South Africa

Official name: Republic of South Africa

Area: 1,219,912 square kilometers (471,011 square miles)

Highest point on mainland: Njesuthi Mountain (3,408 meters/11,181 feet)

Lowest point on land: Sea level

Hemispheres: Southern and Eastern

Time zone: 2 P.M. = noon GMT

Longest distances: 1,821 kilometers (1,132 miles) from northeast to southwest; 1,066 kilometers (662 miles) from southeast to northwest

Land boundaries: 4,750 kilometers (2,952 miles) total boundary length; Botswana 1,840 kilometers (1,143 miles); Lesotho 909 kilometers (565 miles); Mozambique 491 kilometers (305 miles); Namibia 855 kilometers (531 miles); Swaziland 430 kilometers (267 miles); Zimbabwe 225 kilometers (140 miles)

Coastline: 2,798 kilometers (1,739 miles)

Territorial sea limits: 22 kilometers (12 nautical miles)


South Africa is located at the southern tip of the African continent. It covers 1,219,912 square kilometers (471,011 square miles), or nearly twice as much area as the state of Texas.


South Africa has no territories or dependencies.


The climate of South Africa ranges from Mediterranean-like in the southwest to temperate in the interior plateau, to subtropical in the northeast. Snow is rare, although winter frosts do occur in the higher areas of the plateau. Average January temperatures in Durban fall between 21°C and 27°C (69°F and 81°F); in Johannesburg, between 14°C and 26°C (58°F and 78°F); and in Cape Town, they range from 16°C to 26°C (60°F to 78°F). Winter temperature ranges follow the same regional pattern. The average July temperature range is 11°C to 22°C (52°F to 72°F) in Durban, 4°C to 17°C (39°F to 63°F) in Johannesburg, and 7°C to 17°C (45°F to 63°F) in Cape Town.

Nearly all of South Africa enjoys a mild, temperate climate. Except for the extreme southwest, most of the country is under the influence of the easterly trade winds that originate over the Indian Ocean, bringing about 89 centimeters (35 inches) of yearly precipitation to the Eastern Lowveld and the Eastern Uplands as far west as the Drakensberg. The Highveld receives from 38 to 76 centimeters (15 to 30 inches) of precipitation each year. On the western coast, annual rainfall is often as low as 5 centimeters (2 inches). The rainfall deposited by the trade winds occurs mainly between October and April. In the drier regions of the plateau, the amount of rainfall and the beginning of the rainy season vary greatly from year to year. The extreme southwest receives about 56 centimeters (22 inches) of rainfall annually, most of it between June and September.


South Africa's general topography consists of a broad central plateau edged by a prominent escarpment overlooking slopes that descend to the eastern, southern, and western coasts. The mountainous edges of the plateau extend in a sweeping arc from the country's northeastern tip to its southwestern extremity. Collectively, these edges are known as the Great Escarpment. Inland from the crest of the Great Escarpment the country consists generally of rolling plains that gradually descend to an altitude of about 900 meters (2,952 feet) in the center.


The Indian Ocean borders South Africa on the east; the Atlantic Ocean borders it on the west; and both the Indian and Atlantic Oceans border it on the south. Off South Africa's eastern coast, the Indian Ocean ranges from 20°C to 25°C (68°F to 77°F); off the western coast, the Atlantic Ocean ranges from 9°C to 14°C (48°F to 57°F). Off the southern shore, the combined seas range from 16°C to 21°C (61°F to 70°F).

Seacoast and Undersea Features

There are coral reefs off the eastern coast surrounding Sodwana Bay that attract divers from all over the world. Off the southern coast, the continental shelf extends to form the large triangular Agulhas Bank, while on the western coast it forms the Benguella Upwelling.

Islands and Archipelagos

With an area of 310 square kilometers (120 square miles), South Africa's most important islands are the Prince Edward Islands southeast of Cape Town. There are also a number of small islands off the southwestern coast, including Dassen Island, the Bird Islands, and Robben Island.

Coastal Features

South Africa has a rugged coastline with rocky shores and few sheltered bays or harbors; however, there are sandy beaches in some places, usually backed by low sand dunes. Most of the country's western coastline is smooth. At St. Helena Bay in the southwest, it begins to become jagged, indenting at Saldanha Bay and jutting out at the Cape of Good Hope peninsula, on which Cape Town is located. Other prominent coastal features include Vals Bay and Cape Agulhas, the southernmost point in Africa. The southern coast forms several indentations, including Algoa Bay and Mossel Bay. From here, the shoreline becomes smooth again as it heads due northeast, with no other notable features except the St. Lucia estuary and Sodwana Bay in the northeast.


The largest lake in South Africa is Saint Lucia, a saltwater lagoon located on the northeastern coast of the country near Sodwana Bay and separated from the Indian Ocean by a narrow 11.3-kilometer- (7-mile-) long channel. Its surface area varies from about 298 square kilometers (115 square miles) in the dry season to 350 square kilometers (135 square miles) during the wet season, and its depth ranges from 0.9 to 2.4 meters (3 to 8 feet). The lake is the only place on Earth where hippopotamuses, sharks, and crocodiles share the same waters.


