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.

European Influence

Ever wondered why the chord sequences of many South African songs seem familiar? Blame the church: the Protestant missionaries of the 19th century developed a choral tradition that, in tandem with the country’s first formal music education, South African composers would blend with traditional harmonic patterns. Enoch Sontonga’s 1897 hymn ‘Nkosi Sikelel' iAfrika’ (God Bless Africa), originally written in Xhosa, is now part of the country’s national anthem.

Zulu music’s veteran exponents Ladysmith Black Mambazo – wrongly considered ‘typical' South African music by many Westerners, thanks to their rapid-fire album releases and relentless international touring schedule – exemplify the way indigenous harmonies were neatly mixed with the sounds of European and African church choirs (a vocal style known as mbube). In the same way that much contemporary South African art was born from oppression, Ladysmith’s ‘tiptoe’ isicathamiya music, with its high-kicking, soft-stepping dance, has its origins in all-male miners' hostels in Natal province in the 1930s, where workers were at pains not to wake their bosses. Isicathamiya choirs still appear in weekly competitions in Johannesburg and Durban, and such choirs, or versions thereof, often busk South African city streets.

Apartheid Sounds

Kwela music, like most modern South African styles, came out of the townships. Meaning ‘get up’ in Zulu, 'kwela' in township slang was both an invitation to dance and a warning that police vans (known as the kwela-kwela) were coming. Once-infamous areas like Soweto, Sharpeville, District Six and Sophiatown gave rise to urban, pan-tribal genres, mostly inspired by music coming in (or back) from America, such as jazz, swing, jive and soul. Black South Africans added an urban spin: kwela, with its penny whistles (an instrument evolved from the reed flutes of indigenous cattle herders) and one-string bass, became sax-jive, also known as mbaqanga. Marabi soul took off in the 1970s and ‘bubblegum’ pop dominated the 1980s.

America and Europe were the inspiration for white South African artists. Sixties phenomenon Four Jacks and a Jill were pure Western pop. British punk inspired 1970s working-class outfits such as Wild Youth, whose sound recalls the Buzzcocks and the Stooges. The 1980s saw a crossover of black and white musicians: Johnny Clegg and his former bands Juluka and Savuka used a fusion of white rock and pop with traditional Zulu music to challenge racist restrictions and set a precedent for others.

Modern Era

Kwaito, South Africa’s very own hip-hop, exploded in the 1990s and remains, apart from gospel, rap and a burgeoning R&B scene, the country’s most popular genre. Grunge helped shape the likes of Scooters Union, the Springbok Nude Girls and other 1990s guitar bands, while acts including Seether, Prime Circle and former Springbok frontman Arno Carstens ensure that rock continues to flourish. Afrikaans rock continues to build on the legacy of the Voëlvry movement and Fokofpolisiekar, who developed the genre and its following from the '80s onwards.

Acts such as Die Heuwels Fantasties (watch their song 'Noorderlig' on YouTube), Van Coke Cartel, Chris Chameleon and aKING entertain the alternative crowd, while singer-songwriter David Kramer's musicals have received critical acclaim. And then there’s the huge cutting-edge dance scene: house, techno, acid jazz, R&B, dance hall and all grooves in between, often with live elements thrown in. South Africa's trance scene is second only to Israel's, and parties regularly happen near Cape Town. The tie-dye crowd converges on the AfrikaBurn festival (www.afrikaburn.com), held every April/May in the Tankwa Karoo.

The effects of apartheid on lives and culture are still sorely felt; musicians such as the late jazz legend Hugh Masekela have stressed the need for continued sensitivity. Award-winning protest singer Vusi ‘the Voice’ Mahlasela, who performed at Nelson Mandela’s inauguration in 1994, has continued to spread Mandela’s message by appearing at concerts to promote causes such as 46664, the former president's HIV/AIDS initiative.

