The Republic of South Africa (or South Africa) is located on the southern tip of the continent of Africa. It has some unique geographical features. For example, on the East, it borders the Indian Ocean while on the West, it borders the Atlantic Ocean. It is the only country in the world to border both the Indian and the Atlantic Ocean. The two oceans converge near South Africa’s Cape Point, the most south-west point in Africa where the Benguela current from the West meets the Mozambique/Agulhas current from the East, where people can look out over the oceans and even see penguins.
It also totally surrounds the small country of Lesotho, and almost completely surrounds Swaziland, two independent countries in the eastern parts of South Africa.
The government of South Africa is a republic (link to government part). It has three capitals. The administrative capital is in Pretoria, or Tshwane. The legislative capital is in the largest city of South Africa: Cape Town. The judicial capital is situated in Bloemfontein. Regional governments have been organized into nine provinces (similar to our states): Gauteng, Northern Province, Mpumalanga, North West, KwaZulu/Natal, Eastern Cape, Western Cape, Northern Cape, and Free State.
You have already learned about South Africa’s geography in Module Twenty: Activity Two: Geography of Southern Africa. In this section, you will explore important aspects of South Africa’s geography and environment, along with its unique features, and how they impact people’s lives in the region.
Size and Location:
The country page for South Africa gives detailed information on the size and population of the country. Comparatively, it is slightly smaller than twice the size of the state of Texas, covering a land area of 471,008 square miles (1,219,912 square kilometers). It borders Namibia to the northwest, Botswana to the North, Zimbabwe, Mozambique, and the small country of Swaziland to the North and East, and as mentioned before, circumscribes the country of Lesotho in the eastern part of the country. South Africa’s 1,739 miles (2,978 kilometers) of coastline borders both the Indian and Atlantic Oceans.
The Landscape: South Africa’s Physical Geography:
In its early history, South Africa was virtually isolated because of its position in relation to the Atlantic and Indian Oceans. The Benguela Current flows North in the South Atlantic Ocean, making it difficult to approach South Africa by sea from the West. In the East, the Mozambique Current flows south, making it difficult for wind and human-guided ships to get in and out of the region. As we will learn below, these two currents also impact the weather patterns in South Africa.
In addition to the difficulties for ship navigation around Southern Africa caused by the wind currents, the coastline has few natural harbors. The harbors of the Cape Peninsula and Durban are the best, but the Cape often experiences storms and a shallow bar in the Durban harbor impeded ships until it was dredged (or removed) with modern technology.
Along the coast, a narrow strip of sea-level land rests between the oceans and rugged hills.
The major physical feature of South Africa’s landscape is a large plateau, 1,500- 2,000 meters above sea level, which covers the interior of South Africa. South Africa’s interior consists of grassy plains called the “veldt”. There are three types of veldt: (1) High-veldt, (2) Middle-veldt, (3) Low-veldt.
The high-veldt covers the largest area in the central-northern region of the plateau and has level or gently sloping terrain, covered with pans or salt lakes. The northern edge is bordered by a rock ridge called the Witwatersrand.
The High Veldt South African Mountains. Images courtesy Africa Focus
The middle-veldt is located west of the high-veldt. The northern part of the middle-veldt runs into the Kalahari Desert (which extends into Botswana and Namibia). The low-veldt covers much of the northeastern province of Mpumalanga and the northern part of Kwa Zulu Natal.
South Africa’s plateau is surrounded by a rough escarpment. These mountains border the land that drops down to sea level along the coast. The Escarpment Mountains are the highest in the East. These mountains are called the Drakensburg Mountains. They catch the moisture coming from the Indian Ocean and cause greater rainfall on the eastern coast than in the West. The land between the coast and the mountains used to be covered with woodlands because of the rainfall. This area also was home to early peoples of South Africa who you will read about in Activity 2: History of South Africa.
Two major rivers run through the escarpment. The Orange River (or Gariep River, the Khoi name for the river) flows to the West from the middle of the country of Lesotho and empties out into the Atlantic Ocean. The longest river in South Africa, it is 1,300 miles (2, 092 km) long. The Limpopo River forms the northern border of the country between South Africa, Zimbabwe and Mozambique, and flows eastward where it empties into the Indian Ocean off the coast of Mozambique.
The Vaal River in the northeast is also a major river for the region and many smaller rivers run along the coast line. None of the rivers in South Africa are easy to navigate. As the rivers run through the changing elevation of the high and low veldt, they have large rapids that make it almost impossible to navigate them. They have provided resources for people living in the interior, but have not become inlets for water transportation.
Mount Njesuthi is South Africa’s highest peak at 11,182 ft. (3,408 m).
Visit the Google satellite map site and zoom in on South Africa to see what the landscape looks like. What do you see? Do you see the mountains and beaches? Can you find houses? What do they look like? Try and find the deserts, rivers, and the big cities.
Climate and Vegetation:
Seasons and Temperatures
Because South Africa is in the southern hemisphere, it has its winter and summer at opposite times of the year from us in the northern hemisphere. They have their winter from June until August and their summers from December to February. Most of South Africa is warm and temperate throughout the year, though rainfall and temperatures vary from region to region and in different seasons. Summer weather is generally warm to hot, with temperatures between 70-90º F (21-32º C). In the winter, temperatures range from 50-70º F (10-21º C) and temperatures at night can fall to below freezing.
Rainfall amounts range from less than 8 inches in the dry northwest to more than 40 inches along Kwa Zulu Natal in the East, and most of it falls during the summer months, except for the Western Cape region. Periodically, South Africa experiences droughts.
Some places in the northwest receive fewer than 5 inches of rain per year. A desert stretches from Namibia in the northwest down into the Northern Cape.
