- Quick Facts
Full country name: The Republic of South Africa
Area: 1,221,037 sq km
Population: 43.1 million
Capitals: Pretoria (administrative); Bloemfontein (judicial) and Cape Town (legislative).
People: 77% black, 10% white (60% of whites are of Afrikaner descent, most of the rest are of British descent), 8% mixed race, 2.5% of Indian or Asian descent.
Languages: Zulu, Xhosa, Afrikaans, Pedi, English, Tswana, Sotho, Tsonga, Swati, Venda, Ndebele.
Religion: Christian, Muslim, Hindu, Jewish and traditional religions.
Government: Republic and independent member of the British Commonwealth
President: Jacob Zuma
GDP: US$146 billion
GDP per head: US$2133
Annual Growth: 0.9%
Major Industries: Mining, finance, insurance, food processing
Major trading partners: USA, UK, Germany, Japan, Italy
- Country Facts
Public holidays underwent a dramatic shake-up after the 1994 elections. For example, the Day of the Vow, which celebrated the massacre of Zulus, has become the Day of Reconciliation (16 December). The officially ignored but widely observed Soweto Day, marking the student uprisings that eventually led to liberation, is now celebrated as Youth Day (16 June). Human Rights Day is held on the anniversary of the Sharpeville massacre (21 March). Apartheid-induced cultural boycotts starved South Africa’s mad sports fans – and competitors – of competition. Any international cricket or rugby game is therefore a big event.
. Most banks change travelers cheques in major currencies. Credit cards, especially Visa and Mastercard, are widely accepted. More and more ATMs will give cash advances; if your card belongs to the worldwide Cirrus network you should have no problem using it across the country. Tipping is pretty well mandatory because of the very low wages. Around 10-15% is usual.
The Shipwreck Coast
This stretch of coast in Eastern Cape is a graveyard for numerous ships. There are a couple of resort towns and the inevitable casino, but it is still easy to get away from it all. The Shipwreck Hiking Trail extends for 64 km, but there are several easy entry and exit points for hikers. This is one of the few walking areas in South Africa where you can set your own pace, camp more or less where you choose and light fires (providing they are on sand, away from vegetation).
Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park
This park is the result of a merger between the former Kalahari-Gemsbok National Park in South Africa and the Mabuasehabe-Gemsbok National Park in Botswana. Covering an area about twice the size of Kruger, Kgalagadi is not as famous as many other African parks but it is still very interesting. The size of the park is crucial for the unhindered migration of antelopes which are often forced to travel great distances to reach water and food. Although the countryside is described as semi desert, it is richer than it appears and supports large populations of birds, reptiles and small mammals.
South Africa’s history can be traced back to around 100,000 BC. By the 15th century most arable land had been settled by encroaching Bantu pastoral tribes. Southern Africa became a popular stop for European crews after Vasco de Gama opened the Cape of Good Hope spice route in 1498, and, by the mid-17th century, scurvy and shipwreck had induced Dutch traders to opt for a permanent settlement in Table Bay on the site of present-day Cape Town.
Towards the end of the 18th century and with Dutch power fading, Britain predictably jumped in for another piece of Africa. It was hoped that British settlers would inhabit a buffer zone between skirmishing pastoral Boers and the Xhosa, but most of the British immigrant families retreated to town, entrenching the rural-urban divide that is evident in white South Africa even today. Although slavery was abolished in 1833, the division of labour on the basis of color served all whites too well for any real attempt to change.
The first Anglo-Boer War ended in a crushing Boer victory and the establishment of the Zuid-Afrikaansche Republiek. The British backed off until a huge reef of gold was discovered around Johannesburg and then marched in again for the second Anglo-Boer War, dribbling with empiric greed. By 1902 the Boers had exhausted their conventional resources and resorted to commando-style raids, denying the British control of the countryside.
