the independent states of Namibia, Botswana, Zimbabwe and Mozambique.
Map of Southern Africa
Efficient road, rail, air and sea links make most of the country easily accessible to visitors and connect us with the rest of Africa and the world.
South Africa has three capital cities, the legislative capital being Cape Town. The city is known as South Africa ‘s “Mother City” and is also home to Parliament. The administrative capital is Pretoria and the judicial capital is Bloemfontein.
The country’s largest city is Johannesburg – South Africa ‘s powerhouse and business capital. Begun as a settlement near the newly-discovered Witwatersrand gold reef in the “Gold Rush” of the late 1800’s, Johannesburg is today an incredibly young, vibrant and sprawling metropolis.
As one moves northwards up the East coast, one is greeted by the coastal cities of Port Elizabeth and East London. Both are steeped in early British settler history and retain much of their historical charm today. On the KwaZulu-Natal coast lies Durban, South Africa’s largest port and third largest city.
Kimberley, home of De Beers, is the most important town in the Northern Cape, due to the discovery of diamonds there in 1867. The ‘Big Hole’, once the largest open diamond digging in the world, is now a great tourist attraction!
Gold Miners Underground
Apart from diamonds and gold, South African industry has been blessed with some of the world’s richest mineral deposits. Fertile soils supply food for its burgeoning population, with plenty left over for export to all the major nations of the world. South Africa pioneered the extraction of oil from coal during the years of international isolation, and today has promising offshore reserves of oil and gas.
South Africa’s main revenue earners are the fishing, wine, fruit, sugar and tourism industries.
The coastline, which stretches along some 3000km of golden, sandy beaches interrupted by rough, rocky sections, is swept by two major oceans – the Indian Ocean to the East and the Atlantic Ocean on the Western side. The two oceans meet at Cape Agulhas, the most southerly tip of the African continent.
From the Indian Ocean, the south-flowing Mozambique-Agulhas current carries warm water down the south-eastern coast, while the west coast is influenced by the cold north-flowing Benguela Current from the Antarctic.
As a result of these extremes in temperatures, together with the coastal mountains and winds, South Africa is richly endowed with an incredible diversity of flora and fauna. These are also accompanied by rich marine life in the vast Atlantic and Indian coastlines.
Weather and Climate
Located in the southern hemisphere, South Africa’s seasons are the opposite of Europe and the United States. Winter is from May to August and summer is from November to February.
South Africa’s Eastern shores experience a subtropical climate, with high summer humidity caused by the warm seas, and year round rainfall.
The West Coast provides a startling contrast with the east coast. Colder waters resist evaporation, and the land becomes more desert-like the further north one travels. Rainfall occurs rarely (predominantly in the winter months), bringing life to the desert in an outrageous display of spring flowers that stretch from the Western Cape coast to Namaqualand in the Northern Cape.
Cape Town itself experiences a Mediterranean climate of hot, windy summers with endless sunshine and cool, wet winters. This climate makes for ideal conditions for the fruit and wine production the region is justly famed for.
The northern provinces of Gauteng, Limpopo, Mpumulanga, and the North-West Province, as well as the Free State, in the centre of the country, experience hot summers with rainfall usually in the form of afternoon thunder storms. The winters are dry, with cold, frosty nights and beautiful sunny days.
Average maximum temperatures (Celsius) in some major places of interest:
January April July October
Cape Town 26.5 23 17.2 21.5
Johannesburg 26.3 22.1 16.4 25
Durban 27.2 25.6 22 23.6
Kruger Park 31.4 28.6 25 29
Sunburn and sunstroke can be serious problems. Always use sunscreen lotion in both winter and summer and a hat is useful. Malaria protection is needed in some parts of the northern provinces and should be taken as prescribed.
The New Democracy
South Africa’s New Democracy is underpinned by the Constitution, which was signed into law in 1996. It is seen as a barricade against racism and any infringement of individual rights. The first democratically elected government in 1994 was headed by President Nelson Mandela, South Africa’s much beloved elder statesman and international icon. He was succeeded in the 1999 elections by our current president, Thabo Mbeki.
The Rainbow Nation
The Rainbow Nation
The total population of South Africa is 43 million, and is composed of a diversity of races, cultures, beliefs and languages arising from a cultural melting pot of the first Dutch, German, French and British settlers, with a dash of Italian and Jewish immigrants, spiced with Indonesian slaves and exiles, Indian and Chinese indentured labourers, Nguni peoples from the north and local Khoi-San tribes.
In the 1996 census people classified themselves as 77% African, 11% White, 9% Coloured and 3% Indian/Asian
There are 11 official languages, English, Afrikaans and nine African languages, of which Zulu and Xhosa are the most widely spoken. The Constitution allows everyone the right to use the language of his or her choice. English is however widely spoken and understood by most people and is the language of business and commerce.
