South Africa has nine provinces, each with its own legislature, premier and executive council - and distinctive landscape, population, economy and climate.
The provinces are:
Sections in this article:
Before 1994, South Africa had four provinces: the Transvaal and Orange Free State, previously Boer republics, and Natal and the Cape, once British colonies. Scattered about were also the grand apartheid "homelands", spurious states to which black South Africans were forced to have citizenship.
Under South Africa's new democratic constitution, which came into effect on 4 February 1997, the four provinces were broken up into the current nine, and the "homelands" blinked out of existence. The Cape became the Western Cape, Northern Cape, Eastern Cape and the western half of North West, while the Transvaal became Limpopo, Mpumalanga, Gauteng and the eastern half of North West.
Natal was renamed KwaZulu-Natal, incorporating the "homeland" of KwaZulu, and the Orange Free State became simply the Free State.
The table below shows the apartheid-era territories, and portions of territories, that were incorporated into South Africa’s nine new provinces.
|TERRITORIES INCORPORATED INTO SOUTH AFRICA’S NINE PROVINCES|
|Province||Former province||Former “homeland”|
|Eastern Cape||Cape Province||Transkei, Ciskei|
|Free State||Orange Free State||QwaQwa|
|Limpopo||Transvaal||Venda, Lebowa, Gazankulu|
|Mpumalanga||Transvaal||KwaNdebele, KaNgwane, Bophuthatswana, Lebowa|
|Northern Cape||Cape Province||-|
|North West||Transvaal, Cape Province||Bophuthatswana|
|Western Cape||Cape Province||-|
There are vast differences in the size of the provinces, from tiny and crowded Gauteng to the vast, arid and empty Northern Cape. Mpumalanga is the second-smallest province after Gauteng, with the rest all taking between 8% and 14% of South Africa's total land area.
|PROVINCIAL LAND AREA|
|Province||Area||Percentage of total|
|Eastern Cape||168 966 km 2||13.8%|
|Free State||129 825 km 2||10.6%|
|Gauteng||18 178 km 2||1.5%|
|KwaZulu-Natal||94 931 km 2||7.8%|
|Limpopo||125 755 km 2||10.3%|
|Mpumalanga||76 495 km 2||6.3%|
|Northern Cape||372 889 km 2||30.5%|
|North West||104 882 km 2||8.6%|
|Western Cape||129 462 km 2||10.6%|
|Total||1 220 813 km 2||100%|
The Eastern Cape
The Eastern Cape lies in the southeast of South Africa, bordered by the provinces of the Western Cape to the west, Northern Cape to the northwest, Free State to the north and KwaZulu-Natal to the east. The Kingdom of Lesotho is to the north of the province, and the Indian Ocean laps its shores to the south. The second-largest of South Africa’s nine provinces after the Northern Cape, the Eastern Cape has a land area of 168 966 square kilometres, making it roughly the size of Uruguay.
The west is mostly semi-arid Karoo, except for the temperate rainforest of the coastal Tsitsikamma region in the far south. The coastline is known as the Wild Coast for its rough seas and rugged rocky outcrops, broken up by the occasional beach. The Eastern Cape is a mountainous province, particularly between Graaff-Reinet and Rhodes, with ranges that include the Sneeuberg, Stormberg, Winterberge and Drakensberg mountains (“berg” means “mountain” in Afrikaans). The highest point is Ben Macdhui near the town of Rhodes, a Drakensberg peak rising up 3 001m. The region from East London towards KwaZulu-Natal, known as the Transkei, has lush grassland with occasional forest, set in rolling hills and deep gorges.
Major towns in the Eastern Cape are Port Elizabeth and East London on the coast, both important harbours, and the provincial capital, Bhisho, inland near East London.
The Free State
The Free State is a landlocked province in the centre of South Africa, bordered by the Northern Cape to the east, North West to the northwest, Gauteng to the north, Mpumalangs to the northeast, KwaZulu-Natal to the east and the Eastern Cape to the south. To the southeast, the Kingdom of Lesotho nestles in the curve of its bean-like shape. The third largest of South Africa’s provinces after the Northern and Eastern Cape, the Free State has a land area of 129 825 square kilometres, or roughly the size of Nicaragua.