Soon after the Union of South Africa was established in 1910, a barrage of racist legislation was passed restricting black’s rights and laying the foundations for apartheid. After a last flutter with military rebellion during WW I, the Afrikaners got on with the business of controlling South Africa politically. In 1948 elections the Afrikaner-dominated and ultra-right National Party took the reins and didn’t let the white charger slow down until 1994. Under apartheid, every individual was classified by race, and race determined where you could live, work, pray and learn. Irrespective of where they had been born, blacks were divided into one of 10 tribal groups, forcibly dispossessed and dumped in rural backwaters, the so-called Homelands.
Chief Mangosouthu Buthelezi was pivotal in the Inkatha movement, a failed attempt to unite Homeland leaders. Black resistance developed in the form of strikes, acts of public disobedience and protest marches, and was supported by international opinion from the early 1960s after 69 protesters were killed in Sharpeville and African National Congress (ANC) leaders, including Nelson Mandela, were jailed.
After withdrawing from the British Commonwealth in 1961, South Africa became increasingly isolated. Paranoia developed through the 1960s and ’70s, as the last European powers withdrew from Africa and black, often socialist, states formed around South Africa’s northern borders. South Africa’s military responses ranged from limited strikes (Mozambique, Lesotho) to full-scale assault (Angola, Namibia). When Cuba intervened in Angola in 1988, South Africa suffered a major defeat and war looked much less attractive. As the spirit of Gorbachev-style detente permeated Southern Africa, Cuba pulled out of Angola, Namibia became independent and a stable peace was finally brokered in 1990.
President PW Botha detained, tortured and censored his way to 1989, when economic sanctions began to bite, the rand collapsed and reformist FW De Klerk came to power. Virtually all apartheid regulations were repealed, political prisoners were released and negotiations began on forming a multiracial government. Free elections in 1994 resulted in a decisive victory for the ANC and Nelson Mandela became president. De Klerk’s National Party won just over 20% of the vote, and the Inkatha Freedom Party won 10.5%. South Africa rejoined the British Commonwealth a few months later.
Despite the scars of the past and the enormous problems ahead, South Africa today is immeasurably more optimistic and relaxed than it was a few years ago. The international community has embraced the new South Africa. In 1999, after five years of learning about democracy, the country voted in a normal election. Issues such as economics and competence were raised and debated.
The mingling and melding in South Africa’s urban areas, along with the suppression of traditional cultures during the apartheid years, means that the old ways of life are fading, but traditional black cultures are still strong in much of the countryside. Across the different groups, marriage customs and taboos differ, but most traditional cultures are based on beliefs in a masculine deity, ancestral spirits and supernatural forces. In general, polygamy is permitted and a lobolo (dowry) is usually paid. Cattle play an important part in many cultures, as symbols of wealth and as sacrificial animals.
The art of South Africa’s indigenous populations can be one of the only ways to connect with lost cultures. Rock and cave paintings by the San, some of which date back 26,000 years, are a case in point. In other cases, such as the elaborate ‘coded’ beadwork of the Zulus, traditional art has been adapted to survive in different circumstances. Zulu is one of the strongest surviving black cultures and massed Zulu singing at Inkatha Freedom Party demonstrations is a powerful expression of this ancient culture.
Aside from the Afrikaners, the majority of European South Africans are of British extraction. The British are generally more urbanized and have tended to dominate the business and financial sectors. The Afrikaners (more or less rightly) feel that they are more committed to South Africa. There is also a large and influential Jewish population and a significant Indian minority.
The British can take most of the blame for the food dished up in South Africa. Steak or boerewors sausage, overboiled veggies and chips are the norm, and where the food gets more adventurous it often turns out pretty scary. Vegetarians will not have a good culinary time. African dishes are not commonly served in restaurants, although you can get a cheap rice and stew belly-filler from street stalls in most towns.
Although South Africa is home to a great diversity of cultures, most were suppressed during the apartheid years when day-to-day practice of traditional and contemporary cultures was ignored, trivialized or destroyed. In a society where you could be jailed for owning a politically incorrect painting, serious art was forced underground and blandness ruled in the galleries and theatres.