The creation of a black-owned, black-run music industry and distribution network has been a long battle (resistance by moguls from the old-school white biz was fierce). However, South African music is becoming more Africanised, with a healthy selection of Westernised English- and Afrikaans-language indie and electronic acts in the mix. The passionate music of the anti-apartheid resistance, meanwhile, has maintained its fire by changing its focus: other scourges – such as HIV/AIDS, poverty, the abuse of women and children – are being written and sung about. Many of these issues, especially the HIV/AIDS epidemic, remain taboo despite their devastating effects on township communities, and music is a good way to get people listening and talking about these topics.

Opportunities abound in the current climate of cultural and artistic expression. Boundaries are down and styles are cross-pollinating. Many genres, especially Afro-house and R&B, are booming and venues are following suit. Democracy, so bitterly won, has never sounded so sweet.

South African Musical Styles

Marabi

In the early 20th century, travelling African American minstrel shows, vaudeville acts, ragtime piano players and gospel groups impressed local audiences in the growing cities of Cape Town and Jo’burg. Urbanisation had a domino effect on musical styles: visiting American jazz artists and records by the likes of Louis Armstrong and Duke Ellington kick-started what would later become the South African jazz scene. By the 1920s and ‘30s the urban ghettos were singing and swinging to marabi, a defining and dangerous (in Sotho it means ‘gangster’) small-band sound.

Played on cheap pedal organs and keyboards with accompaniment from pebble-filled cans, marabi flooded illegal township shebeens (taverns) and dance halls. Its siren call got people in and drinking, but it also offered some dignity and consolation to the oppressed working-class areas where it was played. Marabi’s trancelike rhythms and cyclical harmonies had links to American Dixieland and ragtime. Subsequent decades saw the addition of penny whistle, drums, banjo, elements of big-band swing and even bebop.

Marabi made its way into the jazz-dance bands that produced the first generation of professional black musicians: the Jazz Maniacs, Merry Blackbirds and Jazz Revellers. Often referred to simply (and not always correctly) as ‘African jazz’ or ‘jive’, marabi went on to spawn other styles. One of these was kwela.

Kwela

The first popular South African style to make the world sit up and take notice was kwela. Initially played on acoustic guitar, banjo, one-string bass and, most importantly, the penny whistle, kwela was taken up by kids with no access to horns and pianos but keen to put their own spin on American swing. Groups of tin-flautists would gather to play on street corners in white areas, with the danger of arrest (for creating a ‘public disturbance’) upping the music’s appeal and attracting rebellious white kids known as ‘ducktails’. Many such groups were also lookouts for the shebeens.

Kwela combos gained a live following but little recording took place until 1954, when Spokes Mashinyane’s ‘Ace Blues’ became the smash African hit of the year and sent white producers scurrying into the black market. Artists such as Sparks Nyembe and Jerry Mlotshwa became popular, while the hit ‘Tom Lark’ by Elias and His Zig Zag Jive Flutes even crossed over to Britain, where – probably because of its similarity to skiffle – it stayed in the charts for 14 weeks.

In the early 1960s, Mashinyane introduced the saxophone to kwela with his song ‘Big Joe Special’, ending the penny-whistle boom and creating sax-jive. Sax-jive quickly became mbaqanga.

Mbaqanga

The saxophone became vital to South African jazz, which, much to the dismay of white kwela fans, was now limited to performances in the townships. Mbaqanga (‘daily bread’ in Zulu) had its innovators: Joseph Makwela and Marks Mankwane of celebrated session players the Makhona Tshole Band added electric guitars to the cascading rhythms – notably a funky, muscular bass – while sax player and producer West Nkosi set the pace. This hugely popular electric sound backed singers whose vocal style was later christened mqashiyo (after a dance style), even though it was really no different from mbaqanga.

