The land and People of South Africa. South Africa occupies the most southern tip of Africa with its long coastline stretching more than 3 000 km from the desert border with Namibia on the Atlantic coast southwards around the tip of Africa and then north to the border of subtropical Mozambique on the Indian Ocean. The country has more than 290 conservation parks. It is home to almost 300 mammal species, about 860 bird species and 8 000 plant species. The annual sardine run is the biggest migration on the planet. South Africa comprises eight world heritage sites and is divided into eight biomes. (A biome is a community of plants and animals that have common characteristics for the environment they exist in.)

South African World Heritage Sites:

  • Cultural (5)
    Fossil Hominid Sites of South Africa (1999,2005)
    Mapungubwe Cultural Landscape (2003)
    Richtersveld Cultural and Botanical Landscape (2007)
    Robben Island (1999)
    ǂKhomani Cultural Landscape (2017)
  • Natural (4)
    Barberton Makhonjwa Mountains (2018)
    Cape Floral Region Protected Areas (2004,2015)
    iSimangaliso Wetland Park (1999)
    Vredefort Dome (2005)
  • Mixed (1)
    Maloti-Drakensberg Park (2000,2013)

The biomes are:


South African Provinces

Eastern Cape
Free State
Northern Cape
North West
Western Cape

The country is considered to be the cradle of humankind and boasts 40% of all hominid finds on Earth.

Land and People

The Land

Stretching latitudinally from 22°S to 35°S and longitudinally from 17°E to 33°E, South Africa’s surface area covers 1 219 602 km. Physical features range from bushveld, grasslands, forests, deserts and majestic mountain peaks, to wide unspoilt beaches and coastal wetlands. The country shares common boundaries with Namibia, Botswana, Zimbabwe, Mozambique and Swaziland, while the Mountain Kingdom of Lesotho is landlocked by South African territory in the south-east. The Prince Edward and Marion islands, annexed by South Africa in 1947, lie some 1 920 km south-east of Cape Town.

Oceans and Coastline

The warm Mozambique-Agulhas Current skirts the east and south coasts as far as Cape Agulhas, while the cold Benguela Current flows northwards along the west coast as far as southern Angola. The contrast in temperature between these two currents partly accounts for significant differences in climate and vegetation, as well as differences in marine life. Owing to the cold waters of the west coast being much richer in oxygen, nitrates, phosphates and plankton than those of the east coast, the South African fishing industry is centred on the west coast. Saldanha Bay on the west coast is the only ideal natural harbour.

Rivers and lakes

None of the country’s rivers are commercially avaliable to be sailed on by ships and most river mouths are unsuitable as harbours because large sandbanks block entry for most of the year. South Africa has no significant natural lakes. Artificial lakes are used mostly for crop irrigation. The Orange River is South Africa’s largest river. Rising in the Drakensberg Mountains, it traverses through the Lesotho Highlands and joins the Caledon River between the Eastern Cape and the Free State before it empties into the Atlantic Ocean forming the border with Namibia. Other major rivers include the Vaal, Breede, Komati, Lepelle (previously Olifants), Tugela, Umzimvubu, Limpopo and Molopo.

Relief Features

(Relief basically means the terrain of the earth. It shows the difference in elevation of various physical geographical features in a given area, such as mountains, valleys, plains and plateaus all have different elevations.)

South Africa’s surface area falls into two major physio-graphic categories: the interior plateau and the land between the plateau and the coast. Forming the boundary between these two areas is the Great Escarpment, the most prominent and continuous relief feature of the country. Its height above sea level varies from about 1 500 m in the dolerite-capped Roggeveld scarp in the southwest, to 3 482 m in the KwaZulu-Natal Drakensberg. Inland from the escarpment lies the interior plateau, which is the southern continuation of the great African plateau stretching north to the Sahara Desert. The plateau is characterised by wide plains with an average height of 1 200 m above sea level.

The dissected Lesotho plateau, which is more than 3 000 m above sea level, is the most prominent. Between the Great Escarpment and the coast lies an area which varies in width from 80 km to 240 km in the east and south, and 60 km to 80 km in the west. At least three major subdivisions are recognised – the eastern plateau slopes, the Cape folded belt and adjacent regions, and the western plateau slopes.


A subtropical location, moderated by ocean on three sides of the country and the altitude of the interior plateau, account for the warm temperate conditions. South Africa is a relatively dry country, with an average annual rainfall of about 464 mm. While the Western Cape gets most of its rainfall in winter, the rest of the country is generally a summer-rainfall region. Temperatures in South Africa tend to be lower than in other countries at similar latitudes owing mainly to greater elevation above sea level. On the interior plateau, the altitude – Johannesburg lies at 1 694 m – keeps the average summer temperatures below 30°C. In winter, for the same reason, night-time temperatures can drop to freezing point or lower in some places. South Africa’s coastal regions are therefore relatively warm
in winter.