One of the most exciting aspects of the new South Africa is that the country is in the process of reinventing itself. Hopeful signs include gallery retrospectives of black artists, both contemporary and traditional, and musicians from around Africa performing in major festivals. The new South Africa is being created on the streets of the townships and cities.
South Africa is a huge country. Namibia, Botswana, Zimbabwe, Mozambique and Swaziland run from west to east along South Africa’s northern border and Lesotho soars above the grassland towards the south-east. The country can be divided into three major parts: the vast interior plateau (the high veldt), the Kalahari Basin, and a narrow coastal plain (the lowveld).
Its position just south of the Tropic of Capricorn makes South Africa a mostly dry and sunny place but the climate is moderated by its topography and the surrounding oceans. Basically, the farther east you go, the more handy your rain-gear becomes, but there are also damp pockets in the south-west, particularly around Cape Town. The coast north from the Cape becomes progressively drier and hotter, culminating in the desert region just south of Namibia.
When it comes to land mammals, South Africa hogs the superlatives: it’s got the biggest (the African elephant), the smallest (the pygmy shrew), the tallest (the giraffe) and the fastest (the cheetah). The country is also home to the last substantial populations of black and white rhinos – with horns intact. You’re most likely to encounter these critters in one of South Africa’s national parks, but you should keep an eye out for lurking crocodiles in shallow streams and rampaging hippos in the northern coastal regions.
Although about 30 airlines fly to South Africa. Johannesburg International Airport remains the main international airport, but there are an increasing number of flights to Cape Town and a few to Durban.
South Africa is geared towards travel by private car, with some very good highways but limited and expensive public transport. If you want to cover a lot of the country in a limited time, hiring or buying a car might be necessary. Two major national bus operators cover the main routes and will usually be pretty comfortable.
- When to Go
Summer can be uncomfortably hot. Higher-altitude areas are pleasantly warm over summer, but the mountains are rain and mist prone. The northeastern regions can be annoyingly humid, but swimming on the East Coast is a year-round proposition. Spring is the best time for wildflowers in the Northern Cape and Western Cape provinces. Winters are mild everywhere except in the highest country, where there are frosts and occasional snowfalls
- Explore Attractions
Oudtshoorn is a town in the Western Cape province in South Africa. The town is home to the world’s largest Ostrich population with a number of specialized ostrich breeding farms. The main reason for the large rise in prosperity was the ostrich, whose feathers had become extremely popular as fashion accessories in Europe; they were especially popular for use on hats. Between 1875 and 1880 ostrich prices reached up to GBP 1,000 a pair. The farmers of the region, realising that ostriches were far more profitable than any other activity, ripped out their other crops and planted lucerne, which was used as feed for the ostriches.
Port Elizabeth is one of the largest cities in South Africa, situated in the Eastern Cape Province, 770 km (478 mi) east of Cape Town. The city, often shortened to PE and nicknamed The Friendly City or The Windy City, stretches for 16 km along Algoa Bay, and is one of the major seaports in South Africa. It is also referred to as Africa’s Watersport Capital. Port Elizabeth was founded as a town in 1820 to house British settlers as a way of strengthening the border region between the Cape Colony and the Xhosa. It now forms part of the Nelson Mandela Bay Metropolitan Municipality which has a population of over 1.3 million. The city is one of South Africa’s major destinations for tourists, many of whom come simply to enjoy the many fine beaches in and near the city.
Gold Reef City
Gold Reef City is a large amusement park in Johannesburg, South Africa. Located on an old gold mine, the park is themed around the gold rush on the Witwatersrand. Park staff wear period costumes of the 1880s, and the buildings on the park are designed to mimic the same period. There is a museum dedicated to gold mining on the grounds where it is possible to see a gold-containing ore vein and see how real gold is poured into barrels. There are many attractions at Gold Reef City, not the least of which are water rides and roller coasters.
Sun City is a luxury casino and resort, situated in the North West Province of South Africa. It is located about two hours’ drive from Johannesburg, near the city of Rustenburg. The complex borders the Pilanesberg Game Reserve. Sun City was developed by the hotel magnate Sol Kerzner as part of his Sun International group of properties. It was officially opened on 7 December 1979. Its relatively close location to the large metropolitan areas of Pretoria and Johannesburg, ensured that Sun City soon became (and stayed) a popular holiday and weekend destination.