Mbaqanga’s idiosyncratic vocals echoed 1950s groups such as the Manhattan Brothers and Miriam Makeba’s Skylarks, who copied African American doo-wop outfits but used Africanised five-part harmonies instead of four. In the 1960s Aaron 'Jack' Lerole (of Elias and His Zig Zag Jive Flutes fame) added his groaning vocals to the mix, but it was the growling bass of Simon ‘Mahlathini’ Nkabinde and his sweet-voiced Mahotella Queens (backed by the Makhona Tshole Band) that would inspire a generation, including Izintombi Zeze Manje Manje and the Boyoyo Boys. More recently, Lerole founded the band Mango Groove and toured with the USA's Dave Matthews Band before his death in 2003. The Mahotella Queens are still going strong – sans Mahlathini – and British producer/chancer Malcolm McLaren sampled the Boyoyo Boys on his 1983 British hit, ‘Double Dutch’.

Mbaqanga remains an important force in South African music, its influence apparent in everything from soul, reggae and R&B to kwaito, motswako (Tswana hip-hop) and, of course, jazz.

Jazz

Structurally, harmonically and melodically distinctive, the force that is South African jazz started as an underground movement and became a statement of protest and identity. In the hands of such talented exiled stars as singer Miriam ‘Mama Africa’ Makeba, pianist Abdullah Ibrahim (formerly Dollar Brand) and trumpeter Hugh Masekela, it was famously an expatriate music style that represented the suffering of a people. Legendary outfit the Blue Notes, led by Chris McGregor and featuring saxophonist Dudu Pukwana, helped change the face of European jazz after relocating to the UK. Jazzers who stayed behind kept a low profile while developing new sounds and followings with, variously, jazz-rock fusion, Latin and even Malay crossovers.

World-renowned exiles, who returned home after the end of the anti-apartheid cultural boycott, had to work hard to win back local audiences. Most now enjoy healthy followings – Makeba passed away aged 76 in 2008, making Masekela his country’s most enduring musical ambassador – in what is now a mainstream scene. Frequent festivals, often featuring top overseas acts (Erykah Badu and Level 42 have appeared at the Cape Town International Jazz Festival), are providing platforms and the South African media is lending its support.

Well-known locals are moving jazz forward, working with DJs, artists, poets and dance companies. The late Coltrane-esque saxophonist Zim Ngqawana, who led a group of 100 drummers, singers and dancers at Nelson Mandela’s inauguration, drew on folk and rural traditions as well as Indian, avant garde and classical music. Before his death in 2011, he founded the Zimology Institute, mentoring young jazz musicians and offering an alternative to formal music education on a farm outside Jo'burg.

Ngqawana's former sideman, pianist Andile Yenana, combines the traditional and experimental with Monk-ish flair. Renowned guitarist Jimmy Dludlu, a sort of African George Benson, takes time out to work with music-school graduates. High-profile South African chanteuses include the late Afro-jazz queen Pinise Saul, Sibongile Khumalo, Judith Sephumo and Xhosa vocalist Simphiwe Dana. The latter has been proclaimed the ‘new Miriam Makeba’ for her fusion of jazz, Afro-soul, rap and traditional music. Many such singers are enjoying success in another genre sharing common roots with jazz: gospel.

Gospel

The music industry’s biggest market, bolstered by the country’s 80% Christian black population, South Africa’s gospel is an amalgam of European choral music, American influences, Zulu a cappella singing and other African traditions incorporated within the church (Zionist, Ethiopian, Pentecostal and Apostolic). All joy, colour and exuberance, rhythm, passion and soul, gospel choirs perform throughout South Africa, lifting the roofs off big, formal venues and community halls alike. Like many big choirs, the 30-piece ensemble and overseas success story, Soweto Gospel Choir, which won Grammy awards in 2007 and 2008 for its albums Blessed and African Spirit, features a band with drummers and dancers.

