Situated at the southern tip of Africa, South Africa is 1 233 404km² in size and is edged on three sides by nearly 3 000km of coastline, with the Indian Ocean to the east and the Atlantic Ocean to the west. The country is bordered in the north by Namibia, Botswana, Zimbabwe and Mozambique, and also encloses two independent countries, the kingdoms of Lesotho and Swaziland.
South Africa has three capitals: Cape Town (legislative), Pretoria (administrative) and Bloemfontein (judicial).
Since the first post-apartheid elections in 1994, South Africa has had a democratic government. The Constitution is regarded as an example to the world and enshrines a wide range of human rights protected by an independent judiciary. The head of the country is the president. The current incumbent is Jacob Zuma, who is the head of the ruling party, the African National Congress.
Regarded as an emerging market, South Africa has a well-developed financial sector and active stock exchange. Financial policies have focused on building solid macroeconomic structures. The country’s central bank is the South African Reserve Bank.
The tourism industry is well established with an exciting sector of emerging entrepreneurs. The country is strong on adventure, sport, nature and wildlife, and is a pioneer and global leader in responsible tourism.
The last census in 2011 showed a population of about 52-million people, of varying origins, cultures, languages and religions, of which 79,2% are African, 8,9% ‘coloured’ (a term used in South Africa to describe people of mixed race), 8,9% white, and 2,5% Indian. Just over half the population is female.
South Africa's currency is the rand, which offers visitors great value for money. The rand comes in a range of coins (R1 = 100 cents) and note denominations of R10, R20, R50, R100 and R200.
South Africa is known for its long sunny days, hence the title, ‘Sunny South Africa’. Most of the nine provinces have summer rainfall, except for the Western Cape, which experiences winter rainfall. The high-lying areas of the interior can be chilly in winter. The South African Weather Service uses the following dates for seasons:
Spring: September, October, November Summer: December through February Autumn: March, April, May Winter: June through August
South Africa has a well-developed communications infrastructure. A number of cellphone providers offer national coverage and there are well-established landline phone networks. Internet and Wi-Fi are easily accessible in most urban areas.
There are nine provinces in South Africa, namely: Eastern Cape, Free State, Gauteng, KwaZulu-Natal, Limpopo, Mpumalanga, Northern Cape, North West and Western Cape.
The South African flag is a much-loved symbol of the ‘new’ South Africa. It comprises a geometric pattern of green, white, black, gold, red and blue.
South Africa’s national bird is the blue crane. The national animal is the springbok; the national fish, the galjoen; the national flower, the giant or king protea; and the national tree, the yellowwood.
South Africa’s national anthem is based on the Xhosa hymn, Nkosi Sikelel' iAfrika (God Bless Africa), composed by Enoch Sontonga in 1897, and Die Stem van Suid-Afrika (The Call of South Africa).
South Africa is a multilingual country and there are 11 official languages, namely: English, Afrikaans, isiNdebele, isiXhosa, isiZulu, Sepedi, Sesotho, Setswana, Siswati, Tshivenda and Xitsonga. Although only about 10% of the population has English as its mother tongue, English is the language most widely understood, and is the second language of the majority of South Africans.
About 80% of South Africa's population is Christian. Other major religious groups include Hindus, Muslims, Jews and Buddhists. A minority does not belong to any of the major religions. The Constitution guarantees freedom of worship.
In urban areas tap water is usually of high quality and safe to drink. It’s quite safe to have ice in drinks and to eat salads. However, when travelling to remote rural areas and the bush you should take your own drinking water along or buy bottled water.
Animals and plants
In 1998 Conservation International declared South Africa one of the 17 megadiverse destinations in the world because of its rich biological diversity. Expect majestic and intimidating animals such as rhinos, elephants and great white sharks, and smaller ‘cute’ ones such as meerkats, bush babies and bat-eared foxes, as well as diverse plant life from succulent Karoo through to fynbos and indigenous forests.
The South African electricity supply is 220/230 volts AC 50 HZ. With a few exceptions (in deep rural areas), electricity is available almost everywhere.
South Africa’s three major international airports are OR Tambo International Airport (Johannesburg); Cape Town International Airport; and King Shaka International Airport (Durban). There are also many regional airports, including the Kruger Mpumalanga International Airport in Mbombela (Nelspruit).
Travel by road and rail
South Africa has an extensive road infrastructure including national highways and secondary roads. Speed limits are set at 120km/h on highways; 100km/h on secondary roads; and 60km/h in urban areas. Most roads are in good condition, but there are a few exceptions. There are rail connections between the main centres, such as Johannesburg and Cape Town.
For visa requirements, please contact your nearest South African diplomatic mission. South Africa requires a valid yellow fever certificate from all foreign visitors and citizens over one year of age travelling from an infected area or having been in transit through infected areas. Infected areas include Zambia and Angola in southern Africa.
South Africa has been well known for its medical skill since Professor Christiaan Barnard performed the first successful human heart transplant in the country in 1967. There are many world-class private hospitals and medical centres around the country, especially in the urban areas, while many state hospitals also offer excellent care, among them Groote Schuur Hospital in Cape Town.
Most of South Africa is malaria-free, but if you are visiting the Kruger National Park or low-lying parts of northern KwaZulu-Natal, be aware that you are entering malarial areas and should take precautions in the form of prophylactic medication.
Tips and tipping
As a rough guide: give 10% to 15% to a waitron in a restaurant; about US$10 (or equivalent) per day to your safari ranger.
Use common sense and take basic safety precautions. Keep valuables locked away and don’t wear expensive watches or jewellery, flash expensive cameras, or walk in deserted areas. Keep car doors and windows locked at all times. If in doubt, ask a guide or at your accommodation for safety guidelines.
South Africa has its fair share of sporting, movie, music and political celebrities. From global political icons like former president Nelson Mandela and Anglican Archbishop Emeritus Desmond Tutu to golfing greats such as Gary Player and Ernie Els, movie stars like Charlize Theron and musicians (think Miriam Makeba, Ladysmith Black Mambazo and the group Freshlyground), expect South Africans to make news anywhere in the world.
Smoking is banned in public places, but there are usually designated areas where people can smoke. Under-18s may not enter a designated smoking area or buy cigarettes.
Travelling with children
Most places welcome children and many establishments have special facilities such as family rooms or children’s entertainment programmes. Enquire about these when you book. All national parks are child-friendly.
There are facilities for disabled people (although fewer than in the United States or many parts of Europe). All major hotels will have facilities for disabled people. When renting a vehicle, discuss special needs and parking dispensations with the car-hire company.