A large part of Cape Town’s impact comes down to a 1073 m mountain slap bang in the center of the city. The plateau of Table Mountain and its attendant peaks – Devil’s Peak and Lion’s Head – are the city’s most enduring image. As beautiful as the surrounding beaches and vineyards can be, it’s this rugged wilderness, coated in a unique flora, that is the focus of everyone’s attention.
Cape Town works as a city in a way that so few on the African continent do. Historical buildings have been saved, there are restaurants, cafes and bars, parks and gardens, markets and shops – all the things that make living in a city worthwhile. And there are a few things that most cities don’t have: mountains, magnificent surf beaches and outstanding vineyards. Give yourself at least a week to explore it all.
Population: 4.2 million in Western Cape
Country: South Africa
Time: GMT/UTC+2 (no daylight saving)
Telephone Area Code: 021
South African public holidays underwent a serious shake-up after the 1994 elections. For example, the Day of the Vow, which marked the massacre of Zulus, has become the Day of Reconciliation (16 December). The officially ignored but widely observed Soweto Day, marking the student uprisings which eventually led to liberation, is now celebrated as Youth Day (16 June).
On first impression, Cape Town is surprisingly small. The city center lies to the north of Table Mountain and east of Signal Hill, and the old inner-city suburbs of Tamboerskloof, Gardens and Oranjezicht are all within walking distance of the center. This area is collectively referred to as the City Bowl.
The area is a good place to sniff out cheaper accommodation. Sea Point, on the Atlantic Ocean, west of the center, is another good place to stay. Observatory is a nice neighborhood popular with students. It’s east of the center and a bit out of the way, but is good for budget to mid-range accommodation.
The main white suburbs spread quite a distance to the northeast of the city and to the south, skirting the eastern flank of the mountains and running down to False Bay. Small towns cling to the coast on the Atlantic side, including exclusive Clifton and beautiful Camps Bay. The spectacular Cape of Good Hope is 70 km by road south of the city center.
When to go:
There’s not really any best or worst time to visit Cape Town, although different seasons have their advantages. From late December to the end of January accommodation can be hard to find and prices rise. You’re more likely to encounter one of the famous southeasterly gales during spring (September to November). In winter (June through August) the weather can be a bit gloomy.
Robben Island was proclaimed a UN World Heritage Site in 1999. Used as a prison from the early days of the VOC right up until the first years of majority rule, Robben Island’s most famous involuntary resident was Nelson Mandela. You will learn much of what happened to other inmates as well, since one will be leading your tour. The guides are happy to answer questions and, although some understandably remain bitter, as a whole this is the best demonstration of reconciliation you could hope to see in Cape Town.
South of Kirstenbosch is Constantia, the oldest of South Africa’s wine-growing regions. Groot Constantia, the original estate established by Simon van der Stel in 1685, was divided up after his death in 1712; today you can also visit Buitenverwachtig and Klein Constantia. One more winery, Steenberg Vineyards (which also makes wine for the nearby Constantia Uitsig estate), completes the Constantia wine route.
The beaches on False Bay, to the southeast of the city, are not quite as scenically spectacular (nor as trendy) as those on the Atlantic side, but the water is often 5°C warmer or more, and can reach 20°C in summer. This makes swimming far more pleasant. Suburban development along the coast is more intense, presumably because of the train line which runs all the way through to Simon’s Town, the most interesting single destination besides the Cape of Good Hope Nature Reserve.
Along from Sea Point are the four linked beaches at Clifton, accessible by steps from Victoria Rd. They may be the trendiest beaches on the Cape, almost always sheltered from the wind, but the water is still cold. If you care about these things, No 1 and 2 beaches are for models and confirmed narcissists, No 3 is the gay beach, and No 4 is for families.
