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
On dry land, going from west to east, South Africa shares long borders with
Namibia and Botswana, touches Zimbabwe, has a longitudinal strip of border with
Mozambique to the east, and lastly 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
South Africa has three capitals:
Cape Town, in the Western Cape, is the legislative capital and is
where the country's Parliament is found. Bloemfontein, in the Free
State, is the judicial capital, and home to the Supreme Court of
Appeal. Pretoria, 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
types: South Africa has eight major terrestrial biomes, or habitat
types – broad ecological life zones with distinct environmental conditions and
related sets of plant and animal life. See South Africa's plant
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 of wildlife fame.
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, with midwinter temperatures 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
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
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 extremely important. The largest
dam is the Gariep on the Orange River