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South Africa

Did you know: 

Of the many internationally acclaimed South African writers, two – Nadine Gordimer (in 1991) and John Maxwell Coetzee (in 2003) – have Nobel Prizes; and Coetzee (2000) and Manu Herbstein (Best First Book in 2002) have been overall winners in the Commonwealth Writers’ Prize.

Scholarships for postgraduate study are awarded by South Africa to citizens of other Commonwealth countries under the Commonwealth Scholarship and Fellowship Plan.

Key facts

Joined Commonwealth: 
1931 (Statute of Westminster; left in 1961, rejoined in 1994)
52,910,000 (2016)
0.3% annual change (2016)
World ranking 116
Official language: 
There are eleven official languages of South Africa: Afrikaans, English, Ndebele, Northern Sotho, Sotho, SiSwati, Tsonga, Tswana, Venda, Xhosa and Zulu.
GMT plus 2hr
Rand (R)


1,221,038 sq km
Capital city: 
Population density (per sq. km): 


The Republic of South Africa has land borders with: Namibia, Botswana, Zimbabwe, Mozambique and Swaziland. Its sea borders are with the South Atlantic and Indian Oceans. Lesotho is enclosed within its land area.

The country comprises nine provinces: Eastern Cape (provincial capital Bhisho), Free State (Bloemfontein), Gauteng (Johannesburg), KwaZulu-Natal (Pietermaritzburg), Limpopo (Polokwane), Mpumalanga (Nelspruit), Northern Cape (Kimberley), North-West (Mafikeng) and Western Cape (Cape Town).

Main towns: 

Pretoria (administrative capital, Gauteng, pop. 1.76m), Cape Town (legislative capital, Western Cape, 3.43m), Bloemfontein (judicial capital, Free State, 464,591), Johannesburg (Gauteng, 7.86m), Durban (KwaZulu-Natal, 2.79m), Soweto (Gauteng, 1.27m), Nelson Mandela Bay (Eastern Cape, 1.15m), Port Elizabeth (Eastern Cape, 876,436), Soshanguve (Gauteng, 728,063), Evaton (Gauteng, 605,504), Pietermaritzburg (KwaZulu-Natal, 475,238), Tembisa (Gauteng, 463,109), Vereeniging (Gauteng, 377,922), East London (Eastern Cape, 295,644), Boksburg (Gauteng, 260,321), Polokwane (Limpopo, 227,407), Kimberley (Northern Cape, 225,155), Welkom (Free State, 211,014), Benoni (Gauteng, 158,777), Mafikeng (North-West, 64,359), Nelspruit (Mpumalanga, 58,670), Richards Bay (KwaZulu-Natal, 50,511) and Bhisho (Eastern Cape, 11,192).


There are 364,130 km of roads (17 per cent paved) and 20,500 km of railway (about half electrified). This substantial rail network serves not only South Africa with its mining and heavy industries, but also neighbouring countries.

Ports also serve South Africa and its landlocked neighbours: Botswana, Lesotho, Swaziland, Zambia and Zimbabwe. The main commercial ports are at Durban, Port Elizabeth, Cape Town and East London. Durban is the leading port, with capacity for deep-sea ro-ro vessels and a principal terminal of the 3,100-km long underground oil pipeline.

International airports are at Bloemfontein, Cape Town, Durban, Johannesburg and Port Elizabeth, while East London, Kimberley and Pretoria are important domestic airports. There are also some 210 licensed aerodromes and 40 heliports.

International relations: 

South Africa is a member of the African, Caribbean and Pacific Group of States, African Union, Indian Ocean Rim Association for Regional Cooperation, Non-Aligned Movement, Southern African Customs Union, Southern African Development Community, United Nations and World Trade Organization.


The southern part of the ancient African plateau forms the centre of South Africa, falling through rolling hills and coastal plains to the coastal belt. The Great Escarpment, containing the Drakensberg and Cape mountain ranges, marks the high edge of the plateau. The plateau lies at an altitude of about 1,500m in the south and east, dipping towards the north and west. On the plateau, land is flat or undulating and dotted with round hills or ‘koppies’. The Limpopo and Orange are the major river systems, although Natal and parts of the Cape are traversed by fast-flowing, seasonal rivers with coastal lagoons. Surface water is in short supply.


Climate varies with altitude and continental position: Mediterranean climate in the Western Cape; humid subtropical climate on the northern KwaZulu-Natal coast; continental climate of the highveld; and arid Karoo and Kalahari fringes, with a great temperature range, giving very hot summer days and cold dry nights. The south-east trade winds, blowing first over KwaZulu- Natal, are the principal source of precipitation, falling in summer. Winter rains reach the Western Cape.


The most significant environmental issues are soil erosion, desertification, air pollution and resulting acid rain, and pollution of rivers from agricultural run-off and urban discharges. In a country with relatively few major rivers and lakes, extensive water conservation and control measures are necessary to keep pace with rapid growth in water usage.


Varies with climate, including temperate hardwood forest, dense coastal bush, Mediterranean scrub (including many varieties of aloes and proteas), vast grasslands of the veld dotted with flat-topped thorn trees, and bushveld scrub. South Africa’s native flora have been developed as garden flowers all over the world. Forest covers eight per cent of the land area, having declined at 1.8 per cent p.a. 1990–2010. Arable land comprises ten per cent and permanent cropland less than one per cent of the total land area.


South Africa’s wildlife, among which are the large mammals characteristic of the African grassland, includes species, such as the white rhino, that are endangered elsewhere. The game reserves such as the Kruger and Hluhluwe are considered among the world’s best. The wide range of bird species includes many migrants from the northern hemisphere. South Africa was a founder member of the International Union for the Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources (IUCN). Some 24 mammal species and 41 bird species are thought to be endangered (2014).