South Africa in detail

Other Features

People & Culture

South Africa's multicultural society faces issues from unemployment to HIV/AIDS. The rich body of music, literature and, increasingly, film offers some understanding of the distinct characteristics and challenges of this multiracial society, where millions mix Christianity with traditional African beliefs, most people can speak a few of the 11 official languages, and the black, white, coloured and Asian communities comprise the 'rainbow nation'.

Current Challenges

Dubbed the 'rainbow nation' by Archbishop Desmond Tutu, South Africa has become more integrated in the two decades since its first democratic elections. There’s still a long way to go, perhaps a generation or two, but people tend to live and work more harmoniously these days, and the nation is divided less by colour than by class.

The numerous issues that stir racial tension and shake international confidence in South Africa include government corruption and the disparity between rich and poor, land reform and farm attacks, the controversial Black Economic Empowerment (BEE) and affirmative action, and inflammatory tirades from the likes of Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF) leader Julius Malema. All have contributed to the weakening rand: between 2011 and 2017 its value dropped from roughly seven to the US dollar to 13 to the dollar. The rand's lowest point came in December 2015, when President Zuma unexpectedly fired finance minister Nhlanhla Nene. The minister had threatened to stand in the way of deals Zuma was trying to make with cronies at the country's national airline, SAA.

The country's reputation for crime continues to dent its considerable appeal as a tourism destination. It is important to keep things in perspective so as not to miss out on this inspiring and hope-filled country at the tip of Africa. Visiting South Africa provides a rare chance to experience a nation that is rebuilding itself after the profound change of replacing apartheid with democracy. A backdrop to all this change is magnificent natural scenery and the remarkably deep bond – perhaps best expressed in the country’s literature – that most South Africans feel for their land.

People & Economy

South Africa’s Gauteng province, which includes Johannesburg and Pretoria, is the economic engine of the country, generating over a third of South Africa’s GDP – and 10% of Africa's. It’s also the most densely populated and urbanised province. At the other end of the scale is the rural and underdeveloped Eastern Cape, where around 25% of adults are illiterate.

Millions of immigrants from across the continent make their way to South Africa to take advantage of the country’s powerhouse economy. While some arrive legally, many illegal immigrants live in the townships of Jo’burg and other cities, causing resentment among some locals, who accuse the outsiders of taking jobs, committing crime and increasing pressure on service delivery.

Beyond economics, different racial groups have complicated relationships. While much of the focus in South Africa has been on black-white relations, there is also friction and distrust between black people, coloured people and South Africans of Indian descent. Yet locals are often surprisingly open when they talk about the stereotypes and prejudices that exist across racial lines. Relations within racial groups are also complex: just ask a Zulu what he or she thinks about Xhosas, or quiz English-speaking white people about their views on Afrikaners.

Racial Groups

Black

The vast majority of South Africans – about 80% – are black Africans. Although subdivided into dozens of smaller groups, all ultimately trace their ancestry to the Bantu speakers who migrated to Southern Africa in the early part of the 1st millennium AD. Due to the destruction and dispersal caused by the difaqane (forced migration) in the 19th century, and to the forced removals and separations of the apartheid era, tribal affiliation tends to be much weaker in South Africa than in other areas of the continent.

Today, discussions generally focus on ethnolinguistic groupings. With the constitution’s elevation of 11 languages to the status of ‘official’ language, the concept of ethnicity is also gaining a second wind. The largest ethnolinguistic group is the Nguni, which includes Zulu, Swazi, Xhosa and Ndebele peoples. Other major groups are the Sotho-Tswana, the Tsonga-Shangaan and the Venda.

The Zulu maintain the highest-profile ethnic identity, and 23% of South Africans speak Zulu as a first language, including ex-president Jacob Zuma. The second-largest group is the Xhosa, who have been extremely influential in politics. Nelson Mandela was Xhosa, as were many figures in the apartheid struggle, and Xhosa have traditionally formed the heart of the black professional class. About 16% of South Africa’s population uses Xhosa as a first language.

Other major groups include the Basotho (found primarily in and around Lesotho and South Africa’s Free State), the Swazi (mostly in Swaziland and Mpumalanga) and the Tswana (who live primarily in the North West Province and Northern Cape, as well as neighbouring Botswana). The Ndebele and Venda peoples, found mostly in Mpumalanga and Limpopo respectively, are fewer in number, but have maintained very distinct cultures.

Coloured

During apartheid, ‘coloured’ was generally used as a catch-all term for anyone who didn’t fit into one of the other racial categories. Despite this, a distinct coloured cultural identity has developed over the years – forged, at least in part, by white people’s refusal to accept coloureds as equals, and coloureds’ own refusal to be grouped socially with blacks. Coloured people are renowned for their sharp sense of humour and quick-witted patter, which has helped them through hardships such as the notorious forced population removals from Cape Town's District Six (covered at the District Six Museum).

Among the diverse ancestors of today’s coloured population are Afrikaners and others of European descent, West African slaves, political prisoners and exiles from the Dutch East Indies and some of South Africa’s original Khoe-San peoples. One of the largest subgroups of coloureds is the Griqua.

Another major subgroup is the Cape Muslims, also know as the Cape Malays, with roots in places as widely dispersed as India, Indonesia and parts of East Africa. They have preserved their Asian-influenced culture and cuisine, which you can experience on a walking tour of Cape Town's Bo-Kaap neighbourhood.

Today most coloured people live in the Western and Northern Capes, with a significant population also in the Eastern Cape. About 20% speak English as their first language, while about 80% are Afrikaans speakers – one of the oldest Afrikaans documents is a Quran transcribed using Arabic script. South Africa's roughly 4.6 million coloured people comprise about 9% of the total population.