Llandudno & Sandy Bay
Although it’s only 18 km from the city center, Llandudno seems completely removed from Cape Town, let alone Africa. It’s a small, exclusive seaside village clinging to steep slopes above a sheltered beach. There are no shops. The remains of the tanker Romelia, wrecked in 1977, lie off Sunset Rocks. There’s surfing on the beach breaks, best at high tide with a small swell and a south-easterly wind.
The boom in backpacker accommodation has triggered a boom in organized adventure activities. Abseiling (rappelling) off Table Mountain and Chapman’s Peak are very popular. Mountain biking is booming as trails are being developed in many local parks and reserves. Local currents create a wide variety of diving conditions. Cage diving for a close-up look at great white sharks is not for the timid. The Cape Peninsula has fantastic surfing possibilities for all skill levels. Other sporty options include canoeing, white-water rafting, kayaking, sandboarding and windsurfing.
The earliest recorded inhabitants of Southern Africa were the San (known to Europeans as Bushmen) and the closely related Khoikhoi (known as Hottentots). The next arrivals were Bantu-speaking tribes who, by the 15th century, had settled most of the eastern half, but never reached the Cape Town area.
In 1867, diamonds were discovered in the Northern Cape in Kimberley, followed by the discovery of gold on the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg in 1886. As a result the population increased three-fold by the turn of the 19th century. British imperialist Cecil Rhodes stirred up rebellious sentiment among English-speaking minorities in the Transvaal, which led to the 1899-1902 Anglo-Boer War. Thousands of Afrikaner women and children died in the world’s first concentration camps en route to the British victory.
In 1910 the Union of South Africa was created, giving political control to the whites. Inevitably, this prompted black resistance and political organizations such as the Afrikaner National Party were formed. In 1948 the ANP won the election on a platform of apartheid (literally the state of being apart). The suppression of black resistance ranged from the Sharperville massacre of 1960 and the shooting of school children in Soweto in 1976, to the forcible evacuation and bulldozing of squatter settlements and the systematic torture – even murder – of political activists, such as Steve Biko.
One of the most important organizations to oppose the racist legislation was the African National Congress (ANC). In the early 1960s, many ANC leaders, including Nelson Mandela, were arrested for treason and imprisoned for long periods. Apartheid was entrenched even further in the early 1970s by the creation of the so-called Black Homelands. These were, in theory, ‘independent’ countries, but their creation led to all blacks being deemed foreign guest-workers without political rights. Any black person without a required residence pass could be ‘deported’ back to a Homeland.
Meanwhile, South Africa was becoming an isolated case in the face of successful liberation struggles in Angola, Mozambique and Zimbabwe, which all brought Marxist-leaning governments to power. The international community finally began to oppose the apartheid regime, and the UN imposed economic and political sanctions.
After the 1989 elections, the new president FW de Klerk instituted a program that was not only aimed at dismantling the apartheid system, but also at introducing democracy. The release of political prisoners on 11 February 1990, which included Nelson Mandela, the repeal of the Group Areas Act, and the signing of a peace accord with the ANC and other opposition groups all opened the way for hard-fought negotiations on the path to majority rule.
At midnight on 26-27 April 1994, Die Stem (the old national anthem) was sung and the old flag was lowered. A new rainbow flag was raised and the new anthem, Nkosi Sikelele Afrika (God Bless Africa) was sung – in the past, people were jailed for singing this beautiful hymn. In the first democratic election in the country’s history, the ANC won 62.7% of the vote, less than the 66.7% that would have enabled it to rewrite the constitution. The National Party won 20.4% of the vote, enough to guarantee it representation in cabinet. In Western Cape, though, the majority colored population voted in the National Party as the provincial government, seemingly happier to live with the devil they knew than the ANC. Nelson Mandela was made president of the ‘new’ South Africa.
remains one of the more heartbreaking legacies of apartheid. The popularity of the local media’s ‘One City, Many Cultures’ program launched in 1999 provides some hope for the future, though. The process of integration and mutual acceptance and understanding is being further helped by the restructuring of Cape Town’s local government to create six councils, each covering a broad range of communities, rich and poor, black, white and colored.