This vast genre is divided into traditional gospel – personified by the International Pentecostal Church Choir (IPCC), Solly Moholo, Hlengiwe Mhlaba and Jabu Hlongwane – and contemporary gospel. Beacons of the latter include veteran superstar Rebecca 'Ribs' Malope, also a TV host; the multiplatinum-selling Zulu diva Deborah Fraser; Reverend Benjamin Dube (‘the Gospel Maestro’); and the pastor and former Durban street kid Andile Ka Majola. Bethusile Mcinga, whose 'Uzundithwale' won best gospel song at the Crown Gospel Music Awards 2014, is a name to watch. Popular Swazi acts include France Dlamini, the 'father of Swazi gospel', Shongwe & Khuphuka and the Ncandweni Christ Ambassadors, fronted by former parliamentarian Timothy Myeni.

Gospel also comprises much of the oeuvre of Ladysmith Black Mambazo (whose album Ilembe: Honoring Shaka Zulu scooped the 2009 Grammy for Best Traditional World Music Album). Their Zulu isicathamiya style is a prime example of the way traditional South African music has appropriated Western sounds to produce unique musical styles. Gloria Bosman, Sibongile Khumalo, Pinise Saul and other top black South African artists are now working across a range of genres (gospel, jazz, classical, opera), having started singing in mission-school choirs or in church. Others, such as Rebecca Malope, crossed to gospel from the shiny world of pop.

Neotraditional Music

Away from the urban life of the townships and the cities’ recording studios, traditional musicians from the Sotho, Zulu, Pedi and Tsonga regions have developed dynamic social music. Since the 1930s, many have mixed call-and-response singing with the dreamy 10-button concertina, an instrument that has made a comeback in Zulu pop. The Sotho took up the accordion (accordion players and groups still abound in Lesotho), the Pedi the German autoharp, and the Zulu embraced the guitar.

Maskanda (or maskandi) is a form of rhythmic and repetitive guitar picking born through the Zulu experience of labour migration. Many migrants made do with an igogogo, an instrument fashioned from an oil can – late maskanda stalwart Shiyani Ngcobo used the igogogo in his live sets. Other top-selling maskanda acts include virtuoso guitarist Phuzekhemisi (whose shows often include dozens of singers, dancers and instrumentalists), the popular duo Shwi No Mtkehala and the poetic Bhekumuzi Luthuli, who died in 2010.

The upbeat and vaguely Latin-sounding Tsonga music tends to feature a male leader backed by, variously, a female chorus, guitars, synths, percussion and an unabashed disco beat. Best-known acts include Doctor Sithole, George Maluleke, Conny Chauke and Fanie Rhingani.

In her traditional/urban crossovers, Xhosa artist Lungiswa is one of the few female South African musicians to play the mbira (thumb piano). Her songs include a Xhosa cover of Marvin Gaye's 'Inner City Blues'. The late veteran Zulu chanteuse Busi Mhlongo fused traditional Zulu sounds with hip-hop and kwaito.

Musical roots are being mixed with every sound imaginable, from country, blues, rap (check out Hip Hop Pantsula and Molemi) and house (see DJs Black Coffee, Mbuso and Vinny da Vinci) to rock, Afro-house, reggae and soul.

Soul, Reggae & R&B

The American-led soul music of the 1960s had a huge impact on township teenagers. The local industry tried various cheap imitations; the few South African ‘soul’ groups that made it did so on the back of a blend of soul and marabi, such as the Movers, or soul and electric-bass mbaqanga, such as the Soul Brothers, a band that spawned dozens of imitators. Contemporary South African soul is often filed under mbaqanga, the genre from which evergreen reggae star Lucky Dube – shot dead in a carjacking in Johannesburg in 2007 – grew to the status of Africa's Bob Marley. Over 25 years, he recorded two-dozen albums in Zulu, English and Afrikaans; his CDs still have pride of place in shops and market stalls throughout sub-Saharan Africa.