White

Most of South Africa’s approximately 4.6 million white people (about 9% of South Africans) are either Afrikaans-speaking descendants of the early European settlers or English speakers. The Afrikaners, who constitute about 5% of the country’s total population, have had a disproportionate influence on South Africa’s history. Rural areas of the country, with the exception of the Eastern Cape, KwaZulu-Natal and the former homelands, continue to be dominated by Afrikaners, who are united by language and often by membership of the Dutch Reformed Church, the focal point of life in country towns.

While a few Afrikaners still dream of a volkstaat (an independent, racially pure Boer state), the urbanised middle class has become considerably more moderate. Happily, the further the distance between the apartheid era and the ‘new South Africa’, the more room there is for all Afrikaners to be proud of their heritage. Two reflections of this are the growing popularity of Oudtshoorn's Little Karoo National Arts Festival and the blossoming Afrikaans indie music scene.

About two-thirds of South Africa’s white English speakers trace their roots to the British immigrants who began arriving in South Africa in the 1820s. Other white South Africans include about 70,000 Jews, a Greek community numbering 50,000-plus people and a similar number of Portuguese.

Asian

The majority of South Africa’s almost 1.3 million Asians are Indians. Many are descended from the indentured labourers brought to KwaZulu-Natal in the 19th century, while others trace their ancestry to the free ‘passenger Indians’ who came to South Africa during the same period as merchants and business people. During apartheid, Indians were both discriminated against by whites and seen as white collaborators by some blacks.

Today’s South African Indian population is primarily Hindu, with about 20% Muslims and small numbers of Christians. Close to 90% live in Durban and other urban areas of KwaZulu-Natal. Most speak English as a first language; Tamil, Hindi and Afrikaans are also spoken.

There are more than 300,000 Chinese people in South Africa, concentrated primarily in Johannesburg but running shops nationwide, and small numbers of other East Asians.

Women

Women have enjoyed a uniquely high profile during South Africa’s turbulent history: they were at the centre of the anti-pass-law demonstrations and bus boycotts of the 1950s, protesting under the slogan ‘You strike the woman and you strike the rock’. Women are also well represented in South Africa’s current parliament, the constitution guarantees women’s rights, and the ruling African National Congress (ANC) party has a 50%-women quota system.

However, the daily reality for many South African women is very different, with poverty, sexual violence and HIV infection overshadowing other gains. South Africa has one of the world's highest rape rates, with more than 50,000 offences reported to the police annually – or around 150 a day. Gang rape is common in crime-ridden areas such as the Cape Flats outside Cape Town, and, in one study, one in four men admitted to having raped a woman. The brutal gang rape and mutilation of teenager Anene Booysen in the Overberg town of Bredasdorp in 2013 was a 'Delhi moment' for South Africa, sparking protests about the horrific epidemic and echoing the previous year's outcry in India.

Women are statistically more likely than men to be infected with HIV, and many women become infected at an early age. Worsening the situation is the threat of sexual violence, which often undermines the ability of young women to ensure their partner is wearing a condom.

Media

Having experienced decades of repression during apartheid, South Africa’s media is coming into its own, despite threats to press freedom from the ANC's proposed Protection of State Information (or Secrecy) Bill. The national broadcaster, SABC, is an important source of news for South Africans, and is adjusting to its role as an independent voice. SABC currently has 20 radio stations and five TV channels; private channels are e.tv and M-Net.

South Africa’s most popular English-language dailies include the Daily Sun (www.dailysun.co.za), Star (www.iol.co.za/the-star) and Sowetan (www.sowetanlive.co.za). All three primarily cater to English-literate black readers; the Sowetan began as an anti-apartheid publication and has a left-leaning editorial tone. The Sunday Times (www.timeslive.co.za) and City Press (www.citypress.co.za) are favourite Sunday papers, while the Mail & Guardian (www.mg.co.za) is a popular Friday paper among middle-class readers. In other languages, Afrikaans Sunday broadsheet Rapport and Zulu daily tabloid Isolezwe are the most popular reads.

Radio

With 10 million radio sets and more than 100 community radio stations broadcasting in all 11 official languages, radio is hugely popular in South Africa. Try these stations:

  • YFM 99.2 (http://yworld.co.za) in Gauteng for a taste of the local version of hip-hop, known as kwaito (township) music.
  • 567 Cape Talk (www.capetalk.co.za) in Cape Town or Talk Radio 702 (www.702.co.za) in Gauteng for talk radio.
  • 5FM (www.5fm.co.za) for top-40 hits.

Religion

Religion plays a central role in the lives of most people in South Africa and church attendance is generally high. Christianity is dominant, with almost 80% of South Africans identifying themselves as Christians. Major South African denominations include the Dutch Reformed Church, which has more than a million members and more than 1000 churches across the country, and the considerably more flamboyant Zion Christian Church (ZCC), with up to six million followers.

About 15% of South Africans are atheist or agnostic, while Muslims, Hindus and Jews combined make up less than 5% of the population. Up to two-thirds of South Africa’s Indians have retained their Hindu faith. Islam has a small but growing following, particularly in the Cape. There is a declining Jewish community of about 70,000 people, mostly in Jo’burg and the Cape.

African traditional believers make up around 1% of South Africa’s population, compared with 20% in neighbouring Lesotho. However, their traditions and practices have a significant influence on the cultural fabric and life of the region. Visting the sangoma (traditional healer) for some muti (traditional medicine) is a widespread practice, even among those who practise Christianity.

