3 minute read

South Africa

South Africa, independent republic occupying most of the southern tip of the African continent.

Land and climate

South Africa covers 471,320 sq mi (1,221,037 sq km). It is bordered by the Atlantic Ocean on the west, the Indian Ocean on the east and south, Namibia to the northwest, Botswana and Zimbabwe to the north, and Mozambique and Swaziland to the northeast. Geographically, South Africa is a vast system of plateaus separated from narrow coastal plains by the ranges of the Great Escarpment. The plateaus are mostly flat and undulating, their monotony occasionally varied by kopjes (low, flat-topped hills) and low ridges. From the southwestern coastal plain in Cape Province the land rises in a series of steps to the dry valleys of the Little Karroo and the plateau of the Great Karroo, bounded by the ranges of the Great Escarpment. Among these ranges are the lofty Drakensberg Mountains. Beyond the Great Escarpment is the Northern Karroo, or High Veld, the highest and most fertile of the plateaus. The westward flowing Orange River rises in the Drakensberg Mountains and drains most of the interior plateau. The South African climate is mainly subtropical with dry, sunny winters and hot summers. The country is divided into nine provinces: Eastern Cape, Western Cape, Northern Cape, Northwest, Pretoria-Witwatersrand-Vereeniging, Northern Transvaal, Eastern Transvaal, Kwazulu Natal and Orange Free State. Its principal cities are Pretoria, the administrative capital; Cape Town, the legislative capital; Bloemfontein, the judicial capital; and Johannesburg and Durban.


The population of South Africa is about 70% black African, principally Zulu and Xhosa peoples, about 14% white, 9% of mixed white and African descent, and 3% Asiatics. Some two-thirds of whites are Afrikaners, descendants of Dutch settlers. Until 1993 South Africa's government and economy were dominated by whites. Blacks were excluded from the franchise, and the government ruthlessly and efficiently pursued a rigorous policy of racial segregation and systematic subjugation of black Africans known officially as apartheid. Christianity is the dominant religion, with the majority of whites adhering to the Dutch Reformed Church. There are also Hindus and Jews. The official languages are Afrikaans, English and nine African languages. The most important African languages are Xhosa, Zulu and Sesotho. Literacy among whites is 95% and among blacks 30%.


South Africa produces most of the world's gem diamonds and gold, has large coal reserves, and is also rich in uranium, iron ore, asbestos, copper, manganese, nickel, chrome, titanium, and phosphates. Mining contributes the major share of export earnings, but accounts for only 10% of the gross domestic product. The largest contribution is from manufacturing, which includes food processing, iron, steel, and oil from coal production, engineering, and textiles. South Africa is self-sufficient in food production and is a major exporter of food to neighboring countries. Nonwhites comprise more than 75% of South Africa's work force.


South Africa was already inhabited by San (Bushmen), Khoikhoi, and Bantu peoples from the north when white settlement began in 1652 with the establishment of a Dutch colony at Cape Town. The British came to the area in 1795, and from 1835 to 1843 the Boers, descendants of Dutch settlers, moved inland on the Great Trek to escape British dominance. They founded the Boer republics and eventually fought the British in the Boer War (1899–1902). The bitter contest was eventually won by the British, and in 1910 the Union of South Africa was formed. During World War I, South West Africa (Namibia) was wrested from the Germans and placed under a mandate. In 1931 South Africa became independent. Since 1948 it has been ruled by the Afrikaner-led National Party and committed to the policy of apartheid. In 1961 under H.F. Verwoerd, South Africa became a republic and left the Commonwealth largely because of differences over apartheid. Succeeding governments under B.J. Vorster (1966–78) and P.W. Botha (1978–89) continued to enforce apartheid, and in the 1980s, met with increasingly determined and often violent resistance internally, engaged in armed conflicts in Namibia and Angola, and were subject to greater and greater international pressure and censure. As a result, the government, headed by Willem de Klerk, gradually took steps toward ending apartheid, a change of policy signalled by the release from prison of Nelson Mandela in 1990. Mandela's release triggered the democratization proces and in 1994 the white minority government was replaced by a democratically chosen black government headed by president Mandela. In 1997 Thabo Mbeki was chosen to be Mandela's successor when the latter retires in 1999.


Additional topics

21st Century Webster's Family Encyclopedia21st Century Webster's Family Encyclopedia - Sour gum to Stereotyping