South Africa: fast facts

South African facts at your fingertips . up-to-date information on the country’s economy, population, geography, climate, languages and more.

Key facts


  • Official name: Republic of South Africa
  • Form of state: A federal state, comprising a national government and nine provincial governments.
  • Legal system: Based on Roman-Dutch law and the 1996 Constitution.
  • Population (Census 2011): 51.77-million
  • Measures: metric system
  • Currency: One rand (R) = 100 cents
  • Time: Two hours ahead of GMT
  • Internet domain: .za
  • Geography:

  • Area: 1 219 090 square kilometres
  • Agriculture: 81.6% of total land area
  • Arable land: 12.1% of total
  • Irrigated land: 10.15% of arable land
  • Capitals:

  • Pretoria (administrative)
  • Cape Town (legislative)
  • Bloemfontein (judicial)
  • Provinces:

  • Eastern Cape
  • Gauteng
  • KwaZulu-Natal
  • Mpumulanga
  • Northern Cape
  • Limpopo
  • North West
  • Free State
  • Western Cape
  • Economy

  • Currency: Rand (R)
  • Exchange rate: see “market indicators” above right
  • Real GDP growth rate (second 2015): decreased by 1.3% q/q [StatsSA]
  • Ranking in terms of GDP size: 25th largest in the world [IMF]
  • Consumer inflation rate (July 2015): 5.0% y/y [StatsSA]
  • Producer inflation rate (January 2015): annual rate fell to 3.5% in January 2015 y/y [StatsSA]
  • Prime bank overdraft lending rate (July 2015): 9.5%
  • Labour force (July 2015): 15.7 million people employed [StatsSA]
  • Unemployment (July 2015): 5.2 million unemployed and 15.1 million not economically active [StatsSA]
  • Sovereign credit rating (2015):
    Standard and Poor’s: BBB-/Stable
    Fitch: Baa2/Stable
    Moody’s: BBB/Negative
  • GDP composition by sector (2015):
    agriculture 2%, finance 22%, government 17%, trade 15%, manufacturing 13%, transport and communication 10%, mining 8%, personal services 6%, construction 4%, utilities 4%
  • Key industries:
    Mining (world’s largest producer of platinum, chromium), automobile assembly, metal- working, machinery, textiles, iron and steel, chemicals, fertilisers, foodstuffs, commercial ship repair.
  • Main trading partners (2012) [The Observatory of Economic Complexity]:
    Exports – China 8.3%, US 8.1%, India 7.8%, UK 7.2%, Japan 5.4%, Germany 4.9%, Zimbabwe 2,6%, Netherlands 2.3%, Switzerland 2.1%, Mozambique 1.4%
    Imports – China 13%, Germany 7.4%, US 6.9%, Saudi Arabia 6.7%, UK 5.5%, Nigeria 5.3%, India 4.1%, Japan 2.9%, Italy 2.3%
  • Democracy

  • National legislature: Bicameral Parliament elected every five years, comprising a 400-seat National Assembly and a 90-seat National Council of Provinces.
  • Electoral system: List-system of proportional representation based on universal adult suffrage.
  • Elections: National elections were held in 1994, 1999, 2004, 2009 and 2014. The next national election will take place in 2019.
  • Head of state: The President is elected by the National Assembly. Under the Constitution, the President is permitted to serve a maximum of two five-year terms. The current President is Jacob Zuma, who was sworn in on 9 May 2009.

    South Africa is a vigorous multiparty democracy with an independent judiciary and a free and diverse press.

    Until 1994, the country was known for apartheid – white-minority rule. South Africa’s remarkable ability to put centuries of racial hatred behind it in favour of reconciliation was widely considered a social miracle, inspiring similar peace efforts in Northern Ireland, Rwanda and elsewhere.

    The highest law of the land is the Constitution, which came into force on 4 February 1997, and is considered to be one of the most progressive in the world. The Constitution’s Bill of Rights protects equality, freedom of expression and association, property, housing, health care, education, access to information, and access to courts. Protecting those rights is the country’s independent judiciary, subject only to the Constitution and the law.

    With 13 parties in Parliament, South Africa has a vibrant political system. The African National Congress is the governing party, and strongly in the majority, though the opposition parties are robust and vocal.

    Political party National Assembly
    African National Congress249
    Democratic Alliance89
    Economic Freedom Fighters25
    Inkatha Freedom Party10
    National Freedom Party6
    United Democratic Movement4
    Freedom Front Plus4
    Congress of the People3
    African Christian Democratic Party3
    African Independent Congress3
    Agang SA2
    Pan Africanist Congress1
    African Peoples Convention1

    Source: IEC

    Geography and climate

    South Africa is a medium-sized country, with a total land area of 1 219 090 square kilometres, or roughly equivalent in size to Niger, Angola, Mali or Colombia. It is one- eighth the size of the US, about a third the size of the European Union, twice the size of France and over three times the size of Germany. It measures some 1 600km from north to south, and roughly the same from east to west.

    The country lies between 22º and 35º south, flanked on the west by the Atlantic Ocean and on the east by the Indian Ocean, whose waters meet at the country’s – and Africa’s – most southern tip, Cape Agulhas.

    The coastline stretches 2 798 kilometres from a desert border in the northwest, down the icy Skeleton Coast to Cape Agulhas, then up along the green hills and wide beaches on the coast of the Indian Ocean, to a border with subtropical Mozambique in the northeast.

    The low-lying coastal zone is narrow for much of that distance, soon giving way to a mountainous escarpment that separates it from the high inland plateau.