Arts

Cinema

South African cinema has seen a turnaround since 1994 and the film industry is bursting with new talent. The first major feature film directed by a black South African was Fools (1997) by Ramadan Suleman, who later directed Zulu Love Letter (2004). Other directors and films to look out for include Zola Maseko (Drum), Zulfah Otto-Sallies (Raya), Teboho Mahlatsi, Simon Wood (Forerunners), Timothy Green (Skeem), Khalo Matabane (State of Violence), Gavin Hood (Tsotsi), Oliver Hermanus (Skoonheid) and Sara Blecher (Otelo Burning).

The most internationally acclaimed South African filmmaker is Elysium (2013) director Neill Blomkamp, who presents a dystopian vision of Jo'burg in District 9 (2009) and Chappie (2015), both featuring the South African actor Sharlto Copley. Named one of Africa's most powerful celebrities by Forbes, Blomkamp was slated to direct Sigourney Weaver in Alien 5 after Chappie.

Literature

South Africa has an extraordinarily rich literary history, and there’s no better way to get a sense of the country than by delving into some local reads.

Many of the first black South African writers were missionary-educated, including Sol Plaatje. In 1930 his epic romance Mhudi became one of the first books published in English by a black South African. The first major South African novel published internationally was Olive Schreiner's Story of an African Farm (1883), which depicts colonial life in the Karoo.

In 1948 South Africa made an impression on the international literary scene with Alan Paton’s global bestseller Cry, the Beloved Country. Today this beautifully crafted tale is still one of the country’s most widely recognised titles.

Nadine Gordimer’s acclaimed A Guest of Honour was published in 1970. The country’s first Nobel laureate in literature (1991), her most famous novel, July’s People (1981), depicts the collapse of white rule.

In the 1960s and '70s Afrikaner writers gained prominence as powerful voices for the opposition. Poet and novelist Breyten Breytenbach was jailed for becoming involved with the liberation movement, while André Brink's novel Looking on Darkness was the first Afrikaans book to be banned by the apartheid government. His autobiography, A Fork in the Road (2009), gives a fascinating account of anti-apartheid activities by Afrikaners.

The 1970s also gave rise to several influential black poets, including Mongane Wally Serote, a veteran of the liberation struggle. His work gives insights into the lives of black South Africans during the worst years of oppression.

JM Coetzee, now residing in Australia, gained international acclaim with his novel Disgrace (1999), which won him his second Booker Prize. Coetzee was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2003.

One of the most prominent contemporary authors is Zakes Mda. With the publication of Ways of Dying in 1995, Mda became an acclaimed novelist. His memoir, Sometimes There is a Void (2011), is a transfixing account of his exile in Lesotho and eventual return to South Africa.

Contemporary South African literature is a vibrant reflection of the country's multicultural society and turbulent political scene, fuelling literary events from festivals to bookshop readings and producing distinct voices such as Lauren Beukes, author of the Hillbrow-set Afrofuturist crime thriller Zoo City (2010).

Architecture

Among the highlights of South African indigenous architecture are the ‘beehive huts’ that you’ll see dotted throughout the region, including in rural parts of KwaZulu-Natal. A typical homestead, or umuzi as it’s known in Zulu, consists of a group of these dwellings arranged in a circle around a cattle kraal (enclosure) and surrounded by a fence made of stones or bush. Traditionally the huts were set on an eastward-facing slope, with the chief’s residence at the highest point.

In the Xhosa areas of the rural Eastern Cape, you’ll see thatched, round, straight-walled huts scattered over the hillsides, often painted turquoise or pink.

Elaborately painted Ndebele houses – a relatively recent tradition – are another highlight. Their exteriors sport brightly coloured geometric motifs or more elaborate artwork, which may depict cars, street lamps, airplanes and other symbols of the modern world.

Basotho homes often feature geometric and sometimes highly symbolic mural art known as litema. During the anti-apartheid struggles, some Basotho women used litema as a political statement, painting their houses in the gold, black and green colours of the ANC. Today litema is used for special celebrations and holidays, such as births, weddings and religious feasts.

The colonial era left a rich architectural legacy. One of its most attractive building styles is the graceful, gabled Cape Dutch house so typical of the Western Cape. Pretoria also showpieces colonial-era architecture, with an impressive collection of conservative and stately creations, including the famous Union Buildings, designed by English architect Sir Herbert Baker.

Jo’burg grew quickly after the discovery of gold in 1886, and mining magnates were eager to display their wealth with palatial homes and grand offices. In Durban the designs show more art deco influences, giving the city its own style. Cape Town’s building boom in the 1930s also left a wealth of impressive art deco designs, especially around Greenmarket Sq. A highlight is the colourful houses in the Bo-Kaap area.

One of the most noteworthy examples of new South African architecture is the Constitutional Court in Jo’burg. Another is the Northern Cape Legislature Building in Kimberley, notable for its lack of columns and the minimisation of hard right angles and lines. In Pretoria, Freedom Park, an inspiring monument to people who died in the name of freedom, faces the modernist celebration of Afrikaner nationalism, the Voortrekker Monument.

Drive through Cape Town's Atlantic suburbs of Clifton and Camps Bay to see open-plan contemporary palaces worth millions of dollars, conceived by globally lauded local architecture firms such as SAOTA (www.saota.com). The city's latest architectural event is the V&A Waterfront's Zeitz MOCAA Museum, created from a monolithic 1920s grain silo by London architect Thomas Heatherwick.

Visual Arts

South African art had its beginnings with the San, who left their distinctive designs on rock faces and cave walls throughout the region. When European painters arrived, many of their early works centred on depictions of Africa for colonial enthusiasts back home, although with time a more South Africa–centred focus developed.

