English |  
SA Goodnews
Cultures & Languages
Political System
SA Fact File/ Geography
Land and Resource
The topography of South Africa typifies that of the continent of Africa as a whole. It comprises an interior upland plateau of ancient rock, separated from a narrow coastal plain by a mountainous escarpment known as the Great Escarpment. The plateau occupies about two thirds of the country and can be divided into three main regions: the Highveld, the Bushveld, and the Middle Veld.

The Highveld occupies the majority of the plateau and is mostly 1,500 m (5,000 ft) above sea level. It is characterized by level or gently undulating grasslands. The north-eastern limit of the Highveld is marked by a wide rocky ridge, called the Witwatersrand, which includes the city of Johannesburg and contains the world’s largest and richest goldfield. North-east of the Witwatersrand is the Bushveld, or Transvaal Basin. The Bushveld averages less than 1,000 m (4,000 ft) above sea level, but in parts reaches more than 1,800 m (5,900 ft); elevations decrease westward, towards the Botswana border and the River Limpopo. Much of the Bushveld is broken into basins by rock ridges. The Middle Veld occupies the western section of the plateau. It has an average elevation of about 915 m (3,000 ft), and also slopes downward. The Middle Veld is generally dry, ranching country, extending in the north into the arid Kalahari Basin; on the western coast it merges into the southern Namib Desert.

The plateau reaches its greatest heights in the east. Here it meets the Drakensberg, which form part of the Great Escarpment and contain South Africa’s highest point, Champagne Castle (3,375 m/11,072 ft). The Great Escarpment, which encompasses the plateau in a semicircle running from the north-east to the south-west, forms South Africa’s longest continuous topographic feature and provides some of the country’s most beautiful scenery. Other escarpment ranges to the south and west of the Drakensbergs include the Roggeveld, Sneeu, and Nuwveld systems.

In the south-west, and separate from the Great Escarpment, is one of the few areas of folded mountains in continental Africa. It includes ranges such as the Tsitsikama, Swartberg, Langeberg, and Drakenstein, as well as Table Mountain (1,086 m/3,563 ft) at Cape Town. Altitudes in these ranges average between 915 and 2,316 m (3,000 and 7,600 ft). Between the fold mountains and the Great Escarpment lie the dry tablelands of the Little and the Great Karoo, which are separated by the Swartberg Mountains. The Landeberg Mountains separate the Little Karoo from the coastal plain.

The coastal plain is fertile and generally narrow, reaching only about 130 km (80 mi) at its widest; at times it is only 30 km (19 mi) wide. Overall, South Africa has some 2,960 km (1,840 mi) of coastline with few indentations. Most of the coast has been subject to uplift and falling sea levels in the recent past. As a result, there are few drowned estuaries or natural harbours; the exceptions include the Kynsna Lagoon in the south-west and the Buffalo River at East London.

South Africa has a temperate sub-tropical climate with considerable regional variations caused by differences in elevation, in wind systems, and in ocean currents. The eastern and south-eastern coasts, for example, are influenced by the warm, south-flowing Mozambique Current, which keeps temperatures higher, encouraging air circulation and facilitating the arrival of rain-bearing clouds from the east. In contrast, the western coast is under the influence of the cold, north-flowing Benguela Current, which not only cools temperatures significantly, but also contributes to the dryness and stability of the air masses over the western part of the country.

The climate of South Africa is generally dry—drought is relatively common and water is at a premium for both agriculture and industry. More than 67 per cent of South Africa is semi-arid or arid, receiving less than 810 mm (27 in) of rain annually. Rainfall generally decreases westward, and on the north-western coast precipitation averages less than 30 mm (1 in) a year. Only 6 per cent of South Africa, concentrated along the coast of KwaZulu-Natal Province, receives more than 1,016 mm (40 in) of rain a year.

Except for the Cape area, most of the country is under the influence of the easterly trade winds that blow across the Indian Ocean. During the spring and summer months of October to April, heating on the land can cause low-pressure areas that draw in these moisture-laden winds, bringing rain to the east and central areas. The eastern Lowveld receives about 890 mm (35 in) of rain a year. The Highveld receives between 380 and 760 mm (15 and 30 in) of rain a year on average; the amount diminishes rapidly westward. In the western coastal area, rainfall is as low as 51 mm (2 in) annually. 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 south-western area round the Cape is under the influence of western winds originating over the Atlantic Ocean. This region receives about 560 mm (22 in) of rain a year, most of which occurs between June and September.

The average daily temperature in January in Durban, which is on a low-lying part of the north-eastern coast, is about 24° C (75° F). The corresponding temperature in Johannesburg, in the north-central Highveld, is about 19° C (66° F). Although closer to the equator than Durban, Johannesburg has a cooler summer largely because of its elevation (1,670 m/5,470 ft above sea level).

The average daily January temperature in Cape Town, on the southern coast and influenced by cool winds from the South Atlantic, is about 20.6° C (69° F). The range of winter temperatures follows the same pattern. The average daily July temperature is about 17° C (62° F) in Durban, about 9° C (49° F) in Johannesburg, and about 12.2° C (54° F) in Cape Town. Snow is rare in South Africa, although winter frosts occur in the higher areas of the plateau.