    A subtropical location, moderated by ocean on three sides of the country and the altitude of the interior plateau, makes South Africa a warm and sunny country. But it’s also dry, with an average annual rainfall of about 450mm, with about 21% of the country receiving less than 200mm a year. The world average is 860mm. While the Western Cape gets most of its rainfall in winter, the rest of the country is mostly a summer-rainfall region.


    South Africa has nine provinces, which vary considerably in size.

    The smallest is tiny and crowded Gauteng, a highly urbanised region, and the largest the vast, arid and empty Northern Cape, which takes up almost a third of South Africa’s total land area.

    ProvinceArea% of total
    Eastern Cape169 580 km²13.9%
    Free State 129 480 km²10.6%
    Gauteng 17 010 km²1.4%
    KwaZulu-Natal92 100 km²7.6%
    Limpopo123 910 km²10.2%
    Mpumalanga 79 490 km² 6.5%
    Northern Cape361 830 km²29.7%
    North West116 320 km²9.5%
    Western Cape
    129 370 km²10.6%
    TOTAL1 219 090 km²100%

    CENSUS 2011
    ProvincePopulation% of total
    Eastern Cape6 562 05312.7%
    Free State2 745 5905.3%
    Gauteng12 272 26323.7%
    KwaZulu-Natal10 267 30019.8%
    Limpopo5 404 86810.4%
    Mpumalanga4 039 9397.8%
    Northern Cape1 145 8612.2%
    North West3 509 9536.8%
    Western Cape5 822 73411.3%
    TOTAL51 770 560100%

    Source: Statistics South Africa


    South Africa is a nation of diversity, with 51.77-million people and a variety of cultures, languages and religious beliefs.

    According to Census 2011, the country’s population stands at 51 770 560 people.

    Africans are in the majority at 41 000 938, making up 79.2% of the total population.

    The coloured population is estimated at 4 615 401 (8.9%), the white population at 4 586 838 (8.9%), and the Indian/Asian population at 1 286 930 (2.5%). In the census carried out in 2011, 280 454 (0.5%) South Africans classified themselves as “other”.

    Females make up just over half (51.3%) of the population, and males 48.7%.

    CENSUS 2011
    Population groupNumber% of total
    African41 000 93879.2%
    Coloured4 615 4018.9%
    White4 586 8388.9%
    Indian/Asian1 286 9302.5%
    TOTAL51 770 560100%

    Source: Statistics South Africa


    South Africa is a multilingual country. The country’s democratic Constitution, which came into effect on 4 February 1997, recognises 11 official languages, to which it guarantees equal status. These are:

    • Afrikaans
    • English
    • isiNdebele
    • isiXhosa
    • isiZulu
    • Sesotho sa Leboa
    • Sesotho
    • Setswana
    • siSwati
    • Tshivenda
    • Xitsonga

    Besides the official languages, scores of others – African, European, Asian and more – are spoken in South Africa, as the country lies at the crossroads of southern Africa.

    According to Census 2011, isiZulu is the most common home language is, spoken by nearly a quarter of the population. It is followed by isiXhosa at 17.6%, Afrikaans at 13.3%, Sepedi at 9.4%, and Setswana and English each at 8.2%.

    Sesotho is the mother tongue of 7.9% of South Africans, while the remaining four official languages are spoken at home by less than 5% of the population each.

    Most South Africans are multilingual, able to speak more than one language. English- and Afrikaans-speaking people tend not to have much ability in indigenous languages, but are fairly fluent in each other’s language. Most South Africans speak English, which is fairly ubiquitous in official and commercial public life. The country’s other lingua franca is isiZulu.

    LanguageNumber of speakers*% of total
    Afrikaans6 855 08213.5%
    English4 892 6239.6%
    isiNdebele1 090 2232.1%
    isiXhosa8 154 25816%
    isiZulu11 587 37422.7%
    Sepedi4 618 5769.1%
    Sesotho3 849 5637.6%
    Setswana4 067 2488%
    Sign language234 6550.5%
    SiSwati1 297 0462.5%
    Tshivenda1 209 3882.4%
    Xitsonga2 277 1484.5%
    Other828 2581.6%
    TOTAL50 961 443**100%

    * Spoken as a home language
    ** Unspecified and not applicable are excluded
    Source: Census 2011


    At about 7% of gross domestic product (GDP) and 20% of total state expenditure, South Africa has one of the highest rates of public investment in education in the world.

    School life spans 13 years or grades, from grade 0, otherwise known as grade R or “reception year”, through to grade 12 or “matric” – the year of matriculation.

    Under the South African Schools Act of 1996, education is compulsory for all South Africans from the age of seven (grade 1) to age 15, or the completion of grade 9.

    South Africa has a vibrant higher education sector, with nearly 900 000 students enrolled in the country’s 23 state-funded tertiary institutions: 11 universities, six universities of technology, and six comprehensive institutions.

    There are currently around 450 registered private FET colleges, which cover training provided from Grades 10 to 12, including career-oriented education and training.

    According to Census 2011, the percentage of people aged 20 or older who have higher education increased from 8.4% in 2001 to 12.1%. The number of those who matriculated increased from 20.4% to 28.5%. Those who had no schooling at all decreased from 17.9% to 8.6%.

    There has been moderate increase in people aged between five and 24 attending private institutions rather than public ones. Gauteng topped the list with 16% of people in this age group attending private institutions. This was followed by the Western Cape with 7.5%, and the Free State with 6.4%.

    The functional illiteracy rates – that is, people 15 years old and over with no education or a highest level of education less than grade seven – have dropped from 31.5% in 2001 to 19.1% in 2011. Poorer rural provinces, such as Limpopo and the Northern Cape, have cut their functional illiteracy rates by almost half to around 25% since 1996. reporter

    Reviewed: October 2015

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