Dube’s legacy aside, reggae in South Africa is often subsumed into other genres such as ragga and kwaito: Bongo Maffin throws kwaito, house, reggae, ragga, gospel and hip-hop into the pot. Homegrown R&B, meanwhile, has surged, with huge stars such as Loyiso Bala. The wonderful Thandiswa Mazwai (Bongo Maffin’s erstwhile frontwoman) nods in the R&B direction on her second solo album, Ibokhwe. The soulful sounds of DJ, singer and media player Unathi Nkayi seem to be everywhere, while in Cape Town you will likely hear the upbeat local outfits Goldfish and Freshlyground – their breezy Capetonian sounds fall somewhere between soul, pop and electro.

Bubblegum & Kwaito

The disco that surfaced during the 1970s came back – slick, poppy and Africanised – in the 1980s as ‘bubblegum’. Vocally led and aimed squarely at the young, this electronic dance style owed a debt to mbaqanga as well as America. What the Soul Brothers started, superstars such as the late Brenda Fassie, Sello ‘Chicco’ Twala and Yvonne 'princess of Africa' Chaka Chaka refined – Chaka Chaka's track 'Umqombothi', named after Xhosa home brew, soundtracks the opening of the film Hotel Rwanda (2005). Bubblegum’s popularity waned in the 1990s, and in its place exploded kwaito (meaning ‘cool’ in Isicamtho, the Gauteng township slang; a bastardisation of the Afrikaans word kwaai, which means strict or angry).

The music of young, black, urban South Africa, kwaito is a rowdy mix of everything from bubblegum, hip-hop, R&B and ragga to mbaqanga, traditional, jazz and British and American house music. It is also a fashion statement, a state of mind and a lifestyle. Chanted or sung in a mixture of English, Zulu, Sotho and Isicamtho (usually over programmed beats and backing tapes), kwaito’s lyrics range from the anodyne to the fiercely political. A unique fusion, kwaito has caught the imagination of post-apartheid South Africa and is evolving even as the ‘Is kwaito dead?’ debate rages. Acts such as Zola, Boom Shaka, Mapaputsi, Spikiri and Trompies were trailblazers; the current crop includes Mandoza, Thokozani ‘L’vovo Derrango’ Ndlovu, Big Nuz and Howza.

Zef & Current Trends

Two acts that have created their own genres, and achieved international success in the process, are Die Antwoord and Spoek Mathambo – both have proved adept at repackaging South Africa's unique and little-known subcultures for an international audience. Die Antwoord ('the answer' in Afrikaans), featuring Ninja (Watkin Tudor Jones) and cyberpunk pixie Yolandi Visser (Anri du Toit), have created a harsh, futuristic sound and image under the banner of 'zef'. The term was long used to describe the culture of low-income white South Africans (without the negative connotations of 'bogan' in Australia or 'chav' in the UK), and Die Antwoord appropriated the word for their frenetic rap-rave and tongue-in-cheek white-trash look. Another zef artist is rapper Jack Parow, who is like an Afrikaner version of Britain's the Streets. Describing himself as 'the pirate of the caravan park', he sings about suburban life in Cape Town. Die Antwoord, however, are currently in a league of their own in South Africa, having toured internationally with the likes of Aphex Twin and created unsettling visions in their music videos. Check out 'Enter the Ninja', 'I Fink U Freeky' and 'Ugly Boy' on YouTube.

Spoek Mathambo calls his sound, which merges electronic beats, lo-fi guitars and African influences, 'township tech'. His second album, Father Creeper, released in 2012 on American label Sub Pop, encapsulates the linguistic mash of the townships, switching between black African languages, English, Afrikaans, Western references and South African subjects. He has enjoyed some success abroad, gaining attention by covering British post-punk band Joy Division's 'She’s Lost Control' and appearing on Damon Albarn's Africa Express tour in 2012. Other artists such as Cape Town's poppy folk muso Jeremy Loops have also made inroads internationally.

