If three pyramids are the symbol of Africa’s far north, then a flat-topped mountain is the symbol of its far south. Cape Town nestles in the curve of Table Mountain at the start of the hook-shaped Cape Peninsula, which ends in the jagged cliffs of Cape Point.
The province is one of the country’s most beautiful, attracting the lion’s share of foreign tourists. It is a region of majestic mountains, colourful patchworks of farmland set in lovely valleys, long beaches and, further inland, the wide-open landscape of the semidesert Karoo.
Two oceans meet on the coast of the Western Cape: the cold Atlantic Ocean is in the west, while the warmer Indian Ocean lies on the southern coast. The plankton-rich cold Benguela current flows along the west coast and is considered to be one of the world’s richest fishing grounds.
Western Cape: quick facts
- Capital: Cape Town
- Languages: 49.7% Afrikaans, 24.7% isiXhosa, 20.2% English
- Population: 5 822 734 (2011)
- Share of South Africa’s population: 11.3%
- Area: 129 462 square kilometres
- Share of South Africa’s total land area: 10.6%
The land and its people
With a total area of 129 462 square kilometres, the Western Cape is roughly the size of Greece. It’s the country’s fourth-largest province, only slightly smaller than the Free State, taking up 10.6% of South Africa’s land area and with a population of 5.8-million people.
A potpourri of diverse cultural backgrounds gives the province a cosmopolitan flavour, creating a demographic profile quite different from the national pattern. Centuries of trade and immigration have created a population with genetic and linguistic links to different parts of Europe, southeast Asia, India and Africa. Afrikaans is spoken by the majority, with isiXhosa and English being the other main languages.
The Western Cape is topographically and climatically varied. It has a temperate southern coastline fringed with mountains; here the typical vegetation, especially in the western section, is the famed fynbos. To the north it stretches deep into the Karoo plateau, while the west coast is extremely dry.
The Mediterranean climate of the peninsula and the mountainous region beyond it is ideal for grape cultivation, with a number of vineyards producing excellent wines. Other fruit and vegetables are also grown here, and wheat is an important crop to the north and east of Cape Town.
The southern coastal area is also fertile, while fishing is the most important industry along the west coast. Sheep farming is the mainstay of the Karoo, and other forms of husbandry take place in the better watered parts of the province.
Visitors to the Western Cape can disembark at international airports in Cape Town and the city of George, or at the ports of Cape Town, Mossel Bay or Saldanha.
Saldanha, north of Cape Town, is South Africa’s only natural harbour, and notable harbour for iron exports and the fishing industry. Other towns include Worcester and Stellenbosch in the heart of the winelands, George, a centre for indigenous timber and vegetable production, Oudtshoorn, known for its ostrich products and the world-famous Cango caves, and Beaufort West on the dry, sheep-farming plains of the Great Karoo.
The Western Cape’s unmatched natural beauty, famous hospitality, cultural diversity, excellent wine and rich cuisine make it one of the world’s greatest tourist attractions.
Perched between the ocean and the mountain, and with a national park as its heart, Cape Town is wild and wonderful. Among its attractions are climbing, surfing and diving along with vibrant nightlife, excellent wine and endless shopping.
The Western Cape is home to the smallest of the world’s six floral kingdoms, the Cape Floral Kingdom, which is characterised by fynbos and the protea family, and contains more plant species than the whole of Europe.
The kingdom is one of the Western Cape’s two Unesco World Heritage Sites, places of “outstanding value to humanity”. The other is Robben Island in Table Bay near Cape Town, used for centuries as a prison for dissidents and outcasts. Now an essential stop for visitors to the region, it was on this island that South African statesman Nelson Mandela spent the bulk of his 27 years in prison.
To the east, the region around Knysna and Tsitsikamma has the country’s largest indigenous forests, a fairyland of ancient tree giants, ferns and abundant birdlife. Products of the forests include sought-after furniture made from the indigenous yellowwood, stinkwood and white pear trees.
The Western Cape economy contributes roughly 14% to South Africa’s GDP. More sophisticated sectors such as finance, real estate, ICT, retail and tourism have shown substantial growth, and are the main contributors to the regional economy. The value of residential property has increased significantly.
Many of South Africa’s major insurance companies and banks are based in the Western Cape. Most of the country’s petroleum companies and the largest segment of the printing and publishing industry are found in Cape Town.
After Gauteng and KwaZulu-Natal, the Western Cape’s manufacturing sector is the third-largest contributor to the national manufacturing sector. The clothing and textile industry remains the most significant industrial source of employment in the province.
Cape Town remains the economic hub of the province, encompassing industrial areas such as Epping, Montagu Gardens, Parow and Retreat.
The sheltered valleys between mountains are ideal for the cultivation of export-grade fruit such as apples, table grapes, olives, peaches and oranges. A variety of vegetables is cultivated in the eastern part of the Western Cape, while the wheat-growing Swartland and Overberg districts are the country’s breadbasket.
The inland Karoo region and the Overberg district around Bredasdorp produce wool and mutton, as well as pedigree Merino breeding stock.
Other animal products include broiler chickens, eggs, dairy products, beef and pork. The Western Cape is the only province with an outlet for the export of horses, earning millions in foreign revenue.
The province is also a leader in the export of ostrich meat to Europe, with its abattoirs turning out R1-billion in export products every year. In addition to meat, fine leatherware and ostrich feathers are also exported to destinations all over the world.
The rich fishing grounds on the west coast are protected from exploitation by a 200km commercial fishing zone and a strict quota system. Snoek, Cape lobster, abalone, calamari, octopus, oysters and mussels are among the delicacies produced in these waters.
SouthAfrica.info reporter, incorporating material from the South African Yearbook
Updated: 3 November 2015
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