Black artists were sidelined for many decades. Gerard Sekoto was one of the first to break through the barriers of racism, becoming a major figure in South African modern art. Throughout the apartheid era, racism, oppression and violence were common themes. Many black artists who were unable to afford materials adopted cheaper alternatives, such as lino prints.

A recent lack of public funds for the arts sector has meant that it has become more reliant on corporate collectors and the tourism industry. Contemporary art ranges from the vibrant crafts sold in the Venda region (or on the side of the road in cities and tourist areas) to high-priced paintings hanging in galleries. Innovative township artists are using ‘found’ materials such as telephone wire, safety pins, beads, plastic bags and tin cans. Local sculpture is also diverse – artists working in various media include the Venda woodcarvers and bronze sculptor Dylan Lewis.

With the opening of Cape Town's Zeitz MOCAA Museum in 2017 and numerous new global art fairs covering Africa, the continent's art is increasingly attracting investors. A new generation of painters and photographers is dissecting post-apartheid South Africa, joining international luminaries such as William Kentridge and the Ndebele painter Esther Mahlangu in the canon. See www.artthrob.co.za for news, features and listings on South Africa’s contemporary visual-arts scene.

Theatre & Dance

After the colonial era, homegrown playwrights, performers and directors gradually emerged. Writer and director Athol Fugard was a major influence in the 1960s in developing black talent, and more recently wrote the novel Tsotsi. Other big names include actor and playwright John Kani, a veteran (like Fugard) of Jo'burg's Market Theatre; try to catch a performance here or at Cape Town's Fugard Theatre, Baxter Theatre Centre or Artscape.

Jo'burg's Dance Umbrella (www.danceforumsouthafrica.co.za) festival of contemporary dance and choreography, held in March at venues including Wits University, brings together local and international artists and provides a stage for new work.

Music

Just as music fuelled the resistance to apartheid, it continues to sing out for freedom and justice, while providing a soundtrack to everyday lives. Music is everywhere in South Africa, coming through every available medium, communicating in every imaginable style. Want a ‘typical’ South African sound? Forget it: South Africa has perhaps the greatest range of musical styles on the continent, and more than any country of similar size anywhere in the world.

It is a nation of record collectors, who get down to rock, jazz, classical, gospel, rap, reggae, Afro-house, maskanda guitar picking, mbaqanga township jive, kwaito and much more. Centuries-old traditions jostle with new genres, and Western styles are given an idiosyncratic stamp. The country’s gargantuan recording industry (with its small but determined crop of independent black-owned labels) watches, ready to pounce. No one sound will ever pigeonhole South Africa, which can only be a good thing – the annual South African Music Awards is multicategory, multitextured…and, consequently, a very long ceremony.

Two decades of freedom have proved that a recovering country can produce sophisticated talent to the highest international standards. So get humming, swing your hips and dive in.

Musical History

The Zulu, Xhosa and Sotho people have been singing and dancing for thousands of years – this is the music that attracted Paul Simon and fed into his 1986 masterpiece, Graceland – just as the Venda have been playing their mbiras (thumb pianos) and reed pipes. There are eight distinct ‘tribal’ traditions in South Africa and the democratic era has seen a resurgence in traditional musicians making very traditional music. But from the earliest colonial times to the present day, South Africa’s music has created and reinvented itself from a mixture of older local and imported styles. Most of the popular styles use either Zulu a cappella singing or harmonic mbaqanga as a vocal base, ensuring that whatever the instrument – and the banjo, violin, concertina and electric guitar have all had a profound influence – the sound stays proudly, resolutely African.

South African Musical Styles

Feature: Top 10 South African Albums

  • The Indestructible Beat of Soweto – various artists
  • Jazz in Africa, Volume 1 – Jazz Epistles
  • Her Essential Recordings – Miriam Makeba
  • Hope – Hugh Masekela
  • The Best of Mahlathini and the Mahotella Queens
  • Shaka Zulu – Ladysmith Black Mambazo
  • Ibokwe – Thandiswa Mazwai
  • Acceptance Speech – Hip Hop Pantsula
  • Naledi Ya Tsela (Guiding Star) – Vusi Mahlasela
  • The One Love Movement on Banto Biko Street – Simphiwe Dana

Feature: Melodic Movies

  • Searching for Sugar Man (2012) is a brilliant documentary about Rodriguez, the Dylanesque singer-songwriter from Detroit who was bigger than Elvis in South Africa – but didn't find out until 30 years later. The Oscar-winning film shows how Rodriguez' early '70s compositions, such as 'Sugar Man', were anthems for liberal white South Africans during apartheid.
  • Featuring music by and interviews with Abdullah Ibrahim, Hugh Masekela and Miriam Makeba among others, Lee Hirsch’s Amandla! A Revolution in Four-Part Harmony (2003) explores the role of music in the fight against apartheid. Made over nine years, this is a deeply affecting film.
  • Pascale Lamche’s Sophiatown (2003) looks at Jo’burg’s bustling Sophiatown, the Harlem of South Africa. Home to many artists and musicians, it was flattened for redevelopment in the 1950s. The film's archival footage and interviews make for compulsive viewing.
  • The 2005 Oscar-winning township drama Tsotsi features a soundtrack composed by kwaito star Zola (who also plays local gang boss Fela), as well as haunting tracks by singer-songwriter Vusi Mahlasela.
  • Fokofpolisiekar: Forgive Them for They Know Not What They Do (2009), a documentary about Afrikaner rockers Fokofpolisiekar (Fuckoffpolicecar), is a fascinating glimpse of contemporary Afrikanerdom. The seminal band voiced the frustrations of young Afrikaners, tired of the conservatism and Christianity of Afrikaner society, and ruffled establishment feathers.