In South Africa, freedom of expression for everyone, from black youth to white middle-class rockers, is no longer the luxury it was under apartheid. The first place this freedom became visible was the music scene – a scene that is still thriving, creating and reinventing itself in ever-increasing and exciting ways.

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

Sidebar: San Music

The first known musicians in South Africa were the San people, some 4000 years ago. They sang in a uniquely African click language, and played rattles, drums and simple flutes and even their hunting bows.

Sidebar: Kaapse Klopse

The Cape Town Minstrel Carnival, or Kaapse Klopse, takes place on 2 January. Some 13,000 coloured minstrels take part, dressed in bright satin outfits, sporting boaters and painted faces. They compete for singing, dancing and costume prizes in a tradition that dates back to the late 19th century.

Sidebar: Graceland

Paul Simon’s Graceland album has sold more than 14 million copies worldwide and, despite the controversy over breaking the global musicians' boycott of apartheid South Africa, was vital in alerting the rest of the world to South African music.

Sidebar: Music Websites

  • South African Music (www.music.org.za) Definitive reference on Southern African musicians.
  • Takealot (www.takealot.com) The local Amazon is a good source of South African CDs and DVDs.

Sidebar: Kirstenbosch Summer Sunset Concerts

At Kirstenbosch Summer Sunset Concerts, local and international stars from Cat Stevens to Goldfish perform in the blissful mountainside setting of Cape Town's botanical gardens.

Sidebar: Voëlvry

The Voëlvry ('free as a bird') movement united Afrikaner musicians opposed to apartheid in the 1980s, culminating in a nationwide tour. For local musicians it was a watershed akin to the cultural revolution that swept the West in the '60s.

Sidebar: Miriam Makeba

Late jazz icon Miriam Makeba sings her most famous song, 'Qongqothwane' (or 'The Click Song'), in the clicking Xhosa language.

Sidebar: Erykah Badu

Recalling the days when musicians copped flak for playing in apartheid South Africa, Erykah Badu was criticised for performing at a party for Swaziland's absolute monarch, Mswati III, in 2014.

Sidebar: Toyi-toyi

Under apartheid and more recently, striking trade unions and township residents have dramatically incorporated song and dance into demonstrations. In South Africa's trademark toyi-toyi, protesters stomp their feet and sing or chant slogans. The Anti-Privatisation Forum has even released an album of toyi-toyi music, featuring songs chanted during APF marches.

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.

Sidebar: Economic Immigrants

Economic immigrants from South Africa's neighbouring countries and beyond are widely employed in tourism and hospitality nationwide. During your stay you will likely meet waiters, hotel porters and car guards from countries including Zimbabwe, Mozambique, Malawi and the Democratic Republic of the Congo.

Sidebar: Racially Conscious

In South Africa's uniquely multicultural but racially conscious society, people are not shy about referring to themselves and others as black, coloured or white. This can come as a bit of a shock for visitors from countries where such referrals are considered politically incorrect.

Sidebar: JM Coetzee

Although he often portrays South African society negatively, JM Coetzee's writing is exquisite and gives a sense of the violence and isolation under apartheid. Look out for Disgrace and Age of Iron.

Sidebar: Gogo

The Zulu word for grandmother is gogo. The gogo plays a vital role in many families and her monthly pension is often the only regular source of income for the extended family.

Sidebar: Women in Parliament

In line with its progressive constitution, South Africa's parliament is 42.3% female, placing it 8th in the world in terms of female representation. Lesotho's parliament is 22.9% female (79th in the world) and Swaziland's is 6.2% (176th).

Sidebar: Press Freedom Ranking

South Africa’s press freedom ranking, according to Reporters Without Borders, rose to 31st in the world in 2017 (the US was 43rd).

Sidebar: Bafana Bafana

South Africa’s national football (soccer) team is called Bafana Bafana (the Boys, in Zulu). The women’s team is called Banyana Banyana (the Girls).