The province is high-lying, with flat and rolling plains through most of the region, rising to over 2 000 metres in the foothills of to the Drakensberg and Maluti Mountains in the east. It is the breadbasket of South Africa, producing over 70% of the country’s grain from its rich soil. Bloemfontein, the provincial capital, is the only major city.
The Free State lies in the heart of the Karoo Sequence of rocks, containing shales, mudstones, sandstones and the Drakensberg basalt forming the youngest capping rocks. Mineral deposits are plentiful, with gold and diamonds being of particular importance, mostly found in the north and west.
Gauteng is by far the smallest - and most densely populated - of South Africa’s provinces, with its mere 18 178 square kilometres of land area making it slightly smaller than the US state of New Jersey.
A landlocked province, it southern border follows the Vaal River, which separates it from the Free State. Its other provincial neighbours are North West to the Wets, Limpopo to the north and Mpumalanga to the east. The major cities include Johannesburg, the economic powerhouse of South Africa and the provincial capital, South Africa’s capital city of Pretoria, Vereeniging, Vanderbijl Park, Germiston and Krugersdorp.
Gauteng is mainly high-altitude grassland known as the highveld. Low parallel ridges and undulating hills run between Johannesburg and Pretoria, part of the Magaliesberg Mountains and the Witwatersrand. The north is more subtropical, with a lower altitude and dry savannah.
KwaZulu-Natal lies on the eastern Indian Ocean coastline of South Africa, bordered by the Eastern Cape to the southwest, the Free State to the west and Mpumalanga to the north. It also shares borders with three countries: the Kingdom of Lesotho to the west, and Swaziland and Mozambique to the north. The third-smallest of the nine provinces, KwaZulu-Natal has a land area of 94 931 square kilometres, making it roughly the size of Portugal.
The province has three different geographic areas. The lowland region along the Indian Ocean coast is extremely narrow in the south, widening towards the north. The central region is the Midlands, an undulating hilly plateau rising towards the west. KwaZulu-Natal has two major mountain ranges: the Drakensberg in the west and the Lebombo Mountains in the north. The Drakensberg is a solid wall of basalt rising over 3 000 metres above sea level at the Lesotho border, while the more ancient granite Lebombo Mountains form low parallel ranges running southward from Swaziland. The Thukela River, the region’s largest, flows west to east across the centre of the province.
It is a summer rainfall area, with a climate that ranges from extremely hot along the coast in summer, to heavy snow on the mountains in winter. The Midlands are drier than the coast and can be very cold in winter.
Durban is KwaZulu-Natal’s major city, and one of the fastest-growing urban areas in the world. Its harbour is the busiest in South Africa and one of the 10 largest in the world. Every year the port of Durban handles over 30 million tons of cargo with a value of more than R100-billion. To the north of Durban, the port of Richards Bay, an important coal-export harbour, handles about 12 000 containers a year. Combined, the two ports account for some 78% of South Africa's cargo tonnage.
The capital of KwaZulu-Natal is Pietermaritzburg. The province has several popular coastal holiday resorts, such as Port Shepstone, Umhlanga Rocks and Margate. In the interior, Newcastle is well-known for steel production and coal-mining, Estcourt for meat processing, and Ladysmith and Richmond for mixed agriculture.
Limpopo is South Africa’s northernmost province. It shares borders with North West to the southwest, Gauteng to the south, and Mpumalanga to the southeast, as well as international borders with Botswana to the northwest, Zimbabwe to the north and Mozambique to the east. The province gets its name from the mighty Limpopo River, which flows along its northern border. With a total area of 125 755 square kilometres, Limpopo is slightly larger than the US state of Pennsylvania. Its capital city is Polokwane.
Limpopo is in the savanna biome, an area of mixed grassland and trees generally known as bushveld. A summer-rainfall region, the northern and eastern areas are subtropical with hot and humid summers and mist in the mountains. Winter is mild and mostly frost-free.
Rich in natural beauty, culture and wildlife, Limpopo has a thriving tourism industry. In addition to the Kruger National Park to the east, there are 54 provincial reserves and several luxury private game reserves.