Feature: Essential Listening

marabiFrom Marabi to Disco, various artists

kwelaKing Kwela, Spokes Mashiyane

mbaqangaKuze Kuse, Soul Brothers

jazzAfrican Marketplace, Abdullah Ibrahim

gospelTales of Gospel SA

neotraditional musicAmakhansela, Phuzekhemisi

reggae and R&BRespect, Lucky Dube

soulNomvula, Freshlyground

electronicPerceptions of Pacha, Goldfish

bubblegum and kwaitoNew Construction, Bongo Maffin

zef and current trendsTrading Change, Jeremy Loops

Feature: Music Festivals

Feature: Sport: Almost a Religion

South Africans are sports fanatics, with club sports generating passionate loyalties. Football (soccer) is the most popular spectator sport, followed by rugby and cricket. Traditionally, the majority of football fans were black, while cricket and rugby attracted predominately white crowds, but this is changing.

Hosting the 2010 World Cup was a historic event for South Africa. The action took place at 10 separate venues, ranging from Cape Town to Polokwane (Pietersburg), and the country spent more than US$1 billion on building new stadiums and renovating existing ones.

The second most popular sport, rugby has benefitted from development programs across the colour divides. The beloved national team, the Springboks (or ‘Boks’), is one of the world's best, having won the 2007 and historic 1995 World Cups. South Africa's cricket team, nicknamed the Proteas, is also one of the world's best-performing, and fans enjoy a friendly rivalry with fellow members of the Commonwealth.

Feature: South Africa’s Melting Population Pot

There are few countries where racial and ethnic conflicts have been as turbulent and high profile as in South Africa. The country’s heart pulses with the blood of diverse groups, including the ancient San, 17th-century Dutch settlers, 19th-century British traders, Bantu-speaking African peoples, Indians, Indonesians, Chinese, Jews and Portuguese. Yet it is only since 1994 that there has been any significant degree of collaboration and peace between the various groups.

During the apartheid era, the government attempted to categorise everyone into one of four major groups. The classifications – black (at various times also called African, native and Bantu), coloured, Asian or white – were often arbitrary and highly contentious. They were used to regulate where and how people could live and work, and became the basis for institutionalised inequality and intolerance. To get a feel for this, visit Jo'burg's Apartheid Museum, entered through chillingly evocative racial classification gates.

Today, discrimination based on wealth is threatening to replace racial discrimination. While the apartheid-era classification terms continue to be used, they work only to a certain extent, and within each of the four major categories are dozens of subgroups that are even more subjective and less clearly defined.

Feature: Afrikaner Books & Films

Afrikaner culture has produced numerous excellent Afrikaans novels available in translation, and films with subtitles or in English. Three films to look out for are Die Wonderwerker (2012), about the poet Eugène Marais; the surreal and tragic Paljas (1998), about a circus clown stranded in a tiny Karoo town; and the altogether cheesier romantic comedy Leading Lady (2014), which follows an aspiring British actress from London to a remote Free State farm.

Environment

South Africa's environment is a showstopper by any country's standards, with mountain ranges, semideserts, more than 2500km of Atlantic and Indian Ocean coastline, national parks, biosphere reserves and Unesco World Heritage Sites. Inhabiting these diverse environments are magnificent creatures from the Big Five (lion, leopard, buffalo, elephant and rhino) to impressive birds such as the African fish eagle and secretary bird. Environmental issues include rhino poaching, especially in Kruger National Park, and the drought affecting Cape Town and beyond.

The Land & Sea

A windswept and beautiful coast is the face that South Africa turns to the rest of the world – tempestuous and tamed, stormy and sublime. It spans two oceans as it winds its way down the Atlantic seaboard in the west and up into the warmer Indian Ocean waters to the east. In all, the country has more than 2500km of coastline.

And this is just the start of the region’s topographical wealth. Head further inland and you’ll find yourself climbing from the eastern lowlands (lowveld) to the cool heights of the Drakensberg Escarpment and onto the vast plateau (highveld) that forms the heart of the country. This plateau, which averages about 1500m in height, drops off again in the northwestern part of the country to the low-lying Kalahari basin.

Wildlife

South Africa is home to the world’s three largest land mammals (the African elephant, white rhino and hippopotamus), its tallest (giraffe), fastest (cheetah) and smallest (pygmy shrew). The country’s 800-plus bird species include the world’s largest (ostrich), the heaviest flying bird (Kori bustard) and the smallest raptor (pygmy falcon).

Off its long coastline is a rich diversity of marine life – 11,000 species have been recorded. Eight whale species are found in South African waters, including the largest mammal in the world, the blue whale. Although it's the great white shark that snares most of the headlines, turtles, seabirds and penguins are also popular sightings.

Watching Wildlife

The most straightforward and cheapest way to visit the parks (especially if you’re in a group) is usually with a hired car. A 2WD is adequate in most parks, but during winter, when the grass is high, you’ll be able to see more with a 4WD or other high-clearance vehicle. Organised safaris are readily arranged with major tour operators and with backpacker-oriented outfits.

Several major parks (including Kruger, Hluhluwe-iMfolozi and Pilanesberg) offer guided wilderness walks accompanied by armed rangers. These are highly recommended, as the subtleties of the bush can be much better experienced on foot than in a vehicle. Book well in advance with the relevant park authority. Shorter morning and afternoon walks are also possible at many wildlife parks, and can generally be booked the same day.