Sidebar: Contemporary South African Artists

Individual works by major 20th-century and contemporary South African artists, including Irma Stern, Pierneef, William Kentridge and Tretchikoff, have fetched over US$1 million at auction.

Sidebar: Market Theatre

The first all-race theatre venue was the Market Theatre, which opened in 1976. The run-down buildings at Jo’burg’s old ‘Indian’ fruit market were converted and patrons and performers defied the apartheid government’s notorious Group Areas Act.

Sidebar: Internet Users

  • South Africa 52%
  • Lesotho 20.6%
  • Swaziland 27.8%
  • UK 92.6%
  • USA 88.5%

Sidebar: Shirley, Goodness & Mercy

For an insight into coloured society and culture, Chris van Wyk's Shirley, Goodness & Mercy and Eggs to Lay, Chickens to Hatch are entertaining memoirs about growing up in a coloured Jo'burg suburb.

Sidebar: Afrikaner Genealogy

The typical Afrikaner's genealogy includes about a third Dutch blood, with smaller percentages of French (mostly Huguenot), German, coloured and British blood.

Sidebar: Ingrid Jonker

Afrikaner poet Ingrid Jonker is often compared to Sylvia Plath. Nelson Mandela read Jonker's poem 'The Child who was Shot Dead by Soldiers at Nyanga', inspired by protests against the pass laws, at his inauguration in 1994.

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.

Safari Safety

One of South Africa’s major attractions is the chance to go on safari and get ‘up close and personal’ with the wildlife. Remember, however, that the animals aren’t tame and their actions are often unpredictable. Some tips for staying safe:

  • Never get between a mother and her young.
  • Never get between a hippo and water.
  • Watch out for black rhinos (although they are rare), which will charge just about anything.
  • Be careful around buffalo herds – they charge without warning and the whole herd will charge together.
  • Although elephants often appear docile, never take them for granted – be especially careful around females with young and agitated young males.
  • Remember that a fake charge from an elephant is probably a precursor to the real thing.
When to Watch Wildlife

Wildlife watching is rewarding at any time of year, although spotting tends to be easier in the cooler, dry winter months (June to September), when foliage is less dense and animals congregate at water holes. The summer (late November to March) is rainy, warmer and scenic, with greener landscapes, although animals are more widely dispersed and may be difficult to see.

Birding is good year-round, with spring (September to November) and summer generally the best times.

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.

Cats

In terms of behaviour, the cats found in South Africa are little more than souped-up house cats; it's just that they may weigh half as much as a horse or jet along as fast as a speeding car. With their excellent vision and keen hearing, cats are superb hunters.

Lion

Weight 120-150kg (female), 150-225kg (male); length 210-275cm (female), 240-350cm (male) Those lions sprawled out lazily in the shade are actually Africa's most feared predators. Equipped with teeth that tear effortlessly through bone and tendon, they can take down an animal as large as a bull giraffe. Females do all the hunting; swaggering males fight among themselves and eat what the females catch.

Leopard

Weight 30-60kg (female), 40-90kg (male); length 170-300cm More common than you realise, the leopard relies on expert camouflage to stay hidden. At night there is no mistaking the bone-chilling groans that sound like wood being sawn at high volume.

Caracal

Weight 8-19kg; length 80-120cm The caracal is a gorgeous tawny cat with extremely long, pointy ears. It is able to make vertical leaps of 3m and swat birds out of the air.

Wildcat

Weight 3-6.5kg; length 65-100cm If you see what looks like a tabby wandering along fields and forest edges, you may be seeing a wildcat, the direct ancestor of domesticated house cats.

Cheetah

Weight 40-60kg; length 200-220cm Less cat than greyhound, the cheetah is a world-class sprinter. Although it reaches 112km/h, the cheetah runs out of steam after 300m and must cool down for 30 minutes before hunting again.

Primates

East Africa is the evolutionary cradle of primate diversity, and South Africa is a relative newcomer on the scene, home to just five species of monkeys, apes and prosimians. Some of these, however, are common and widespread, meaning that you're likely to see a lot of fascinating primate behaviour.