Mpumalanga lies in the northeast of South Africa, bordering KwaZulu-Natal and the Free State to the south, Gauteng to the west and Limpopo to the north. Its international neighbours are Swaziland to the southeast and Mozambique to the east. The second-smallest of South Africa’s provinces after Gauteng, Mpumalanga has a land area of 76 495 square kilometres, making it slightly larger than the Czech Republic. Its capital is Nelspruit.
Mpumalanga falls mainly within the grassland biome. The escarpment and the Lowveld form a transitional zone between this grassland area and the savanna biome. Long sweeps of undulating grasslands change abruptly into thickly forested ravines and thundering waterfalls of the escarpment, only to change again into the subtropical wildlife splendour of the Lowveld.
The province is a summer-rainfall area, with occasional winter snow on high ground in the escarpment. The escarpment area sometimes experiences snow on high ground. Thick mist is common during the hot and humid summers.
The Northern Cape
The Northern Cape is by far South Africa’s largest province, taking up almost a third of the country’s land area: a total of 372 889 square kilometres, making it slightly smaller than Japan. The province lies on the western Atlantic coastline of South Africa, sharing borders with the Western Cape to the south, the Eastern Cape to the southeast the Free State to the east and North West to the northeast. Its international neighbours are Namibia and Botswana, to the north. The capital of the Northern Cape is Kimberley.
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 known as North West lies in the centre of South Africa, with the Northern Cape to the southwest, the Free State to the south, Gauteng to the east and Limpopo to the northeast, while the country of Botswana is on its northern border. With a total area of 104 882 square kilometres, North West is slightly smaller than the US state of Pennsylvania. It capital city is Mafikeng, previously known as Mafeking.
The landscape is largely flat regions of scattered trees and grassland. The Magaliesberg mountain range in the northeast extends about 130 kilometres from Pretoria to Rustenburg, while the Vaal River forms the province's southern border.
A summer-rainfall region, temperatures range from up to 31° C in summer to as little as 3° in winter.
The Western Cape
The Western Cape lies at the southernmost point of the African continent, washed by the Atlantic Ocean on its western shoreline and the Indian Ocean in the south. Its provincial neighbours are the Northern Cape to the north and Eastern Cape to the east. With a total area of 129 462 square kilometres, the Western Cape is roughly the size of Greece.
The provincial capital is Cape Town, an important port city and one of South Africa’s major tourist attractions, with its beautiful scenery, balmy climate, beaches and rich culture. Cape Town is South Africa’s legislative capital, home to the country’s parliament. Other important towns and cities are George in the southeast of the province, the winelands university town of Stellenbosch, and the port town of Saldanha on the west coast.
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.
South Africa’s provincial populations vary considerably. Gauteng, by far the smallest province, has the largest population, and KwaZulu-Natal the second-largest.
By contrast the Northern Cape, which takes up nearly a third of South Africa's land area, has by far the smallest population.
The Eastern Cape has the third-largest population, and Western Cape the fourth-largest.
|PROVINCIAL POPULATION 2010|
|Province||Number||% of total population|
This variation translates into huge differences in population density, reflecting the urban or rural nature of each particular province.
Gauteng, the highly urbanised economic powerhouse of South Africa, has an average of 616 people per square kilometre. In sharp contrast is the arid and extremely roomy Northern Cape, with only three people for each square kilometre.
|POPULATION DENSITY BY PROVINCE 2010|
|Province||Population||Land Area||Population density|
|Eastern Cape||6.74-million||168 966 km 2||40 people per km 2|
|Free State||2.82-million||129 825 km 2||22 people per km 2|
|Gauteng||11.19-million||18 178 km 2||616 people per km 2|
|KwaZulu-Natal||10.64-million||94 931 km 2||113 people per km 2|
|Limpopo||5.44-million||125 755 km 2||43 people per km 2|
|Mpumalanga||3.62-million||76 495 km 2||47 people per km 2|
|Northern Cape||1.10-million||372 889 km 2||3 people per km 2|
|North West||3.20-million||104 882 km 2||31 people per km 2|
|Western Cape||5.22-million||129 462 km 2||40 people per km 2|
|Total||49.99-million||1 220 813 km 2||41 people per km 2|
There is also a wide variation in the racial composition of the different provinces’ populations. According to the 2001 Census, black Africans are by far the majority population group in seven of the nine provinces, comprising from 75% to 97% of the provincial total. Yet they make up less than a third of the population in the Western Cape (26.7%) and under a half in the Northern Cape (46.5%).
