South Africa lies at the southern end of the African continent, where the Atlantic and Indian oceans come together. For a long time in the past centuries South Africa was governed by whites, although about 80% of the population are blacks. In the 1990s the election of the first black president, Nelson Mandela opened a new chapter of South African history.
South Africa has an area of about 1.2 million square kilometres. Its neighbours to the north are Namibia, Botswana, Zimbabwe, Mozambique and Swaziland. Lesotho is a small country that is completely surrounded by South Africa. On the other three sides South Africa is surrounded by oceans.
Most of the country lies on a plateau. The central part known as the Highveld lies between 1,200 and 1,800 metres above sea level. Large farms and ranches and fields dominate the countryside. The Great Escarpment separates the higher regions of the inner country from the low areas along the coast. The highest part of this mountain range is the Drakensberg which reaches a height of 3,350 metres. In western South Africa the Kalahari and Namib deserts spread over a great part of the country. The biggest river is the Orange. It begins in the Drakenberg Mountains and flows into the Atlantic Ocean.
South Africa has a moderate climate with mild temperatures. In some areas there is not enough rain for farming and droughts are common.
About 44 million people live in South Africa. Blacks make up almost 80% of the population. They belong to different ethnic groups and speak different languages. The largest tribes, the Zulu and Xhosa, have lived in South Africa for the longest time. About half of them live in cities and the other half on small farms in the countryside. Many blacks still work for white people in gold and diamond mines but many are poor and have no jobs.
South Africa has three minorities. The Whites make up about 10% of the population. Apart from the English speaking population there are also the descendants Dutch, German and French settlers, who are called Afrikaners . Almost all whites live in the big cities. Many Afrikaners control the farms in the countryside.
9% of the population are Coloreds, people of mixed race. Many work as servants and hold jobs in factories. Asians, which make up about 2% of the population, are the fourth largest group. Most of them are descendants of settlers who came from India to work on large farms and plantations in the last part of the 19th century.
95 percent of all South Africans live in the eastern half of the country and along the southern coast. The northern and western part of the country is very sparsely populated because it is too dry.
The majority of the population are Protestants or Roman Catholics, but there are also Hindus and Muslims in the country and some of the tribes in the countryside follow traditional religions.
Johannesburg is South Africa's largest city. It was founded in 1886 as a gold mining town. Today it is the centre of the country's industry and trade. Near it you can still see the yellow mounds of the gold mines that brought wealth and prosperity to southern Africa.
Cape Town is South Africa's oldest and second largest city. Founded as a Dutch trading station it was the biggest town until gold was found. Cape Town is known for its famous landmarks. Durban, on the east coast, is South Africa's main port and a major industrial centre. Most of the country's Asian people live here.
South Africa has three capitals. Laws are made in Cape Town where Parliament gets together. The government and the Prime Minster meet in Pretoria and the country's highest court is in Bloemfontein.
South Africa is the richest country in Africa. Although it has only 4% of Africa's area it produces about 25% of the continents goods and services. However it is mostly the white population that has built up most of the country's wealth. They owned the major companies for a long time. Today, years after the end of apartheid, Whites still control most of the economy but Blacks are getting better jobs and earning more than some years ago.
South Africa's economy is based on mining and industry. It is the world's biggest gold producer. Centre of production is the Witwatersrand in the north of the country. About 40% of all the gold that has ever been mined on earth comes from this region. Diamonds, coal and copper are other valuable raw materials. Factories in South Africa produce cars, chemicals, iron and steel and machines.
Although South Africa does not have so much good farming land the country can export many products, including corn, wheat, sugar cane, citrus fruits. Great wines are produced in the southern regions which have a Mediterranean climate. Farmers raise sheep, cattle and pigs for meat and other products.
The Portuguese navigator Bartholomeu Dias was the first European to see the Cape of Good Hope in 1488. Years later the Dutch set up a colony there as a stopping place on their way to Asia.
As time went on the Dutch started to move into the interior parts of the country. At the same time Bantu tribes came southwards from central Africa. As a result there was a lot of fighting between the African tribes and the Dutch over farming lands.
In 1815 the British took over the colony from the Dutch. As more and more British settlers went to the Cape the Dutch Boers moved to the north in what they called the Great Trek. They founded new settlements in Transvaal and the Orange Free State.
Towards the end of the 19th century two major discoveries changed South Africa. In 1867 diamonds were discovered near Kimberley and in 1886 large gold deposits were found in the Transvaal. Because of this even more British settlers came to the Cape colony. They tried to take control of the Dutch areas, where these discoveries were made. This led to a war between the British and the Dutch Boers. The Boers were defeated in 1902 and the leaders of the British and the Dutch colonies decided to form a single state which they called the Union of South Africa.
From the beginning, the government of the newly formed country was controlled by the Whites, even though the majority of the people who lived there were Blacks. They passed laws to keep people from different races apart. This series of laws became known as Apartheid, which means being "separate" in the Afrikaans language.
The black people started to organize themselves in their battle against the Whites. In 1912 the African National Congress was founded. Its aim was to put the Blacks in power in South Africa. Some ANC leaders were arrested and put into prison, the most famous of them being Nelson Mandela.
The apartheid system was criticized by many countries around the world. They stopped trading with South Africa and tried to isolate it. As the country was becoming economically weaker a new president Frederik de Klerk announced that apartheid was going to end. He made the ANC legal again and released its leader Nelson Mandela from prison, where he was kept for over twenty years. In the first democratic elections, in which all races could take part, the ANC won and Nelson Mandela became the country's first black President in 1994. Mandela retired in 1999 and since then South Africa has been trying to give freedom and equality to people of all races.
Like many other African nations, South Africa's population has serious health problems. In the last two decades AIDS has begun to spread rapidly throughout the country. Today 5 million people are infected with HIV, more than any other country the world.
Corruption and crime are also big issues in South Africa. According to the United Nations it is among the most dangerous countries in the world. As a result rich people are putting up fences and walls and have been hiring security companies to protect them from crime.
Unemployment is very high in the country. About one third of the population do not have a job. As in many African countries educated and skilled people are leaving South Africa and moving on to Europe or the United States.