* Bantu-speakers, the Xhosa, San and Khoekhoe people all inhabited the area that is now South Africa long before Europeans reached the country. In 1652, the Cape became a Dutch possession. Because of a shortage of farm labour, the Dutch imported slaves from West Africa, Madagascar, and the East Indies.
* The British annexed the Cape Colony in 1806 and abolished slavery in 1833. This led to the Great Trek, an emigration north and east of about 12,000 Boers (Dutch farmers) who founded their own republics, the central Orange Free State and Transvaal.
* The discovery of diamonds (1867) and gold (1886) in the interior led to wealth and immigration. The Boers resisted British encroachment fiercely, but in the Second Boer War (1899-1902) they were defeated. Full sovereignty over the South African colonies was given to Britain.
* In 1910, The Union of South Africa was created, bringing together the Cape and Natal colonies and the republics of Orange Free State and Transvaal. The South African Party, made up of the previous Afrikaner parties, held power and enforced repressive measures to entrench white power. The African National Congress (ANC) was established in 1912 in protest against the treatment of blacks in the country.
* In 1948, the National Party was voted into power. It instituted a policy of apartheid – the separate development of the races. As the years passed, apartheid became increasingly controversial, leading to protests, unrest and oppression within South Africa and sanctions and divestment abroad.
* Only in 1990 did the National Party lift the ban on 33 left-wing political organisations including the ANC. It also released political prisoner Nelson Mandela from jail. Apartheid legislation was gradually dismantled.
* South Africa’s first democratic election, held in April 1994, was pronounced ‘free and fair’. The ANC won by an overwhelming majority and Nelson Mandela was inducted as President. The current President of South Africa is Thabo Mbeki, who will rule until 2009.
* South Africa is located at the southern tip of Africa. It borders Namibia, Botswana, Zimbabwe, Mozambique, Swaziland, Lesotho as well as the Atlantic and Indian oceans.
* The low-lying coastal zone is narrow, giving way to a mountainous escarpment that separates it from the high inland plateau.
* There are variations in climate and topography throughout the country. The eastern coastline is lush and well-watered, while the inland Karoo plateau is very dry. The south-western corner of the country has a Mediterranean climate, while Sutherland, in the Northern Cape, has mid-winter temperatures as low as -15°C.
* There are only two major rivers in South Africa – the Limpopo and the Orange.
* Cape Town is South Africa’s legislative capital, Pretoria is its administrative capital, Bloemfontein is its judicial capital and Johannesburg is the biggest city.
* In 2007, the population of South Africa was estimated at 47.9 million.
* According to the 2001 census, black Africans formed 79.5%, whites formed 9.2%, coloureds formed 8.9% and Indians/Asians formed 2.5% of the population.
* Black Africans consist of many ethnic groups, including Zulu, Xhosa, Basotho and Bapedi. The white population descends from many ethnic groups, including Dutch, German, French Huguenot and British. The term ‘coloured’ refers to people of mixed race descended from slaves brought to the colonies, the Khoekhoe people and people of mixed descent. The major part of the Asian population is Indian in origin, although there are also significant groups of Chinese and Vietnamese South Africans.
* In the 2001 census, Christians accounted for 79.7% of the population. Muslims accounted for 1.5 % and Hindus for 1.3%. The rest of the population had no religious affiliation or were unspecified. Many black Africans adhere to traditional indigenous religions. Other religions practiced in South Africa are Sikhism, Jainism, Judaism and the Baha’i faith.
* There are eleven official languages – Sepedi, Sesotho, Setswana, siSwati, Tshivenda, Xitsonga, Afrikaans, English, isiNdabele, isiXhosa and isiZulu. The three most spoken home languages are isiZulu, isiXhosa and Afrikaans.
* In many respects, South Africa can be considered a developed country – it has an abundant supply of resources, well-developed financial, legal, communications, energy and transport sectors and a top-ranked stock exchange. However, beyond the economic centres, development is marginal and poverty is prevalent; the majority of South Africans live below the poverty line. As such, South Africa has extremely high income inequality.