The distribution of a population group can reflect that people’s history in the country. Coloured South Africans are to be found mainly in the Western, Eastern and Northern Cape (respectively 61.1%, 12% and 10.7% of South Africa’s total coloured population) because they are descended from a mixture of slaves brought to what was then the Cape Colony, white immigrants to the colony, and the indigenous Khoisan people who lived in the Cape at the time.
Similarly, the vast majority (71.6%) of Indian South Africans live in KwaZulu-Natal because they were brought to Natal in the early 20th century to work on sugarcane plantations. And only 0.3% of Indians live in the Free State (0.1% of the total Free State population), as they were forbidden by law to enter what was then the Orange Free State during the apartheid era.
Provincial distribution also reflects a group’s socioeconomic position. White South Africans, for 40 years the beneficiaries of the apartheid system, are largely found in the more developed and urbanised provinces of Gauteng (40.4% of the total white population, and 18.9% of the total Gauteng population) and the Western Cape (19.4% of the total white population, and 18.4% of the Western Cape population).
South Africa has 11 official languages, but there are vast differences in language distribution and the numbers of those who speak a particular language at home. Although English is the lingua franca of the country, the 2001 Census reveals the considerable variation in languages between the provinces.
Nearly all of the nine provinces are dominated by a single language, which is spoken by more than half the population. In the Eastern Cape it’s isiXhosa, spoken by 83.4% of the population; in KwaZuluNatal it’s isiZulu, the language of 80.9% of the people. Afrikaans dominates in the Northern and Western Cape (respectively 68% and 55.3% of the provincial population), while Sesotho is most common in the Free State (64.4%) and Limpopo (52.1%) and Setswana in North West (65.4%).
Only Gauteng and Mpumalanga are more linguistically heterogenous, provinces where no language dominates.
IsiZulu is the most common language in South Africa, spoken by nearly 23% of the total population. But it’s an extremely regional language, with 71.8% of its speakers to be found in KwaZulu-Natal, where it is the language of 80.9% of the provincial population. Over 18% of isiZulu speakers are to be found in Gauteng, the second province in which it is in the majority, with its speakers making up 21.5% of the provincial population. The third province in which the language is the largest is Mpumalanga, where it is spoken by more than a quarter of the population, who make up 7.6% of all South African isiZulu speakers. The presence of the language in the remaining six provinces is negligible.
South Africa’s second most common language is isiXhosa, a language similar to isiZulu and spoken by 17.6% of all South Africans. It too is regional, with a third of its speakers living in the Eastern Cape, where it is the language of 83.4% of the provincial population. It’s also strong in the bordering Western Cape, where 13.6% of all isiXhosa speakers live, making up nearly a quarter of the provincial population. There are a fair number of isiXhosa speakers in the Free State, North West and Gauteng (respectively 9.1%, 5.8% and 7% of the provincial population), but it is not widely spoken in the other provinces.
In third place is Afrikaans, spoken by 13.3% of the total population - mainly coloured and white South Africans. Most Afrikaans speakers (41.8%) live in the Western Cape, where it is the language of more than half of the provincial population. It’s also common in Gauteng, where 20.9% of Afrikaans speakers live, making up 14.4% of the population. Although only 9.5% of Afrikaans speakers live in the Northern Cape, it’s the dominant language there, spoken by 68% of the provincial population. Afrikaans is also spoken by 9.3% of the people of the Eastern Cape, 11.9% of the Free State’s population, and 7.5% of the people of North West.