Freedom of worship is guaranteed by the Constitution. Almost 80% of South Africa’s population is of the Christian faith, but belong to a variety of Christian churches. Other major groups are Hindus, Muslims and Jews. There are also people that regard themselves as traditionalists or of no specific religion at all.
South Africa – History
While convincing archaeological evidence seems to confirm that South Africa ‘s history goes back to the dawn of time, our written history is much closer to the present day.
The 15th century Portuguese navigator, Bartholomeu Dias, was the first recorded European to set foot in this part of the world in 1488. However it was the Dutch, very influential in the history of South Africa, who established the first proper settlement in the form of a small refreshment station. The station, set up in 1652 to supply the ships of the Dutch East India Company on their long journeys to and from the spice islands of the East Indies, grew into the city we know today as Cape Town.
Jan van Riebeek
The arrival of the first Europeans at the foot of Africa met with little resistance from the Cape’s only human inhabitants, the Khoi-San people. These survivors of mankind’s ancient Stone Age childhood were hunter-gatherers and nomadic pastoralists. They were innocent onlookers who by the 18th century had been all but decimated by conflicts and European diseases such as the Great Smallpox Epidemic of 1713 – a dark year in the history of South Africa.
Black tribes, who had been slowly moving down the east coast from further north in Africa, were not encountered until 1702 some 700 km away, when Dutch farmers migrated eastwards and made the first contact with the Xhosa people.
The British, who crushed the tiny Dutch garrison after 150 years of occupation of the Cape, sent hundreds of immigrants up the east coast to the Great Fish River to act as a buffer between the growing European colony and the Xhosas.
The 100 years of ongoing conflict and bloody battles between whites and blacks at the Great Fish River is an important part of South Africa ‘s history and the battle had consequences which are still unfolding today.
Battles were also fought in what is today KwaZulu-Natal, between the Zulus and north-trekking Dutch farmers (Boers) and later on the British, who had conquered the Boers and made Natal their Crown Colony.
Then came the Anglo-Boer war of 1899-1902, the culmination of bitter feuds between the British and the Afrikaaners, as the Boers now called themselves, who had settled on the grassy plains in the north. Factors leading up to the Anglo-Boer war was the discovery, first of diamonds in 1867 and then the Witwatersrand main gold reef in 1886, both in the areas controlled by the Afrikaaners.
Battle Field 2
The British won this war and in 1910 the Union of South Africa was born – a self-governing dominion within the British Empire.
However, in 1948 the Nationalist party, supported by the white Afrikaans-speaking population, came into power – a position they were to hold for the next 40 years.
Nobel Peace Prize Winners, Nelson Mandela & FW de Klerk.
The 40 years up to the first democratic elections of 1994 were marked by the enforcement of the Nationalist Party’s harsh apartheid laws, which stripped black South Africans of their basic human rights, and South Africa’s increasing isolation from the international community.
On 27 April 1994 the many years of struggle for freedom achieved its goal.
Free elections were held, South Africa ‘s apartheid was history and Nelson Mandela became president of this Rainbow Nation. South Africa ‘s history has been colourful and unique and has resulted in a country that is a melting pot of different races, religions and cultures – a true rainbow nation.
The Western Cape
© South African Tourism
The Western Cape province is situated on the south-western tip of the African continent. This is a region of majestic mountains, well-watered valleys, wide sandy beaches and breathtaking scenery.
Cape Town, the Mother City, established in 1652, lies cradled at the foot of one of the world’s most famous landmarks, Table Mountain. Along with Table Mountain, the Victoria & Alfred Waterfront and Cape Point are some of the most popular tourist attractions in the country.
A wonderland for botanists worldwide, the Western Cape is home to the world’s smallest floral kingdom, boasting a greater diversity of plant species than any other place on earth.
For many, the Winelands, located within driving distance of Cape Town, are considered the heart of the Cape. The region consists of historical homesteads and vineyards nestled below rugged mountain ranges.
Some say you haven’t lived until you’ve experienced the Cape West Coast. This stretch is home to the Swartland, with its dramatic coastline, 5 million year old fossils, rolling wheat lands, dairy farms, orange groves and vineyards, historical mission stations and endless mountain ranges.
Whatever you’re looking for, you’re bound to find it here at the Cape, one of the most magical places on the planet! Just view our South Africa map above for specific regions.
The Northern Cape
Follow the West Coast road north from Cape Town and enter a region unlike any other in South Africa. The Northern Cape is not for the faint hearted, with vast arid plains and extreme climatic conditions.
The largest of all the provinces, the Northern Cape has the smallest population, and boasts the coldest town in the country, Sutherland, where temperatures plummet to minus 10 or lower in winter.
