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 and then north to the border of 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 eastern province of KwaZulu-Natal, a greater distance separates the coast from the escarpment.
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South Africa is a medium-sized country, with a total land area of 1 219 090 square kilometres, or roughly equivalent in size to Niger, Angola, Mali or Colombia.
It is one-eighth the size of the US, about a third the size of the European Union, twice the size of France and over three times the size of Germany. South Africa measures some 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.
|PROVINCIAL LAND AREA|
|Province||Area||Percentage of total|
|Eastern Cape||169 580 km2||13.9%|
|Free State||129 480 km2||10.6%|
|Gauteng||17 010 km2||1.4%|
|KwaZulu-Natal||92 100 km2||7.6%|
|Limpopo||123 910 km2||10.2%|
|Mpumalanga||79 490 km2||6.5%|
|Northern Cape||361 830 km2||29.7%|
|North West||116 320 km2||9.5%|
|Western Cape||129 370 km2||10.6%|
|Total||1 219 090 km2||100%|
On dry land, going from west to east, the country 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 territory.
The Atlantic Ocean lies to the west of South Africa, and the Indian Ocean to the south and east.
South Africa has three capitals: Cape Town, Bloemfontein and Pretoria. The Western Cape city of Cape Town, where the country’s parliament is found, is the legislative capital. In the Free State, Bloemfontein is the judicial capital, and home to the Supreme Court of Appeal. In Gauteng Pretoria, where the Union Buildings and a large proportion of the civil service are found, is the administrative capital, and the ultimate capital of the country.
The largest and most important city is Johannesburg, the economic heartland of the country. Other important cities and towns include Durban and Pietermaritzburg in KwaZulu-Natal, and Port Elizabeth in the Eastern Cape.
|POSITION OF SOUTH AFRICA'S MAJOR CITIES AND TOWNS|
|Bloemfontein (Eastern Cape)||29° 06' S 26° 18' E||1 351 m|
|Cape Town (Western Cape)||33° 59' S 18° 36' E||42 m|
|Durban (KwaZulu-Natal)||29° 58' S 30° 57' E||8 m|
|East London (Eastern Cape)||33° 02' S 27° 50' E||125 m|
|Johannesburg (Gauteng)||26° 08' S 28° 14' E||1 694 m|
|Kimberley (Northern Cape)||28° 48' S 24° 46' E||1 198 m|
|Nelspruit (Mpumalanga)||25° 26' S 30° 59' E||671 m|
|Pietermaritzburg (KwaZulu-Natal)||29° 36' S 30° 26' E||613 m|
|Polokwane (Limpopo)||23° 52' S 29° 27' E||1 230 m|
|Port Elizabeth (Eastern Cape)||33° 59' S 25° 36' E||60 m|
|Pretoria (Gauteng)||25° 44' S 28° 11' E||1 330 m|
|Richards Bay (KwaZulu-Natal)||28° 48' S 32° 06' E||47 m|
|Mthatha (Eastern Cape)||31° 32' S 28° 40' E||742 m|
|Total||1 220 813 km2||100%|
Although South Africa is classified as semi-arid, it has considerable variation in both climate and topography.
The great inland Karoo plateau, where rocky hills and mountains rise from sparsely populated scrubland, is extremely dry, and gets more so in the northwest towards the Kalahari desert. This is a region of temperature extremes, extremely hot in summer and icy in winter.
The eastern coastline, by contrast, 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 southeast or northwest.
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 gets a little more rain.
The Highveld region north of the Vaal River is better watered, with its high altitude producing milder weather, with less extreme subtropical heat. Johannesburg lies at 1 740 metres above sea level, with an annual rainfall of 760 millimetres. Winters on the highveld are cold, but snow is rare.
Further north and east is the Lowveld, a region that gets its name from the drop in altitude beyond the Highveld escarpment. Here temperatures rise, and the land turns to typical South African bushveld, the habitat of the country’s wildlife. The Tropic of Capricorn slices through the extreme north.
On the eastern escarpment are the high Drakensberg range of mountains, where it often snows in winter. But the coldest place in the country is the Northern Cape town of Sutherland, in the western Roggeveld Mountains, with midwinter temperatures as low as -15ºC (5ºF). The deep interior provides the hottest temperatures: in 1948 the mercury hit 51.7ºC (125ºF) in the Northern Cape Kalahari near Upington.
|TEMPERATURE IN SOUTH AFRICA'S MAJOR CITIES AND TOWNS|
|City||Average Maximum||Average Mininum|
|Bloemfontein||24ºC / 75ºF||8ºC / 46ºF|
|Cape Town||22ºC / 72ºF||11ºC / 52ºF|
|Durban||25ºC / 77ºF||17ºC / 62ºF|
|East London||23ºC / 73ºF||14ºC / 57ºF|
|Johannesburg||22ºC / 72ºF||10ºC / 50ºF|
|Kimberley||26ºC / 79ºF||11ºC / 52ºF|
|Nelspruit||27ºC / 81ºF||13ºC / 55ºF|
|Pietermaritzburg||26ºC / 79ºF||11ºC / 52ºF|
|Polokwane||25ºC / 77ºF||12ºC / 54ºF|
|Port Elizabeth||22ºC / 72ºF||14ºC / 57ºF|
|Pretoria||25ºC / 77ºF||12ºC / 54ºF|
|Richards Bay||26ºC / 77ºF||17ºC / 63ºF|
|Mthatha||24ºC / 75ºF||11ºC / 52ºF|
|PRECIPITATION IN SOUTH AFRICA'S MAJOR CITIES AND TOWNS|
|Average Monthly (mm)||Highest 24-hour (mm)
|Richards Bay||1 228||317|
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 waters. 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 now exist at Cape Town, Port Elizabeth, East London, Durban and Richard's Bay.
There are only two major rivers: 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 a dry country, so dams and irrigation are extremely important: the largest dam is the Gariep on the Orange River.
Maps of South Africa