The coast along the Atlantic Ocean in the southwest has a Mediterranean climate similar to that of southern California. They receive much of their rain during the winter (during May, June, July and August). Some areas along the southwest coast receive rain all year and have forests, like the eastern coast.
From the southwest tip of South Africa along the coast to the eastern side of South Africa, the coastline receives rainfall but has a slightly dryer climate than the southwest. However, the eastern part of the coast and the Cape peninsula receives enough rainfall to support a subtropical climate and agricultural activities. Along the coast there is a major highway known as the Garden Route because of its beautiful flora. These areas, along with much of the interior, receive an average of 20 inches of rain per year.
The plateau of South Africa receives enough rain to support grasslands, but in the far North (in the low-veldt), it turns into a thick savanna and in the northwest (in the middle-veldt), the climate becomes semi-arid and reaches the deserts of the Kalahari and Karoo.
In the East, especially along the coast, 40 inches of rain fall per year, making a subtropical climate along the Transkei and Natal coastlines. The Mozambique Current brings warm water from the equator and the warm wind from the Indian Ocean also keeps the region warm.
To look at the temperatures and rainfall received in South Africa during the past week, month, or three months, click on this National Weather Service link: http://www.cpc.ncep.noaa.gov/products/analysis_monitoring/regional_monitoring/africa.html. What season would South Africa be in right now? How does this affect how much rain each region receives and the temperatures in each region?
In the dry western and central regions, the land is covered with hardy succulent plants. The interior plateau receives enough rain to support the veldt or large grasslands and in the northeast, there is a savanna with mixed grassland and bushes and trees. Some trees that grow there are the Baobab and Mopani.
Kwa-Zulu Natal has lush, dense, subtropical evergreen trees and plants.
In the Western Cape, there are grasses, shrubs, trees and many flowering plants.
Click for more information on South Africa’s Vegetation.
In early times, hunters lived off of elephants, rhinoceroses, hippopotamuses, buffalo, lions, leopards, giraffes, zebras, and different types of antelopes. Today, because of hunting, urbanization and industrialization, and thus changing environments, many of these animals are protected in national reserves. You may have heard of South Africa’s most famous national park, Kruger National Park, which is found in the northeastern part of the country. Another famous park is the Addo National Elephant Park in the Eastern Cape.
The regions of South Africa are the homes to many types of animals. Lions, elephants, zebras, leopards, monkeys and rhinoceroses as well as mongoose, jackals and various cats live there. There is a wide variety of species of birds, including ostriches and grouse among many others, and a number of different snakes and reptiles. There are also whales, mostly off of the West coast near Cape Town.
Go to the South African National Parks website and locate and count all of the National Parks in the country. Compare this to the previous map of South Africa’s vegetation. What types of climates and environments are most of the national parks located in?http://www.sanparks.org/
In more recent history, farming has been very important to the people of the Western Cape. When Dutch Europeans first settled in the area, they supported their settlement with farms and livestock. The Dutch also introduced vineyards and the Cape is known for its fine wines. The Cape is also known for its fish.
South Africa’s natural resources, along with its geography and climate, have influenced the development of the country and where people have settled. In its earlier history, agriculturalists settled in mainly the eastern part of the country because the rainfall supported agriculture best there. Pastoralists settled the southern plains and along the Orange River and the highlands of the western escarpment. The hunter-gatherers inhabited the mountains of the Drakensberg and the Western Cape and the semi-deserts.
Click for more information on South Africa’s Agricultural Resources.
Domesticated animals include cattle, sheep, and goats. The high-veldt is used for cattle grazing in the West. In the center of the country, people have both cattle and farm and in the East, they grow mostly grains (especially corn or maize).
South Africa is very rich in its mineral resources. In the past, iron, gold and copper were found in rocks throughout the region, but particularly in the northwestern cape and the Limpopo river valley. In the modern era gold, copper, diamonds, platinum, chrome, and uranium are important mineral products. The importance of gold and diamonds to South Africa’s history will be discussed in the next section Activity 2: History of South Africa. In 1994, mineral exports were 48 % of foreign earnings and 8.5 percent of the country’s Gross Domestic Product (GDP) the total market value of all goods and services produced in a country (read more about economics in Module Nine: African Economies). Today, South Africa is still the leading gold exporter in the world.
Click for more information on the South African Industrial Areas, Mines and Ports.
South Africa’s People: An Introduction:
South Africa’s population is made up of many different people who you will learn about in the next section. This section only provides a brief overview of the demographics of the country and its diversity. More information can be found on the country page for South Africa.
The country has a population of roughly 45 million people. South Africa’s 2001 census reported that black Africans made up 79% of the population, white people constituted 9.6%, colored people (people of mixed race) 8.9%, and people of Indian or Asian descent made up 2.5% of the total population.
The diversity of the people of South Africa is also represented in the number of the languages spoken there. The country of South Africa recognizes eleven languages as official languages: Zulu, Xhosa, Sotho, Tswana, Ndebele, Pedi, Swati, Venda, Tsonga, English, and Afrikaans.
Identify (draw and name) some of the major geographical features of South Africa on the following map. When you have identified the features on the map, explain why these features are significant or important to the development of South Africa.
The Limpopo River___________________________________________________________________________________________
The High, Middle, and Low veldts ______________________________________________________________________________
Cape Point or Cape of Good Hope ______________________________________________________________________________
The Atlantic Ocean___________________________________________________________________________________________
The Indian Ocean ____________________________________________________________________________________________
Pretoria/ Tshwane ____________________________________________________________________________________________
Cape Town _________________________________________________________________________________________________
The Western Cape ____________________________________________________________________________________________
The Mountain Escarpment ______________________________________________________________________________________
The Witswatersrand ___________________________________________________________________________________________
Go on to Activity Two or select from one of the other activities in this module.