Natural Resources
Underlying the whole plateau of South Africa is a great complex of ancient crystalline rocks formed between the later Carboniferous and later Triassic periods. In the course of time, these rocks were worn down to form an almost level surface and were covered in most places by thick layers of sandstone and shale. These layers are nearly horizontal except in the south-west, where extensive folding has formed irregular hills and mountains. In the Witwatersrand and the Middle Veld the underlying bedrock is exposed.

The grasslands of the central South African plateau have dark-to-black soils, or chernozems, which are similar to those of the North American prairies. In the western, more arid areas, the chernozem soils give way to poorer, chestnut-coloured soils. In the south the soils are thin and often red. The soils in the north-east are reddish and yellowish. Soil erosion is a big problem in much of the country. Soil conservation measures, like water conservation, have long been a government priority.

South Africa is very rich in mineral resources, which provide two thirds of the country’s exports. Gold and diamonds are the best known, and together with coal have traditionally had most economic importance. Gold is mined primarily in the Witwatersrand, the site of the world’s richest goldfield, discovered in 1886. The gold in the Witwatersrand occurs in minute specks, invisible to the naked eye, in pebble beds called bankets, which are mined to depths below 3,000 m (10,000 ft). Vast and easily worked coal seams occur in the north-east between Lesotho and Swaziland.

Most of South Africa’s diamonds come from diamond fields near Kimberley, which were discovered in 1870. Surface workings were soon exhausted, but the diamonds were traced to their source rock and mined by large-scale methods. South Africa also has many other commercial mineral deposits, including copper, nickel, platinum, uranium, asbestos, chromium, fluorite, phosphates, vanadium, tin, titanium, beryllium, and manganese and iron ores. The platinum-group minerals and chromium deposits are located mainly in the Bushveld, north of Pretoria. The largest manganese and iron ore deposits are in the north of the Cape area, while titanium sands exist on the eastern coast. Uranium is extracted commercially in the Witwatersrand.

South Africa has some natural gas offshore of the Cape, but no commercially exploitable oil deposits have been found. During the international sanctions of the apartheid era, oil-from-coal plants were established in Orange Free State and the eastern Transvaal.

Until 1994 South Africa was divided into four provinces (Cape Province, Natal, Orange Free State, and Transvaal) and ten black homelands. Under the country’s interim constitution, which took effect at the time of the country’s first multiracial elections in April 1994, South Africa is divided into nine provinces. These provinces are: Gauteng, capital Johannesburg; Limpopo, capital Polokwane (formerly Pietersburg); Mpumalanga, capital Nelspruit; North-West, capital Mmabatho; Free State, capital Bloemfontein; KwaZulu-Natal, joint capitals Pietermaritzburg and Ulundi; Eastern Cape, capital Bisho; Northern Cape, capital Kimberley; and Western Cape, capital Cape Town.

Principal Cities
The largest cities in South Africa, with their populations, include Cape Town (2,993,000, 2001 estimate), the legislative capital; Johannesburg (3,225,796, 2001), the focus of the goldfields and South Africa’s main commercial and financial centre; Durban (3,090,122, 2001), an important seaport; Pretoria (1,651,000, 2001 estimate), the administrative capital; Port Elizabeth (692,348, 1996), industrial city and major port; Springs (80,776, 2001), a manufacturing centre; Bloemfontein (364,000, 2001 estimate), the main seat of the judiciary and a trading centre for cattle and sheep; and Germiston (164,252, 1996), site of the largest gold refinery in the world. However, the largest settlement in the country is probably Soweto, the black township established outside Johannesburg as a dormitory area for workers in the city, which has since developed into a de facto city in its own right.

About 50 per cent of the population of South Africa is classified as urban. More than 25 per cent of the total population lives within the Pretoria, Witwatersrand, and Vereeniging (now Guateng) metropolitan area, which lies within a 70-km (43-mi) radius of Johannesburg. The three metropolitan areas of Gauteng, Cape Town, and Durban account for 38 per cent of the country’s urban population. Concentrations of urban migrants are increasing around the major cities, housed in makeshift settlements or shanty towns known as “squatter camps”.

South Africa has Africa’s largest, most diversified, and most developed economy. Its gross national product in 2004 was about US$165 billion, equivalent to US$4,770 per capita.

Until World War I the South African economy was based principally on mining (especially of diamonds and gold) and agriculture. Since then, however, and particularly since World War II ended in 1945, manufacturing has developed rapidly, and is now the leading sector of the country’s economy. Another area that has expanded fast is financial services—the country has the most developed financial sector in sub-Saharan Africa.

The estimated national budget for 2005 included revenue of about US$70.95 billion and expenditure of about US$72.34 billion. Economic developments in the 1990s were driven largely by the new government’s attempts to improve living conditions for the black population, to increase exports, and to reduce the extremely high levels of unemployment. The economy in recent years has absorbed less than 5 per cent of the more than 300,000 workers entering the workforce every year. In 2005, 7.52 million tourists visited South Africa and spent an estimated US$3,375 million.
HE Mr Geoff Doidge
Head of Mission
More Information
Statistics South Africa
South Africa Reserve Bank
South African Revenue Services
Johannesburg Stock Exchange
Government Online
South African Airways
South African Tourism
National Parks of South Africa
South African Broadcasting Corporation
© South African Embassy Bangkok, Thailand| Disclaimer