Northern Cape province, South Africa

The vast and arid Northern Cape is South Africa’s largest province – around the size of Germany – and takes up nearly a third of the country’s land area. Yet it has the smallest population, only 1-million people, and a population density of just three people for every square kilometre.

Witsand, Northern Cape
The white sands of Witsand, a nature reserve in the Green Kalahari region of the Northern Cape. (Image: South African Tourism)

Compiled by Mary Alexander

Along the province’s northern border with Namibia runs the great Orange River, which feeds the Northern Cape’s agriculture and alluvial diamonds industries. The Molopo River is at the border with Botswana to the northeast, while the cold Atlantic Ocean forms its western boundary.

The Northern Cape landscape is characterised by vast arid plains with outcroppings of haphazard rock piles.

Northern Cape map

The capital is Kimberley, abutting the Free State province to the east.

Other important towns are:

  • Upington, centre of the karakul sheep and dried fruit industries, and the most northerly wine-making region of South Africa
  • Springbok, in the heart of the Namaqualand spring flower country
  • Kuruman, founded by the Scottish missionary Robert Moffat
  • De Aar, hub of the South African railway network

The Northern Cape is home to the world’s largest telescope, the Square Kilometre Array (SKA), the greatest portion of which is currently being built at Carnarvon. Sutherland is the site of the southern hemisphere’s largest astronomical observatory, the multinational-sponsored Southern African Large Telescope, or SALT.

Northern Cape: quick facts

  • Capital: Kimberley
  • Languages: 53.8% Afrikaans, 33.1% Setswana
  • Population: 1 145 861 (2011)
  • Share of South Africa’s population: 2.2%
  • Area: 372 889 square kilometres
  • Share of South Africa’s total land area: 30.5%

THE NINE PROVINCES OF SOUTH AFRICA

Northern Cape: the land and its people

With a total area of 372 889 square kilometres, the Northern Cape takes up 30.5% of South Africa’s land area, with a population of 1.15-million people.

Just over half of the population speak Afrikaans, with other languages being Setswana, isiXhosa and English.

The area, especially along the Orange and Vaal rivers, is rich in San rock engravings. A good collection can be seen at the McGregor Museum in Kimberley. The province is also rich in fossils, going back to almost the beginning of life on earth.

Apart from a narrow strip of winter rainfall area along the coast, the province is a semi- arid region with little rainfall in summer. The weather conditions are extreme – cold and frosty in winter, with extremely high temperatures in summer.

The largest part of the province falls within the Nama-Karoo biome, with a vegetation of low shrubland and grass, and trees limited to water courses.

The area is known worldwide its spectacular annual explosion of spring flowers which, for a short period every year, attracts thousands of tourists. This biome contains a number of fascinating plants, including the elephant’s trunk (halfmens or “half-man”), tree aloe (kokerboom) and a variety of succulents.

The province has a wealth of national parks and conservation areas. The Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park, Africa’s first cross-border game park, joins South Africa’s Kalahari Gemsbok National Park to the Gemsbok National Park in Botswana. It is one of the largest conservation areas in southern Africa, and one of the largest remaining protected natural ecosystems in the world. The park provides unfenced access to a variety of game between South Africa and Botswana, over its land area of more than 3.6 hectares.

The Ai-Ais Richtersveld Transfrontier Conservation Park spans the border with Namibia, with some of the most spectacular scenery of the arid and desert environments in southern Africa. Bisected by the Orange River, it comprises the Ai-Ais Hot Springs Game Park in Namibia, and the Richtersveld National Park in South Africa. Distinctive features include the Fish River Canyon – often likened to the Grand Canyon in the US – and the Ai-Ais hot springs.

Nowhere is the Orange River more impressive than at the Augrabies Falls, which ranks among the world’s greatest cataracts on a major river. The 19 separate falls cascade over a granite plateau, dropping a total of 191 metres to a 43-metre-deep pool gouged out by the force of the water.

Agriculture

Given the province’s dry conditions and dependence on irrigation, many Northern Cape farmers are branching out into value-added activities such as game farming. Food production and processing for the local and export market is also on the uptick.

Underpinning the growth and development plan of the province are the investment projects that link up with the existing plans of the Namaqua Development Corridor. The focus is on the beneficiation and export of sea products.

The economy of a large part of the Northern Cape, the interior Karoo, depends on sheep-farming, while the karakul-pelt industry is one of the most important in the Gordonia district of Upington.

The province has fertile agricultural land. In the Orange River Valley, especially at Upington, Kakamas and Keimoes, grapes and fruit are cultivated intensively. Wheat, fruit, peanuts, maize and cotton are produced at the Vaalharts Irrigation Scheme near Warrenton.

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