Sepedi, the fourth most common language in South Africa, is the language of Limpopo, where it’s spoken by 54.8% of the provincial population - 65.1% of all Sepedi speakers. It’s also found in Gauteng, where nearly a quarter (24.3%) of Sepedi speakers are to be found, making up 11.2% of the population. In Mpumalanga 10.2% of the population speak Sepedi, or 8.1% of all Sepedi speakers.
While English is spoken to some degree by many South Africans, as a home language it is most common in KwaZulu-Natal, where over a third (34.9%) of all English-speaking South Africans are found, making up 13.6% of the provincial population. Another third (30%) of English speakers live in Gauteng, where it is the language of 12.5% of the population, and 23.8% in the Western Cape, where it is spoken by 19.3% of the population.
Setswana is largely found in North West, a province bordering the country of Botswana, where the language dominates. It is spoken by 65.4% of all North West residents, or 56.2% of all Setswana-speaking South Africans. Setswana is also found in the Northern Cape, where it is spoken by 33.7% of the population, in Gauteng (9.9%) and the Free State (6.8%)
Sesotho is the language of the Free State, which borders the kingdom of Lesotho. It is spoken by 64.4% of the Free State population, or 49% of all Sesotho-speaking South Africans. Sesotho is also found in Gauteng, where it is spoken by 13.1% of the population - a third (32.4%) of all Sesotho-speaking South Africans - and in North West, where it is spoken by 6.8% of the population.
South Africa’s minority official languages are isiNdebele, siSwati, Tshivenda and Xitsonga, each spoken by roughly the same number or fewer people than the group who speak languages other than the country’s 11 official languages.
IsiNdebele, spoken by 1.6% of South Africa’s population, is largely found in Mpumalanga, where 48.6% of its speakers are found, or 12.1% of the provincial population. Almost a third of isiNdebele speakers reside in Gauteng, but make up only 2.3% of the population.
SiSwati is the language of the Swazi people, spoken by 2.7% of South Africans. The vast majority (83%) of sisSwati speakers are found in the province of Mpumalanga - on the border of Swaziland - where they are the majority linguistic group, making up 30.8% of the provincial population. Nearly 11% of siSwati speakers are found in Gauteng, where they make up only 1.4% of the population.
Tshivenda is spoken by 2.3% of South Africans, mainly in the province of Limpopo, where 82% of Tshivenda speakers live, or 15.9% of the provincial population. Another 15.7% of TshiVenda speakers live in Gauteng, where they make up 1.7% of the population.
Xitsonga, spoken by 4.4% of the national population, is found in Limpopo (45% of Xitsonga speakers and 22.4% of the provincial population), Gauteng (28.6% of speakers and 6.2% of the population) and Mpumalanga (19.7% and 11.6%).
Each province has its own provincial government, with legislative power vested in a provincial legislature and executive power vested in a provincial premier and exercised together with the other members of a provincial executive council.
The legislature has between 30 and 80 members elected for a five-year term based on the province’s portion of the national voters’ roll. The legislature is empowered to pass legislation within its functional areas
The premier is elected by the legislature and, as with the president at national level, is limited to two five-year terms in office. The premier appoints the other members of the executive council, which functions as a cabinet at provincial level.
The members of the executive council, known as MECs, are accountable individually and collectively to the legislature.
South African provincial premiers, 2011:
Population density correlates with the provinces' slice of South Africa's economy, with Gauteng having the biggest. The tiny province punches way above its weight, contributing 33.5% to national gross domestic product (GDP) in 2007.
Next is KwaZulu-Natal with 16.2%, and the Western Cape with 14.5%.
The province with the smallest contribution to GDP is the Northern Cape, at only 2.2%, followed by the Free State with 5.4%.
|GROSS DOMESTIC PRODUCT PER REGION (GDPR) 2007|
|GDPR growth 2007*||GDPR value (millions)**||Contribution to national GDP***|
|Eastern Cape||4.7%||R155 500||7.8%|
|Free State||4.1%||R108 900||5.4%|
|Northern Cape||3.3%||R44 200||2.2%|
|North West||3.7%||R130 000||6.5%|
|Western Cape||5.7%||R291 000||14.5%|
The Eastern Cape
The Eastern Cape’s economy grew by 4.7% during 2007, and by 5% in 2006. The province’s economy, valued at R155.5-billion, contributed 7.8% to the national GDP in 2007.