The chief rivers of South Africa are the Orange, the Vaal, and the Limpopo. The Orange River is the longest river in the country. It originates in Lesotho, flows in a northwestern direction, and empties into the Atlantic Ocean after a course of some 2,100 kilometers (1,300 miles). The westernmost section of the Orange River forms the boundary between South Africa and Namibia. The Vaal River originates in the northeastern section of the country, near Swaziland. It flows in a southwestern direction to a point in the central portion of the country, where it joins the Orange River. The Limpopo River originates in the northeastern region, flows northwest to the Botswana border, and then travels east along the borders of Botswana and Zimbabwe before entering Mozambique and continuing to the Indian Ocean. In general, the rivers of the country are irregular in flow rate. Many are dry during much of the year.


Part of the Kalahari Desert extends southward from Botswana and Namibia into western South Africa. It is generally covered with red soil and low-growing grasses and brush, except in the east, where large patches of sand are found.


The coastal belt of the west and south ranges in elevation from 150 to 180 meters (500 to 600 feet) and is very fertile. There is very little coastal plain in the east and southeast, where the Great Escarpment borders the central plateau, reaching almost to the sea.

The Highveld, the largest and highest part of South Africa's central plateau, is characterized by level or gently undulating terrain.


The Groote-Swartberge lies between the Great Karroo Range and the Little Karroo Range in the southern part of the country. Between the latter area and the coastal plain is another mountain range, the Langeberg. On the southern coast, just south of Cape Town, an isolated peak, Table Mountain, rises to about 1,086 meters (3,563 feet). On the southwestern coast, the edge of the plateau is marked by the Roggeveld Mountains, a range of folded mountains that descends abruptly to the coastal plain.


The twenty-million-year-old Cango Caves, located near Oudtshoorn in the Groote-Swartberge Mountains, is the longest underground cave system in the world. These caverns also have some of the world's largest stalagmite formations. Their underground area covers more than 5 kilometers (3 miles) of widely branching caverns, interconnected tunnels, and deep pits, complete with magnificent limestone formations and colorfully illuminated sandstone formations.


Robben Island is the site of South Africa's maximum-security prison, where former president and anti-apartheid leader Nelson Mandela was imprisoned for twenty-seven years.


The topography of South Africa consists primarily of a great plateau that occupies about two-thirds of the country. The plateau reaches its greatest heights along the southeastern edge, which is marked by the Drakensberg Mountains, part of the Great Escarpment, which separates the plateau from the coastal areas. The escarpment includes Njesuthi Mountain, which at 3,408 meters (11,181 feet) is the highest point in the country. Three regions may be distinguished within the plateau: the Highveld, the Bushveld, and the Middle Veld.

In the center is the Highveld, which covers most of the plateau. It ranges in elevation from about 1,200 to 1,800 meters (4,000 to 6,000 feet). A rock ridge called the Witwatersrand marks the northern limit of the Highveld; this region includes the city of Johannesburg. North of the Witwatersrand is the Bushveld, or Transvaal Basin. This section, much of which is broken into basins by rock ridges, slopes downward from east to west toward the Limpopo River. The Bushveld averages less than 1,200 meters (4,000 feet) in height. The western section of the plateau, known as the Middle Veld (or Kaap Plateau), also slopes downward in a westerly direction, at elevations of between 600 and 1,200 meters (2,000 and 4,000 feet).

Between the edge of the plateau and the eastern and southern coastline, the land descends seaward in a series of abrupt grades, or steps. Along the eastern coast there are two steps. The interior step is a belt of hilly country called the Eastern Uplands. The exterior step is a low-lying plain called the Eastern Lowveld. In the south, three other steps, proceeding from the interior to the coast, consist of a plateau called the Great Karroo, or Central Karroo; a lower plateau called the Little Karroo, or Southern Karroo; and a low-lying plain.


The Gariep Dam on the Orange River in Free State is the largest dam in South Africa. Designed for hydroelectric power generation and irrigation, it is 88 meters (289 feet) high and 914 meters (2,999 feet) long. A related feature is the Orange Fish Tunnel, the world's second-longest water supply tunnel, with a length of 82 kilometers (51 miles). Water from the Gariep Dam travels through the tunnel to the Great Fish River and the Sundays River.



Cohen, Robin, et al. African Islands and Enclaves. Beverly Hills, CA: Sage Publications, 1983.

Lamar, Howard, and Leonard Thompson, eds. The Frontier in History: North America and Southern Africa Compared. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1981.

Mandela, Nelson. The Struggle Is My Life. New York: Pathfinder, 1986.

Web Sites

Lonely Planet: Destination South Africa. africa/south_africa/ (accessed April 17, 2003).

South Africa Tourism: Discover South Africa. (accessed April 17, 2003).

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