Throughout South Africa, park infrastructure is of high quality. You can often get by without a guide, although you’ll almost certainly see and learn more with one. All national parks have rest camps offering good-value accommodation, ranging from campsites to self-catering cottages. Many have restaurants, shops and petrol pumps. Advance bookings for accommodation are essential during holiday periods; at other times it's available at short notice.

Species & Habitat

South Africa encompasses one of the most diverse landscapes on the entire continent. There are habitats ranging from verdant forests, stony deserts and soaring mountains to lush grasslands, classic African savannahs and thornbush velds. It is home to penguins and flamingos, caracals and sables, wild dogs, dwarf mongooses and hulking African elephants. The number and variation of species is astounding and a deep immersion into wildlife watching is a pure joy of travel here. Showcasing this diversity are more than 700 publicly owned reserves (including 19 national parks) and about 200 private reserves, with world-renowned Kruger National Park and Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park being the largest.

Plants

South Africa’s more than 20,000 plant species represent 10% of the world’s total, although the country constitutes only 1% of the earth’s land surface. Dozens of flowers that are domesticated elsewhere grow wild here, including gladioli, proteas, birds of paradise and African lilies. South Africa is also the only country with one of the world’s six floral kingdoms entirely within its borders (in the Western Cape). In the drier northwest are succulents (dominated by euphorbias and aloes) and annuals, which flower brilliantly after the spring rains.

South Africa has few natural forests. They were never extensive, and today there are only remnants. Temperate forests occur on the southern coastal strip between George and Humansdorp, in the KwaZulu-Natal Drakensberg and in Mpumalanga. Subtropical forests are found northeast of Port Elizabeth in areas just inland from the Wild Coast, and in KwaZulu-Natal.

In the north are savannah areas, dotted with acacias and thorn trees.

National Parks & Protected Areas

South Africa has hundreds of national parks and reserves, many featuring wildlife, while others are primarily wilderness sanctuaries or hiking areas. All national parks charge a daily conservation fee, which is discounted for South African residents and nationals of Southern African Development Community (SADC) countries.

In addition to its national parks, South Africa is party to several transfrontier conservation areas. These include Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park, combining the Northern Cape’s former Kalahari Gemsbok National Park with Botswana’s Gemsbok National Park; the Maloti-Drakensberg Peace Park, which links Sehlabathebe National Park and other areas of the Lesotho Drakensberg with their South African counterparts in uKhahlamba-Drakensberg; and the Great Limpopo Transfrontier Park, which spans the borders of South Africa, Mozambique and Zimbabwe. Private wildlife reserves also abound.

In total, just over 5% of South African land has national park status, with an estimated 4% to 5% more enjoying other types of protective status. The government has started teaming up with private landowners to bring private conservation land under government protection, with the goal of increasing the total amount of conservation land to more than 10%.

In addition to this, South Africa has over 20 Marine Protected Areas (MPAs) designed to protect and stabilise fish and other marine-life populations against overfishing, pollution, uncontrolled tourism and mining. The world's seventh-largest MPA was declared in 2013 and lies 2000km southeast of the country's coastline around Prince Edward and Marion Islands. Marine life falling under the protection of the new MPA includes albatrosses, penguins, fur seals, killer whales and Patagonian toothfish.

More information is available through online resources:

CapeNature Promotes nature conservation in the Western Cape, and is responsible for permits and bookings for Western Cape reserves.

Ezemvelo KZN Wildlife Responsible for wildlife parks in KwaZulu-Natal.

Safcol (www.safcol.co.za) Its Komatiland Forests Eco-Tourism division oversees forest areas, promotes ecotourism and manages hiking trails around Mpumalanga and Limpopo.

South African National Parks The best place to start your safari.

Environmental Issues

South Africa is the world’s third most biologically diverse country. It’s also one of Africa’s most urbanised, with over 50% of the population living in towns and cities. Major challenges for the government include managing increasing urbanisation while protecting the environment.

Land degradation is one of the country's most serious problems, with about one-quarter of South Africa’s land considered to be severely degraded. In former homeland areas, years of overgrazing and overcropping have resulted in massive soil depletion. This, plus poor overall conditions, is pushing people to the cities, further increasing urban pressures. The distorted rural-urban settlement pattern is a legacy of the apartheid era, with huge population concentrations in townships that generally lack adequate utilities and infrastructure.

South Africa receives an average of only 500mm of rainfall annually, and droughts are common, with Cape Town's taps expected to run dry in 2018. To meet demand for water, all major South African rivers have been dammed or modified. While this has improved water supply to many areas, it has also disrupted local ecosystems and caused increased silting in waterways.

South Africa has long been at the forefront among African countries in conservation of its fauna. However, funding is tight and will likely remain so as long as many South Africans still lack access to basic amenities. Rhino poaching across the country, and particularly in Kruger National Park, is exacerbated by underfunding. Potential solutions include public/private-sector conservation partnerships, and increased contributions from private donors and international conservation bodies such as the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF).

Estimates have put South Africa’s potential shale-gas deposits at 485 trillion cubic feet of gas. That’s gained a lot of interest from oil companies, and according to Econometrix (in a report commissioned by Shell) the shale-gas industry could be worth R200 billion annually to GDP and lead to the creation of 700,000 jobs. Until 2012 South Africa, like many countries, had placed a moratorium on hydraulic fracturing (fracking) to extract the gas. There are serious environmental concerns about the safety of the technology used in fracking, which uses large amounts of clean water mixed with sand and a ‘chemical cocktail’ to crack underground rocks and release the shale gas. Since the moratorium was lifted, the debate over fracking in South Africa’s Northern Cape (in the Karoo) has continued to rage, with these environmental concerns pitted against vested economic interests – in particular large oil companies. In March 2017 the government announced that fracking would go ahead.

