Geography and History of South Africa

Pretoria, South Africa

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South Africa is the southernmost country on the African continent. It has a long history of conflict and human rights issues, but it has always been one of the most economically prosperous nations in southern Africa due to its coastal location and the presence of gold, diamonds, and natural resources.

Fast Facts: South Africa

  • Official Name: Republic of South Africa
  • Capital: Pretoria (administrative), Cape Town (legislative), Bloemfontein (judicial)
  • Population: 55,380,210 (2018)
  • Official Languages: isiZulu, isiXhosa, Afrikaans, Sepedi, Setswana, English, Sesotho, Xitsonga, siSwati, Tshivenda, isiNdebele
  • Currency: Rand (ZAR)
  • Form of Government: Parliamentary republic
  • Climate: Mostly semiarid; subtropical along east coast; sunny days, cool nights
  • Total Area: 470,691 square miles (1,219,090 square kilometers)
  • Highest Point: Njesuthi at 11,181 feet (3,408 meters) 
  • Lowest Point: Atlantic Ocean at 0 feet (0 meters)

History of South Africa

By the 14th century CE, the region was settled by the Bantu people who migrated from central Africa. South Africa was first inhabited by Europeans in 1488 when the Portuguese arrived at the Cape of Good Hope. However, permanent settlement didn't occur until 1652 when the Dutch East India Company established a small station for provisions on the Cape. In the following years, French, Dutch, and German settlers began to arrive in the region.

By the late 1700s, European settlements were spread throughout the Cape and by the end of the 18th century, the British controlled the entire Cape of Good Hope region. In the early 1800s, in an effort to escape British rule, many native farmers called Boers migrated north, and in 1852 and 1854, the Boers created the independent Republics of the Transvaal and Orange Free State.

After the discovery of diamonds and gold in the late 1800s, more European immigrants arrived in South Africa and this eventually led to the Anglo-Boer Wars, which the British won, causing the republics to become part of the British Empire. In May 1910, though, the two republics and Britain formed the Union of South Africa, a self-governing territory of the British Empire, and in 1912, the South African Native National Congress (eventually called the African National Congress or ANC) was founded with the goal of providing Blacks in the region with more freedom.

Despite the ANC in an election in 1948, the National Party won and began passing laws enforcing a policy of racial separation called apartheid. In the early 1960s, the ANC was banned and Nelson Mandela and other anti-apartheid leaders were convicted of treason and imprisoned. In 1961, South Africa became a republic after it withdrew from the British Commonwealth because of international protests against apartheid and in 1984 a constitution was put into effect. In February 1990, President F.W. de Klerk, unbanned the ANC after years of protest and two weeks later Mandela was released from prison.

Four years later on May 10, 1994, Mandela was elected as South Africa's first Black president and during his time in office he was committed to reforming race-relations in the country and strengthening its economy and place in the world. This has remained the goal of subsequent governmental leaders.

Government of South Africa

Today, South Africa is a republic with two legislative bodies. Its executive branch is its Chief of State and Head of Government—both of which are filled by the president, who is elected for five-year terms by the National Assembly. The legislative branch is a bicameral Parliament composed of the National Council of the Provinces and the National Assembly. South Africa's judicial branch is made up of its Constitutional Court, the Supreme Court of Appeals, High Courts, and Magistrate Courts.

South Africa's Economy

South Africa has a growing market economy with a plethora of natural resources. Gold, platinum, and precious stones such as diamonds account for nearly half of South Africa's exports. Auto assembly, textiles, iron, steel, chemicals, and commercial ship repair also play a role in the country's economy. In addition, agriculture and agricultural exports are significant to South Africa.

Geography of South Africa

South Africa is divided into three major geographic regions. The first is the African Plateau in the country's interior. It forms a portion of the Kalahari Basin and is semiarid and sparsely populated. It slopes gradually in the north and west but rises to 6,500 feet (2,000 meters) in the east. The second region is the Great Escarpment. Its terrain varies but its highest peaks are in the Drakensberg Mountains along the border with Lesotho. The third region consists of the narrow, fertile valleys along the coastal plains.

The climate of South Africa is mostly semiarid, but its eastern coastal regions are subtropical with mainly sunny days and cool nights. South Africa's west coast is arid because the cold ocean current Benguela removes moisture from the region, which formed the Namib Desert that extends into Namibia.

In addition to its varied topography, South Africa is famous for its biodiversity. South Africa currently has eight wildlife reserves, the most famous of which is Kruger National Park along the border with Mozambique. This park is home to lions, leopards, giraffes, elephants, and hippopotamus. The Cape Floristic Region along South Africa's west coast is also important as it is considered a world biodiversity hotspot which is home to endemic plants, mammals and amphibians.

More Facts about South Africa

  • South Africa's population estimates must account for excess mortality due to AIDS and its affect on life expectancy, infant mortality, and population growth rates.
  • South Africa divides its governmental power among three capitals. Bloemfontein is the capital of the judiciary, Cape Town is the legislative capital, and Pretoria is the administrative capital.


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Briney, Amanda. "Geography and History of South Africa." ThoughtCo, Feb. 16, 2021, Briney, Amanda. (2021, February 16). Geography and History of South Africa. Retrieved from Briney, Amanda. "Geography and History of South Africa." ThoughtCo. (accessed June 5, 2023).