South Africa occupies the southern tip of Africa, its long coastline stretching more than 2 500km from the desert border with Namibia on the Atlantic coast, southwards around the tip of Africa, then north to the border with subtropical Mozambique on the Indian Ocean.
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. In some places, notably the province of KwaZulu-Natal in the east, a greater distance separates the coast from the escarpment.
Size and provinces
South Africa is a medium-sized country, with a total land area of slightly more than 1.2-million square kilometres, making it roughly the same size as Niger, Angola, Mali, and Colombia.
It is one-eighth the size of the US, twice the size of France, and over three times the size of Germany. South Africa measures about 1 600km from north to south, and roughly the same from east to west.
The country 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.
Going from west to east, South Africa shares long northern borders with Namibia and Botswana, touches Zimbabwe, has a strip of border with Mozambique, and finally curves in around Swaziland before rejoining Mozambique’s southern border.
In the interior, nestled in the curve of the bean-shaped Free State, is the small mountainous country of Lesotho, completely surrounded by South African territory.
South Africa has three capitals:
- , in the Western Cape, is the legislative capital and is where the country’s Parliament is found.
- , in the Free State, is the judicial capital, and home to the Supreme Court of Appeal.
- , in Gauteng, is the administrative capital, and the ultimate capital of the country. It is home to the Union Buildings and a large proportion of the public service.
The largest and most important city is Johannesburg, the economic heartland of the country. Other important centres include Durban and Pietermaritzburg in KwaZulu- Natal, and Port Elizabeth in the Eastern Cape.
Climate and topography
Although the country is classified as semi-arid, South Africa has considerable variation in climate as well as topography.
The great inland Karoo plateau, where rocky hills and mountains rise from sparsely populated scrubland, is very dry, and gets more so as it shades in the north-west towards the Kalahari desert. Extremely hot in summer, it can be icy in winter.
In contrast, the eastern coastline is lush and well watered, a stranger to frost. The southern coast, part of which is known as the Garden Route, is rather less tropical but also green, as is the Cape of Good Hope – the latter especially in winter.
This south-western corner of the country has a Mediterranean climate, with wet winters and hot, dry summers. Its most famous climatic characteristic is its wind, which blows intermittently virtually all year round, either from the south-east or the north- west.
The eastern section of the Karoo does not extend as far north as the western part, giving way to the flat landscape of the Free State, which though still semi-arid receives somewhat more rain.
North of the Vaal River, the Highveld is better watered, and saved by its altitude (Johannesburg lies at 1 740m; its average annual rainfall is 760mm) from subtropical extremes of heat. Winters are cold, though snow is rare.
Further north and to the east, especially where a drop in altitude beyond the escarpment gives the Lowveld its name, temperatures rise: the Tropic of Capricorn slices through the extreme north. This is also where one finds the typical South African bushveld.
Those looking for an opportunity to ski in winter head for the high Drakensberg mountains that form South Africa’s eastern escarpment. But one of the coldest places in the country is Sutherland, in the western Roggeveld Mountains. There, midwinter temperatures get as low as -15ºC.
The deep interior provides the hottest temperatures. According to the South African Weather Service, the highest temperature recorded in South Africa was in Dunbrody, in the Sunday River Valley in the Eastern Cape: 50ºC on 3 November 1918. The hottest place in South Africa is Letaba (Limpopo Province) with a mean annual temperature of 23.3ºC and an average annual maximum temperature of 35ºC.
The coldest temperature ever recorded in South Africa was on 28 June 1996 at Buffelsfontein, near Molteno in the Eastern Cape: -18.6ºC. In fact, Buffelsfontein is the coldest place in South Africa, with a mean annual temperature of 11.3ºC and an average annual minimum temperature of 2.8ºC.
Oceans and rivers
By far South Africa’s biggest neighbour is the ocean – or two oceans, which meet at the southwestern corner. Its territory includes Marion and Prince Edward Islands, nearly 2 000km from Cape Town in the Atlantic Ocean.
The cold Benguela current sweeps up from the Antarctic along the Atlantic coast, laden with plankton and providing rich fishing grounds. The east coast has the north-to- south Mozambique-Agulhas current to thank for its warm waters.
These two currents have a major effect on the country’s climate, the ready evaporation of the eastern seas providing generous rainfall while the Benguela current retains its moisture to cause desert conditions in the west.
Several small rivers run into the sea along the coastline, but none are navigable and none provide useful natural harbours. The coastline itself, being fairly smooth, provides only one good natural harbour, at Saldanha Bay north of Cape Town. A lack of fresh water prevented major development here.
Nevertheless, busy harbours exist at Richards Bay and Durban in KwaZulu-Natal, East London and Port Elizabeth in the Eastern Cape, and Mossel Bay and Cape Town in the Western Cape. The newest commercial port, the Port of Ngqura, is off the coast from Port Elizabeth and has the deepest container terminal in sub-Saharan Africa.
There are only two major rivers in South Africa: the Limpopo, a stretch of which is shared with Zimbabwe; and the Orange (with its tributary, the Vaal), which runs with a variable flow across the central landscape from east to west, emptying into the Atlantic Ocean at the Namibian border.
In so dry a country, dams and irrigation are important. The largest dam is the Gariep on the Orange River.
Compiled by Mary Alexander
Updated December 2015
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