Famed world wide for its spectacular display of spring flowers, the Northern Cape (see our Northern Cape map above) is also home to several national parks and conservation areas. These include Africa’s first Trans-frontier Park, the Kgalagadi, which provides unfenced access to a variety of wildlife between South Africa and Botswana. The Kgalagadi is one of the world’s largest remaining protected natural ecosystems with an area of over 2 million hectares.
The Kalahari Desert area of the Northern Cape is also home to the last remaining true San people (Bushmen), and is rich in San rock engravings.
Visit the world’s most famous diamond mines, paddle the mighty Orange River, drive awesome 4×4 trails and be amazed by the cathedral in the desert.
Whatever you choose, you will not regret your decision to go off the tourist track.
The Southern Cape
© South African Tourism
More commonly known as the Overberg – “over the mountain” – this is the most southerly region of Africa, the Cape’s most jealously guarded secret.
Many visitors to our shores miss out on this hidden beauty because nobody told them it was there. Make sure you don’t!
Here you’ll find Cape Agulhas, the very southern-most tip of the continent, where the Indian and Atlantic Oceans meet.
On the way you’ll discover a garden of delight, with rare wild flowers, orchards of fruit, wine estates and breweries, endless fields of wheat, oats and barley, the nursery of the Southern Right whales with the best land based whale watching in the world, close encounters with the Great White Shark, country hospitality, history and culture going back to the very first hunter-gatherers who once inhabited these lands, architectural gems, conservation projects� the list goes on.
Spend time here, explore on foot or horseback and you’ll be well rewarded.
The Garden Route
When you’ve seen the 250 kilometres of empty, unspoiled sandy beaches washed by the warm Indian Ocean, the many charming seaside resorts caressed by balmy breezes, the deep river gorges, the lagoons, the strings of lovely lakes and forested mountains, you’ll understand why this part of Africa is so often called a taste of Eden.
© South African Tourism
Stretching from Mossel Bay, where Bartholomew Dias first made landfall in 1488, up the east coast to the Tsitsikamma Mountains, the Paradise Coast has so much to offer, it’s not a case of what to do, but how to do it all.
Apart from an enormous range of activities, from relaxing in the sun to the adrenalin rush of the highest bungee bridge jump in the world, visiting the world-renowned Cango Caves and ostrich farms of Oudtshoorn or swinging through the forest along Tarzan’s tree top trail, there’s a wealth of local artists producing anything and everything, from making paper out of dung to carving the superb woods from the indigenous forests.
Accommodation options likewise range from the simplest self-catering forest cottage to the heights of absolute luxury, where your every whim will be indulged.
The Eastern Cape
This is where the Garden Route leads you, the province offering more than a million hectares of malaria free game reserves, hundreds of kilometres of shining beaches and the highest number of sunshine hours on South Africa’s coast.
Add to this the dramatic, rugged mountains and arid, open plains of the Karoo heartland, lush indigenous forests, a wealth of fascinating multi-ethnic history and the almost untouched paradise of the Wild Coast, Nelson Mandela’s birthplace and today an eco-tourism hotspot, and you have everything you need for a true African experience.
Bounded by the Indian Ocean on the east, and on the north and west by the majestic Drakensberg, South Africa’s highest mountains, called “the barrier of spears” by the Zulus, KwaZulu-Natal does not disappoint.
Durban, South Africa’s largest port and third largest city offers superb hotels, a vibrant beachfront, art and culture and many shopping centres.
A short journey up the coast brings you to wetland and marine reserves, mangrove swamps and tropical coral reefs (see Dive Safari).
Further inland, experience traditional life in a Zulu cultural village, visit the battlefields and relive the history of the mighty Zulu nation – all while hearing the spine chilling tales of rivers running with blood.
And let’s not forget KwaZulu-Natal’s famed National Parks and reserve areas, among them Hluhluwe-Umfolozi, fourth largest in the country and world-renowned for its rhino conservation programme.
The Free State
© South African Tourism
The heart of South Africa, this is truly ‘big sky’ country. From the scenic Eastern Highlands and Golden Gate National Park, to its golden maize fields, this is the ideal place to linger on a stopover between the Cape and Johannesburg or KwaZulu-Natal.
One of the Free State’s lesser known secrets is that Bloemfontein, the provincial capital, was the birthplace of J.R.R. Tolkien, author of Lord of the Rings.
Gauteng, Mpumalanga, Limpopo and North West Province
From the City of Gold to natural wonders and wildlife, there is something for everyone in this region. Enjoy the extremes of Johannesburg’s exclusive upmarket suburbs and the throbbing life of the sprawling townships of Soweto and Alexandra.
Descend into the depths of the deepest gold mines in the world, or be blown away by the spectacular Palace of the Lost City at the opulent Sun City casino complex.
Go east to the hot Lowveld plains, and spend time with the Big Five in the world-ranking Kruger National Park, not only South Africa’s largest reserve but also now part of Africa’s newest Trans-frontier Park, jointly managed by South Africa, Mozambique and Zimbabwe.