Going Green

More than 90% of South Africa’s electricity is coal-generated – more than double the international average. Yet on a local level, there are many commendable projects showcasing the country’s slow but sure progress towards going green.

Lynedoch EcoVillage South Africa’s first ecologically designed and socially mixed community is slowly taking form, with the design of energy-efficient houses and community buildings, and a focus on the establishment of a self-sufficient community.

Monwabisi Park Eco-Cottages Project (www.shaster.org.za/Past-Projects) Under the auspices of the Shaster Foundation, the Monwabisi Park squatters’ settlement of Khayelitsha was transformed into an eco-village, with informal shacks replaced by community-built eco-cottages. Sandbags, earthworm waste systems and natural energy systems were employed.

The Kuyasa Project (www.kuyasacdm.co.za) More than 2000 low-income houses in Cape Town’s Khayelitsha township have been retrofitted with renewable energy technologies such as solar water heaters, energy-efficient lighting and insulated ceilings. In addition to promoting energy savings (averaging about 40% per household), the project has also created jobs and offered other sustainable development benefits.

SAN Parks Facilities at parks in the SANParks network are being upgraded with installation of solar water heaters and other energy-saving devices.

Tree planting More than 200,000 indigenous trees were planted as part of the Greening Soweto project, which sought to beautify the massive township as a legacy of the 2010 FIFA World Cup. The project incorporates ongoing environmental-awareness programs.

Wind farms One of several wind-farm projects, the Darling Wind Farm, 35km north of Cape Town, is linked to the national power grid. There are many more earmarked sites on the Eastern Cape coastline.

Responsible Travel

Tourism is big in South Africa, and making environmentally and culturally sensitive choices can have a significant impact. Following are a few guidelines for visitors:

  • Travel involves a responsibility to local cultures and people – consider giving back to local communities through a donation of money to a reputable NGO working in the field, or through volunteering some of your time.
  • Always ask permission before photographing people.
  • Avoid indiscriminate gift giving. Donations to recognised projects are less destructive to local cultural values and have a better chance of reaching those who need them most.
  • Support local enterprises, buy locally whenever possible, and buy souvenirs directly from those who make them.
  • Seek entities that promote sustainable, community-oriented tourism. The lists on the website of Fair Trade Tourism (www.fairtrade.travel) are a good starting point.
  • Avoid buying items made from ivory, skin, shells etc.
  • Carry a SASSI app or pocket guide (downloadable from www.wwfsassi.co.za) if you enjoy dining at seafood restaurants.
  • For cultural attractions, try to pay fees directly to the locals involved, rather than to tour-company guides or other middle people.
  • Respect local culture and customs.
  • Don’t litter. On treks, in parks or when camping, carry out all your litter (most parks give you a bag for this purpose) and leave trails, parks and campsites cleaner than you found them.
  • Maximise your ‘real’ time with locals, choosing itineraries that are well integrated with the communities in the areas where you will be travelling.

Feature: The Great Ivory Debate

In 1990, following a massive campaign by various conservation organisations, the UN Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) banned ivory trading in an effort to protect Africa’s then-declining elephant populations. This promoted recovery of elephant populations in areas where they had previously been ravaged. Yet in South Africa, where elephants had long been protected, the elephant populations continued to grow, leading to widespread habitat destruction.

Solutions to the problem of elephant overpopulation have included creating transfrontier parks to allow animals to migrate over larger areas, relocating animals, small-scale elephant contraception efforts and – most controversially – culling.

In 2002, after much pressure, CITES relaxed its worldwide ivory trading ban to allow ivory from legally culled elephants to be sold. The decision has been strongly disputed by several governments on the grounds that resuming trade will increase demand for ivory and, thus, encourage poaching. The idea behind the move was that earnings would benefit elephant conservation efforts and communities living around elephant areas, and that CITES would monitor whether poaching increased after the ban was relaxed.

The most recently approved major one-off ivory sale was in mid-2008, when 108 tonnes of ivory from South Africa (51 tonnes), Namibia, Botswana and Zimbabwe was exported to China in a CITES-authorised transaction. Following such a sale, CITES mandates a nine-year resting period during which no additional ivory sales from these countries are permitted. In China – long one of the main markets for the illegal ivory trade – ivory is used for everything from jewellery and artwork to mobile-phone ornamentation. South Africa, Zimbabwe and Namibia have looked at ways to overturn the CITES restrictions to sell more of their ivory stockpiles.

Feature: Enjoying South Africa's Marine Environment

There are many ways to enjoy South Africa’s unique and plentiful marine life. Spending time on top of, or under, the water could prove to be a highlight of your trip. In the Western Cape, Hermanus is regarded as the best land-based whale-watching destination in the world: southern right whales cruise past from June to December.

A unique opportunity exists to come face to face with a great white shark in KwaZulu-Natal and the Western Cape. Despite its detractors, shark-cage diving remains a popular adventure sport. And scuba diving is all the rage off the coast of KwaZulu-Natal, with Aliwal Shoal considered one of the best dive sites in the world. Colourful coral, turtles, rays and many species of sharks can be seen.

The Greatest Shoal on Earth is the sardine run that occurs between May and July, when a seething mass of sardines appears off the coasts of the Eastern Cape and KwaZulu-Natal, stretching for up to 15km. Predators, such as sharks, dolphins and seabirds, come from far and wide to gorge themselves, and snorkelling or diving around the shoal is an incredible experience.

