Republic of South Africa
southernmost country in Africa, bordered on the north by Namibia, Botswana,
Zimbabwe, Mozambique, and Swaziland;
on the east and south by the Indian Ocean; and on the west by the Atlantic Ocean. Lesotho forms an enclave in the
northeastern part of the country. South
Africa has a diverse and dramatic
landscape. Most of the interior is covered by high plateaus, which are
separated from the country’s long coastline by chains of tall mountains. South Africa is
rich in minerals such as gold and diamonds, and its industrial base grew up
around the mining industry. Black Africans comprise three quarters of South Africa’s
population, and whites, Coloureds (people of mixed race), and Asians (mainly
Indians) make up the remainder. Among the black population there are numerous
ethnic groups and 11 official languages. Until recently, whites dominated the
nonwhite majority population under the political system of racial segregation
known as apartheid. Apartheid ended in the early 1990s, but South Africa is
still recovering from the racial inequalities in political power, opportunity,
and lifestyle. The end of apartheid led to the lifting of trade sanctions
against South Africa
imposed by the international community. It also led to a total reorganization
of the government, which since 1994 has been a nonracial democracy based on
Africa is divided into nine provinces.
These provinces are Gauteng, Northern
Province, Mpumalanga, North-West Province, Free State,
Eastern Cape, Northern
Cape, Western Cape, and KwaZulu-Natal. The
country has three capitals: Cape Town is the
legislative capital; Pretoria, the executive
capital; and Bloemfontein,
the judicial capital.
LAND AND RESOURCES South Africa
stretches for some 1500 km (950 mi) from east
to west and 1000 km (640 mi) from north to south. It has an area of 1,219,090
sq km (470,693 sq mi). A ridge called the Great Escarpment forms a boundary
between the interior plateaus and the coastal regions.
Natural Regions The interior plateaus occupy about
two-thirds of South Africa,
reaching their greatest height in the southeastern Drakensberg Mountains,
part of the Great Escarpment. Champagne
Castle, a peak of the
Drakensberg, is the highest point in the country at 3375 m (11,072 ft). The
plateau region consists of three main areas: the High Veld, the Middle Veld,
and the Bush Veld. The High Veld, the largest of the three areas, is the
southern continuation of the great African plateau that stretches north to the Sahara Desert.
In South Africa
it ranges in elevation from about 1200 to 1800 m (about 4000 to 6000 ft) and is
characterized by level or gently sloping terrain. Land use varies from cattle
grazing in the west to mixed farming (both crops and livestock) in the center
to growing grain, especially maize (corn), in the east. The northern boundary
of the High Veld is marked by the gold-bearing reef of the Witwatersrand, which
became the industrial heartland of South Africa in the 20th century.
West of the High Veld is the Middle Veld, which lies mainly at an
elevation of 600 to 1200 m (2000 to 4000 ft). The Middle Veld is part of the
larger Kalahari Basin
that extends north to Botswana
and Namibia and contains the
southernmost portion of the Kalahari Desert.
Surface water is rare in the Middle Veld because the soils, which consist
largely of unconsolidated sand, quickly absorb rainfall. Plant life in this
arid place is limited to drought-resistant grasses, bushes, and shrubs. Much of
the area is used for sheep grazing. North of the High Veld is the Bush Veld
(also called the Transvaal
Basin). This region
averages less than 1200 m (4000 ft) in elevation. It is broken into basins by
rock ridges, and slopes downward from the Transvaal Drakensberg in the east to
the Limpopo River in the west. The Bush Veld
receives more rain than the High Veld or Middle Veld and includes large areas
of intensive cultivation as well as mixed-farming and cattle-grazing districts.
Between the edge of the high central plateau region and the
eastern and southern coastline the land descends in a series of abrupt steps.
In the east an interior belt of hill country gives way to a low-lying plain
known as the Eastern Low Veld. In the south two plateaus, the Great, or
Central, Karoo and the Little, or Southern, Karoo, are situated above the coastal plain. The plateau
of the Great Karoo is separated from the lower Little Karoo by the Swartberg
mountain range. A second range, the Langeberg, separates the Little Karoo from
the coastal plain. Both the plateaus and the coastal plain are areas of mixed
The southwestern edge of the central plateau region is marked by
irregular ranges of folded mountains which descend abruptly to a narrow coastal
plain, broken by the isolated peak of Table Mountain. The lower parts of this
southwestern region are the centers of wine and fruit industries.
Rivers and Lakes The chief rivers are the Orange, Vaal, and Limpopo.