* South Africa’s economic policy focuses on controlling inflation, maintaining a budget surplus, and using state-owned enterprises to deliver basic services to low-income areas. It aims to increase job growth and household income. After 1994, the government implemented affirmative action policies referred to as Black Economic Empowerment (BEE). These have led to a rise in black economic wealth and the emergence of a black middle class.
* South Africa’s main industries are mining, automobile assembly, metalworking, machinery, textiles, iron and steel, chemicals, fertilizer, foodstuffs and commercial ship repair.
* South Africa is the world’s largest producer of platinum, gold and chromium. A substantial amount of revenue also comes from the tourism industry.
* In 2007, state-owned electricity supplier, Eskom, began to experience a lack of capacity in the generation and reticulation of electricity. As such, countrywide blackouts have become common-place and a policy of electricity rationing has been instituted. This has had a damaging effect on South Africa’s economy. Other economic challenges are unemployment, poverty and a high incidence of HIV/AIDS.
* The official currency is the South African rand (ZAR). This was the best-performing currency against the US dollar between 2002 and 2005.
Social services and infrastructure
* The health care system in South Africa consists of a large public sector and smaller private sector. Basic primary health care is provided free by the state. However, this is under-resourced and over-used, having to deliver services to 80% of the population.
* In 2008, South Africa will spend R75-billion (US$1 billion) on social assistance in the form of disability, old age and child support grants.
* In 2007, there were 728 airports in South Africa, 146 of these with paved runways. Many overseas carriers fly to and from the international airports of Cape Town, Johannesburg and Durban.
* There are ports in Cape Town, Durban, Port Elizabeth, Richards Bay and Saldanha Bay. Durban is the largest and busiest of these.
* South Africa’s rail industry is the most developed in Africa. All major cities are connected by rail. South Africa’s road network currently covers 7,200 km.
* Schooling in South Africa is compulsory between the ages of seven and 15. Schools differ according to size, character and quality of education. Public institutions are funded by the state, while private schooling is very common. Fee-free schools exist in the country’s most poverty-stricken areas.
* The South African coastline stretches for approximately 3,000 km, from Namibia in the west to Mozambique in the east. The west coast is washed by the cold Benguela current, while waters on the east coast are much warmer.
* The Agulhas Current, which flows along the east coast has a great diversity of marine life while the Benguela upwelling system off the west coast supports large numbers of marine animals, but the marine fauna and flora are less diverse.
* South Africa’s coastline is relatively smooth. As such there is only one good natural harbour, at Saldanha, north of Cape Town.
* Approximately 10,000 species of marine plants and animals have been recorded in South Africa’s marine waters. This represents almost 15% of global marine species diversity.
* In South Africa, 23% of the coastline is protected by marine protected areas but only 9% of these areas are fully protected, no-take zones. Also, the marine protected areas are not distributed evenly along the coast and thus do not fully represent South Africa’s coastal marine biodiversity.
* While South Africa has an active commercial fishing industry, fisheries remain a relatively small sector within the South African economy, contributing approximately 1% to national GDP annually.
* In 2002, fisheries provided employment to 16,854 South Africans in the primary sector, and 27,730 people in the secondary sector.
* Subsistence and small scale fishers operate along the entire South African coastline, particularly in the Western Cape province.
* More than 4,500 commercial fishing vessels are licensed by the Department of Environmental Affairs and Tourism. The main species caught are anchovy, pilchard, hake, squid and rock lobsters. Tuna, snoek and yellowtail are the most important species caught by handline.
* Approximately 90% of high value fish (e.g. rock lobster and squid) that is caught in South African waters is exported, mainly to the European Union and the United States.
* Since 1994, the fishing industry in South Africa has undergone a process of transition, with many new historically disadvantaged entrants joining the industry. This has meant that established players have seen their fishing rights eroded. However, established companies continue to dominate the fish processing sector.
* Strict measures are employed to prevent overfishing. These include the allocation of fishing quotas and the imposition of controls such as closed seasons and minimum sizes.
* In 2006, long-term rights were granted to fishing companies and this has already created stability in the fisheries sector. The expansion of the industry is limited by the natural productive capacity and sustainability of the living marine resources.