Feature: The Cape Floral Kingdom

The Cape Floral Kingdom, parts of which are now a Unesco World Heritage Site, is the smallest of the world’s six floral kingdoms, but the most diverse, with 1300 species per 10,000 sq km. This is some 900 more species than are found in the South American rainforests. The main vegetation type is fynbos (fine bush), characterised by small, narrow leaves and stems. The fynbos environment hosts over 7500 plant species, most of which are unique to the area. Some members of the main fynbos families – ericas (heaths), proteas and restios (reeds) – have been domesticated elsewhere and are relatively widespread, but many species have a remarkably small range.

The Cape Floral Kingdom extends roughly from Cape Point east almost to Grahamstown and north to the Olifants River, and includes the Kogelberg and parts of several biosphere reserves. However, most of the remaining indigenous vegetation is found only in protected areas, such as Table Mountain and the Cape Peninsula.

Feature: Rhino Poaching in South Africa

Rhino horn has long been a sought-after commodity in some Asian countries. It is a status symbol and is believed to be a healing agent. A single rhino horn can fetch a lot of money on the black market in countries such as Vietnam and China.

This market has provided plenty of motivation for the illegal trade in rhino horn. From the late 1970s to mid-1990s, rhino populations were periodically decimated in Africa by poaching.

In recent years rhino poaching has again escalated sharply. In 2003, 22 rhino were poached in South Africa. In 2012 this figure rose to 668, and by the end of 2014, a staggering 1020 rhino had been poached that year. Of that figure almost 700 were slaughtered in Kruger National Park, a place that is home to 60% of the world’s remaining rhinos. More recent stats look equally bleak, although happily arrests of suspected poachers and traffickers are also significant – 359 in the first half of 2017.

Kruger National Park is officially part of the Great Limpopo Transfrontier Park, which combines Kruger with areas of Zimbabwe and Mozambique's Limpopo National Park. Many poachers come from Mozambique through the long, porous border between Kruger and Limpopo. The latter park's under-resourced and under-capacity anti-poaching unit does battle with poaching syndicates that have unlimited resources.

Overwhelmed by the challenge of monitoring the park’s huge and largely unattended border with Mozambique, the South African government has embarked upon a massive relocation program. It is transporting rhinos to safer areas within Kruger and other parks in South Africa and neighbouring countries, while private efforts include the Rhinos Without Borders conservation project, which is translocating 100 rhinos to Botswana, funded by travel companies &Beyond and Great Plains Conservation.

In the meantime, innovative ways of tracking down poachers are being deployed. These include Shotspotter, a technology usually rolled out in crime-ridden cities in the USA. When a shot is fired, hidden microphones in the bush pick up the sound, triangulate it and feed location information to rangers and police, who can respond in real time. Poachers are turning their focus from Kruger to KwaZulu-Natal, but perhaps the most worrying recent development has been the legalisation of South Africa's domestic rhino-horn trade, despite criticisms that the move would encourage demand and poaching. An online auction went ahead in 2017, with supporters arguing that establishing a legal, regulated market could help to deter poaching, but the 264 horns attracted few bidders.

For more information on the ongoing battle to save the African rhino from extinction, check out www.savetherhino.org and www.stoprhinopoaching.com.

Feature: Top Parks & Reserves

LocationPark/ReserveFeaturesActivitiesBest time to visit
Cape PeninsulaTable Mountain National Parkrocky headlands, seascapes; African penguins, elands, water birds, bontebokshiking, mountain bikingyear-round
Western CapeCederberg Wilderness Areamountainous and rugged terrain; San rock art, sandstone formations, plant lifehiking, climbingMar-Oct
Mpumalanga/LimpopoKruger National Parksavannah, woodlands, thornveld; the 'Big Five' animalsvehicle safaris, wildlife walksyear-round
MpumalangaBlyde River Canyon Nature Reservecanyon, caves, river; stunning vistashiking, kloofing (canyoning), scenic drivesyear-round
Northern CapeAugrabies Falls National Parkdesert, river, waterfalls; klipspringers, rock dassies; striking sceneryhiking, canoeing, raftingApr-Sep
Northern Cape|Ai-|Ais/Richtersveld Transfrontier Parkmountainous desert, haunting beauty; klipspringers, jackals, zebras, plants, birdshiking, 4WD adventuresApr-Sep
Eastern CapeAddo Elephant National Parkdense bush, grasslands, forested kloofs; elephants, black rhinos, buffaloesvehicle safaris, walking trails, horse ridingyear-round
Eastern CapeGarden Route National Park (Tsitsikamma section)coast, cliffs, rivers, ravines, forests; Cape clawless otters, baboons, monkeys, birdlifehikingyear-round
KwaZulu-NatalHluhluwe-iMfolozi Parklush, subtropical vegetation, savannah; rhinos, giraffes, lions, elephants, birdswilderness walks, wildlife watchingMay-Oct
KwaZulu-NataliSimangaliso Wetland Parkwetlands, coastal grasslands; elephants, birds, hippos, crocodileswilderness walks, vehicle/boat safarisMar-Nov
KwaZulu-NataluMkhuze Game Reservesavannah, woodlands, swamp; rhinos and almost everything else; hundreds of bird speciesguided walks, bird walks, vehicle safarisyear-round
KwaZulu-NataluKhahlamba-Drakensberg Parkawe-inspiring Drakensberg Escarpment; fantastic scenery and wilderness areashikingyear-round
Free StateGolden Gate Highlands National Parkspectacular sandstone cliffs and outcrops; zebras, oribis, rheboks, elands, birdshikingyear-round