The Orange is
the longest, stretching about 2100 km (about 1300 mi). It rises in Lesotho, where it is called the Senqu, and flows
northwestward to the Atlantic, forming the boundary with Namibia along
the river’s westernmost section. The Vaal rises in the northeast, near Swaziland, and flows southwestward to its
confluence with the Orange.
The Limpopo rises further north, flowing northeastward to the Botswana border and then eastward along the Botswana and Zimbabwe
borders until it enters Mozambique,
where it empties into the Indian Ocean. Many
shorter rivers flow south to the Indian Ocean, including the Sondags, Great
Fish, and Kei in the Eastern Cape, and the
Tugela in KwaZulu-Natal.
Most of South Africa’s rivers are irregular in flow and are dry during
much of the year. Consequently, they are of little use for navigation or
hydroelectric power, but of some use for irrigation and water supply. The
Orange River Project, begun in 1962, transfers water from the Orange River to
the Great Fish and Sondags river basins. In the late 1970s, water began to be
pumped from the Tugela to the Vaal to meet the growing needs of the Witwatersrand
industrial region. This is supplemented by the major Lesotho Highlands Water
Project, begun in 1986, which diverts water from the Senqu and other rivers.
With the exception of Fundudzi Lake, which was formed by a huge landslide in
the northeastern Soutpansberg Range, South Africa’s only notable lakes are
artificial, including those created by the Vaal Dam and Gariep Dam on the
Plant and Animal Life South Africa has
remarkably diverse plant life for a country of its size, comprising about 22,000
different species, many of them native. Grasslands cover most of the plateau
areas, resembling a prairie on the nearly treeless High Veld. The Bush Veld is
characterized by savanna vegetation, consisting of mixed grassland with trees
and bushes such as the baobab tree in Northern
Province and the mopani tree in the central Bush
Veld. On the Great Karoo and Little Karoo, the grasslands are sparse.
Vegetation consists of coarse desert grasses that grow in tufts and become
green only after rain. The semidesert Northern Cape
is transformed after spring rains with blooming wildflowers in the Namaqualand region.
Areas on the Cape Peninsula, and about 70,000 sq km (about 27,500 sq
mi) of southern Western Cape Province, contain
the distinctive Fynbos biome, an ecological community. Although relatively
small in area, this region constitutes one of the six recognized floral
kingdoms of the world. It includes 8500 plant species, of which more than 6000
are indigenous. This biome is home to the protea, an evergreen shrub for which South Africa is
The only significant forests in South
Africa lie along the coasts of Western
Cape and Eastern Cape provinces,
although there are patches of protected rain forest in the Eastern Low Veld.
Hardwood species such as yellowwood, ironwood, and lemonwood trees are found in
these areas, but softwoods are scarce; coniferous pines from Europe and North America have been planted to provide timber and
Numerous large mammals, including lions, elephants, zebras, leopards,
monkeys, baboons, hippopotamuses, rhinoceroses, and antelope, are indigenous to
For the most part such animals are found only on game reserves. Much of Kruger National
Park, the oldest game reserve, was a protected
area as early as 1898. It covers an area of 19,485 sq km (7523 sq mi) along the
border. Kruger National Park includes nearly every
species of indigenous wildlife and is particularly noted for the small black
rhino population built up by the National Parks Board. Other notable reserves
include Kalahari Gemsbok
National Park in the northwest; Addo
Elephant National Park, near Port
Elizabeth; and Mountain Zebra National Park, near
Cradock. Bird life is abundant and includes the larger birds: ostrich,
francolin (a type of partridge) quail, guinea fowl, and grouse. Snakes are
common in most of the country.
Natural Resources Only 12 percent of South Africa’s
land area is cultivated and only 7 percent is forested, but the country is rich
in mineral resources. South Africa
is the world’s largest producer of gold, with almost all of it coming from the Witwatersrand. Gold is mined to depths below 3000 m
(10,000 ft), making production expensive. Uranium is also extracted
commercially in the Witwatersrand. Vast,
easily worked coal seams occur between Lesotho
and Swaziland, and South Africa
has become a leading coal exporter.
The Bush Veld Igneous Complex, a highly mineralized area of 50,000
sq km (20,000 sq mi) located mainly in Northern Province
contains a high proportion of the world reserves of several important minerals.
It contains 69 percent of world reserves of chrome ore, 45 percent of vanadium,
and about 90 percent of andalusite, as well as platinum, nickel, and fluorspar.
Diamonds are another important source of South Africa’s mineral wealth. Most
of South Africa’s diamond
fields are located in the Kimberley area of Northern Cape; this
province also has the largest known manganese deposits in the world.