The People

For 2017, Statistics South Africa estimated the mid-year population as 56,52 million. Approximately 28,9 million (51%) of the population was female. Gauteng comprises the largest share of the South African population. Approximately 14,3 million people (25,3%) live in this province. KwaZulu-Natal is the province with the second largest population, with 11,1 million people (19,6%) living in this province. With a population of approximately 1,21 million people (2,1%), Northern Cape remains the province with the smallest share of the South African population.

About 29,6% of the population is aged younger than 15 years and approximately 8,1% (4,60 million) is 60 years or
older. Similar proportions of those younger than 15 years live in Gauteng (21,1%) and KwaZulu-Natal (21,1%). Of the elderly aged 60 years and older, the highest percentage 24,0% (1,10 million) reside in Gauteng. The proportion of elderly persons aged 60 and older is increasing over time.

Migration is an important demographic process in shaping the age structure and distribution of the provincial population. For the period 2016–2021, Gauteng and Western Cape are estimated to experience the largest inflow of migrants of approximately, 1 595 106 and 485 560 respectively.

Life expectancy at birth for 2017 is estimated at 61,2 years for males and 66,7 years for females. The infant mortality rate for 2017 is estimated at 32,8 per 1 000 live births.

The estimated overall HIV prevalence rate is approximately 12,6% among the South African population. The total number of people living with HIV is estimated at approximately 7,06 million in 2017.

For adults aged 15 to 49 years, an estimated 18,0% of the population is HIV positive. The number of AIDS-related deaths declined consistently since 2007 from 345 185 in 2006 to 126 755 AIDS related deaths in 2017. Access to antiretroviral treatment has changed historical patterns of mortality. Access to ART has thus extended the lifespan of many in South Africa, who would have otherwise died at an earlier age, evident in the decline of AIDS deaths post-2006.


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. Other languages spoken here and mentioned in the Constitution
are the Khoi, Nama and San languages, sign language, Arabic, German, French, Greek, Gujarati, Hebrew, Hindi, Portuguese, Sanskrit, Tamil, Telegu and Urdu. There are also a few indigenous creoles and pidgins.

English is generally understood across the country, being the language of business, politics and the media, and the country’s lingua franca. But it only ranks fourth out of 11 as a home language.

South Africa’s linguistic diversity means that all 11 languages have had a profound effect on one another. South African English, for example, is littered with words and phrases from Afrikaans, isiZulu, Nama and other African languages.

According to Stats SA’s Community Survey 2016, isiZulu is the most common home language spoken by 24,6% of the population, followed by isiXhosa (17%), Afrikaans (12,1%), Sepedi (9,5%), Setswana (8,8%), and English (8,3%), Sesotho (8%), Xitsonga (4,2%), Siswati (2,6%), Tshivenda (2,4%) and isiNdebele (1,6%).

Promotion of the Conservation of Natural and Cultural Heritage

South African National Parks promotes the conservation of the country’s natural and cultural heritage by managing a network of South African national parks. SANParks also promotes conservation at local, national and international level.

SANParks annually embarks on initiatives to raise awareness of the organisation and its parks and promote a sense of pride in national parks in the general public. Free access is also provided to parks during National Parks Week, thus making parks accessible to citizens who cannot easily afford to visit the parks.


South Africa is a secular democracy with freedom of religion. Many religions are represented in the ethnic and regional diversity of the population. According to Stats SA’s Community Survey 2016, the distribution of religious beliefs in South Africa is as follows: Christianity (43 423 717); Islam (892 685); Traditional African religion (2 454 887); Hinduism (561 268); Buddhism (24 808); Bahaism (6 881); Judaism (49 470); Atheism (52 598); Agnosticism (32 944); No religious affiliation/belief (5 964 892); Other (1 482 210), and Do not know (704 358).

Languages according to mother tongue

Source: Stats SA’s Community Survey 2016
Language Percentages
IsiZulu: 24,6%
isiNdebele: 1,6%
IsiXhosa: 17,0%
Siswati: 2,6%
Afrikaans: 12,1%
Tshivenda: 2,4%
Sepedi: 9,5%
Xitsonga: 4,2%
English: 8,3%
Sesotho: 8,0%
Setswana: 8,8%
Sign Language: 0,5%

  Summer Winter
City Max Min Max Min
Bloemfontein 31 15 17 -2
Cape Town 26 16 18 7
Durban 28 21 23 11
East London 26 18 21 10
George 25 15 19 7
Johannesburg 26 15 17 4
Kimberley 33 18 19 3
Mthatha  27 16 21 4
Musina  34 21 25 7
Nelspruit  29 19 23 6
Pietermaritzburg  28 18 23 3
Polokwane  28 17 20 4
Port Elizabeth 25 18 20 9
Pretoria 29 18 20 5
Richards Bay 29 21 23 12
Skukuza  33 21 26 6
Thohoyandou  31 20 24 10
Upington  36 20 21 4

Average temperatures (°C) in South Africa
Source: South African Weather Service

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