In 2007, the largest industries in the economy were the finance, real estate and business services industry (20.7% of GDP), the general government services sector (18.4%) and manufacturing industry (16.4%). Mining and quarrying had the lowest contribution (0.2%) to GDP.
The Free State
The Free State has the second-smallest provincial economy after the Northern Cape, recording a growth rate of 4.1% during 2007, and 4.2% in 2006. Its economy was valued at R108.9-billion in 2007, when it contributed 5.4% to South Africa’s GDP.
In 2007, the largest industries in the economy were the finance, real estate and business services industry, (16.2%), general government services (13%) and manufacturing (11.9%). Construction had the lowest contribution (1.5%) to GDP at market prices.
Gauteng recorded an economic growth rate of 5.7% during 2007, and 6% growth in 2006. It has by far the largest economy in South Africa, valued at R668.9-billion and contributing 33.5% to South Africa’s GDP.
Gauteng’s largest industry is finance, real estate and business services (22% in 2007), followed by manufacturing (19.6%). Unsurprisingly for a highly urbanised province, agriculture, forestry and fishing makes the smallest contribution to the regional economy.
KwaZulu-Natal saw an economic growth rate of 5.2% in 2007, and 5.3% in 2006. The province’s economy is the second-largest in South Africa, valued at R324.2-billion and contributing 16.2% to national GDP in 2007.
The province relies mainly on manufacturing (21.5% of GDP in 2005), the finance, real estate and business services industry (17%) and wholesale and retail trade, hotels and restaurants (12.2%). The smallest industry is mining and quarrying (1.6%)
Limpopo recorded an economic growth rate of 4.4% during 2007, and 4.6% in 2006. Its economy is valued at R138.2-billion, and like Mpumalanga it contributes 6.9% to national GDP.
The province’s largest industries are mining and quarrying (24.4% of the 2007 GDP), finance, real estate and business services (16.7%) and general government services (16.3%). In 2007 construction had the lowest contribution (1.7%) to Limpopo’s GDP at market prices.
Mpumalanga’s economy grew by 4.2% during 2007, and 4.4% in 2006. Its economy is worth R138.7-billion and contributes 6.9% to national GDP.
In 2007, the largest industries in the economy were mining and quarrying (20.5% each), manufacturing (17.5%) and finance, real estate and business services (11.2%). The construction industry made the lowest contribution (2.1%) to GDP.
The Northern Cape
The Northern Cape is the least economically active province in South Africa, with the lowest economic growth and the smallest contribution to national GDP. The region’s economy grew by only 3.3% in 2007, and 3.7% in 2006. With an economy worth R44.2-billion, the Northern Cape contributed only 2.2% to national GDP in 2007.
Unlike other provinces, mining and quarrying is the largest industry, making up nearly a quarter (24.6% in 2005) of the Northern Cape economy. This is followed by the finance, real estate and business services industry (12.9.%) and wholesale and retail trade, hotels and restaurants (11%). The construction has the smallest contribution, at 1.5% in 2007.
North West’s economy grew by 3.7% in 2007, down from 4.1% in 2006. Worth R130-billion, it contributed 6.5% to South Africa’s economy in 2007.
Like the Northern Cape, the largest industries in the North West economy are mining and quarrying (27.5% in 2007), finance, real estate and business services (13.8%) and general government services (11.4%). The electricity, gas and water industry had the lowest contribution, at 0.9%.
The Western Cape
At 5.7% in 2007, the Western Cape has, like Gauteng, the fastest-growing economy in South Africa, recording a 5.7% GDP increase in 2007, and a 5.8% growth rate in 2006. The province also makes the third-highest contribution (14.5%) to the national economy, with a GDP valued at R291-billion.
The largest industries in the Western Cape economy are the finance, real estate and business services industry, which made up 26.9% of provincial GDP at market prices in 2007, manufacturing (16.4%) and wholesale and retail trade, hotels and restaurants (14.6%). Mining and quarrying made the lowest contribution, at 0.2%.