Cape Town’s international airport is quite busy, although facilities remain basic. Arriving here is much nicer than arriving in Johannesburg. All long-distance buses depart from the main train station. Although 30 airlines now serve South Africa, it still isn’t exactly a hub of international travel and fares reflect this. Johannesburg is the main international airport, but there are an increasing number of flights to Cape Town and a few to Durban.
Cape Town has an effective bus network, although most services stop running early in the evening. When traveling short distances, most people wait at the bus stop and take either a bus or a minibus taxi, whichever arrives first.
Metro commuter trains are a good way to get around town. The most important line for tourists is Simon’s Town, which runs through Observatory and then around the back of Table Mountain through upper-income suburbs down to Muizenberg and along the False Bay coast. Taxis are expensive but worth considering late at night or if you are in a group.
Durban has been a major port since the 1850s and is home to the largest concentration of Indian-descended people in the country. Today the city is better known as a holidaymakers’ fun parlor with a happening nightlife.
The impressive city hall houses an art gallery, which has a good collection of contemporary, South African works and a natural science museum. Also in the city center, the local history museum has interesting displays on colonial life and the African Art Center features exciting work by rural artists.
The Indian area, to the west of the city center, has a bustle and vibrancy that’s missing from most commercial districts in South Africa. The Victoria St Market is the area’s focus, but other must sees are the Juma Mosque, the largest in the southern hemisphere, and the Alayam Hindu Temple, South Africa’s oldest and biggest.
Most international flights stop here. While the color lines are etched deeply, you stand a better chance of meeting blacks on relatively equal terms in Jo’burg than almost anywhere else. Unlike many South African cities where there are so few black faces you could forget that you are in Africa, the center of Jo’burg has been reclaimed and the sidewalks are jammed with black hawkers and stalls of every description. There’s also a growing multiracial music and theatre scene.
The city center is laid out in a straightforward grid, so it’s not hard to find your way around. The northern suburbs are white middle-class ghettos; they’re antiseptic and isolated, manicured and Merc’ed, and the only blacks around are in neatly pressed maid and chauffeur kit. The so-called black townships, where conditions range from reasonable to appalling, ring the city and are a grotesque contrast to the northern suburbs. Soweto is the main township. It’s an enormous, sprawling and sometimes grim spread of bungalows, houses, huts, shacks and dorms. Hillbrow was for a time one of the most exciting places in South Africa; a bohemian mecca, rivaling Soho and Greenwich Village.
Many people don’t have any problems walking around Jo’burg, but there are enough true-life horror stories to make caution essential. A combination of common sense and cowardice will always be your best defense. Don’t advertise your wealth or tourist status – bum bags and dangling cameras are a dead giveaway. Be aware of what’s going on around you.
Kruger National Park
Kruger National Park is among the biggest and the oldest wildlife parks in the world. You can see the ‘big five’ here (lions, leopards, elephants, buffaloes and rhinos) as well as cheetahs, giraffes, hippos, all sorts of antelope species and smaller animals. Although most people will have seen African animals in zoos, it is impossible to exaggerate how extraordinary and completely different it is to see these animals in their natural environment. The park runs for 350 km along the Mozambique border and has an average width of 60 km. There are about 2000 km of roads in the park, so even on weekends and school holidays, it’s possible to isolate yourself and just see what comes along.
South Africa offers everything from ostrich riding to the world’s highest bungee jump. There are excellent hiking trails, usually with accommodation. Mountain biking is getting more popular and it’s even possible to cycle through some of the wildlife parks. If that sounds a bit hairy, it’s easy to plan safaris in South Africa’s national parks and reserves. Airborne pursuits are popular: hang-gliding is a buzz off Table Mountain and there are ballooning and parachuting operators at the beach resorts. Bird-watchers and flower sniffers love it here: for diversity, color and sheer quantity, it’s hard to beat.
Time: South Africa is 3 1/2 hrs behind India
Electricity: 220/230V (250V in Pretoria), 50Hz