Vervet Monkey

Weight 4-8kg; length 90-140cm If any monkey epitomises South Africa, it is the widespread and adaptable vervet monkey. If you think their appearance too drab, check out the extraordinary blue and scarlet colours of the male sexual organs when they get excited.

Greater Bushbaby

Weight up to 1.5kg; length 80cm, including 45cm tail Named for their plaintive call, bushbabies are actually primitive primates. They have small heads, large rounded ears, thick bushy tails, dark-brown fur and enormous eyes.

Chacma Baboon

Weight 12-30kg (female), 25-45kg (male); length 100-200cm Chacma baboons are worth watching for their complex social dynamics. Look for signs of friendship, deception or deal-making.

Samango Monkey

Weight 3.5-5.5kg (female), 5.5-12kg (male); length 100-160cm Samango monkeys are part of a vast group of African primates called gentle, or blue, monkeys. They are found exclusively in forests.

Greater Galago

Weight 550g-2kg; length 55-100cm A cat-sized, nocturnal creature with a doglike face, the greater galago belongs to a group of prosimians (the 'primitive' ancestors of modern primates) that have changed little in 60 million years.

Cud-Chewing Mammals

Africa is most famous for its astounding variety of ungulates – hoofed mammals that include everything from buffaloes and rhinos to giraffes and zebras. The subgroup of ungulates that ruminate (chew their cud) and have horns are bovines. Among this family, antelopes are particularly numerous, with more than 20 species in South Africa.

Wildebeest

Weight 140-290kg; length 230-340cm Look for the black-shouldered blue wildebeest and the white-tailed black wildebeest (a South African speciality).

Impala

Weight 40-80kg; length 150-200cm Gregarious and displaying a prodigious capacity to reproduce, impalas can reach great numbers.

Springbok

Weight 20-40kg (female), 30-60kg (male); length 135-175cm Lacking the vast grasslands of East Africa, South Africa is home to only one gazelle-like antelope – the lithe, little springbok.

Gemsbok

Weight 180-240kg; length 230cm With straight, towering, metre-long horns and a boldly patterned face, this elegant desert antelope can survive for months on the scant water it derives from the plants it eats.

Sable

Weight 200-270kg; length 230-330cm Looking like a colourful horse with huge soaring horns, the sable ranks as one of Africa's most visually stunning mammals.

Hoofed Mammals

A full stable of Africa's mega-charismatic animals can be found in this group of ungulates. Other than the giraffe, these ungulates are not ruminants. They have been at home in Africa for millions of years and are among the most successful mammals to have ever wandered the continent.

Mountain Zebra

Weight 230-380kg; length 260-300cm South Africa's endemic mountain zebra differs from its savannah relative in having an unstriped belly and rusty muzzle.

Giraffe

Weight 450-1200kg (female), 1800-2000kg (male); height 3.5-5.2m Though they stroll along casually, giraffes can outrun any predator.

African Elephant

Weight 2200-3500kg (female), 4000-6300kg (male); height 2.4-3.4m (female), 3-4m (male) Commonly referred to as 'the king of beasts', although elephant society is actually ruled by a lineage of elder females.

Hippopotamus

Weight 510-3200kg; length 320-400cm Designed like a floating beanbag with tiny legs, the hippo spends its time in or very near water chowing down on aquatic plants.

White Rhinoceros

Weight 1400-2000kg (female), 2000-3600kg (male); length 440-520cm Brought to the brink of extinction in the early 1990s, this majestic creature was largely saved by the efforts of South African wildlife managers. Poaching has once again become a major problem though, particularly in Kruger.

Other Carnivores

In addition to seven types of cat, South Africa is home to 25 other carnivores ranging from slinky mongooses to highly social hunting dogs. All are linked in having 'carnassial' (slicing) teeth. A highlight for visitors is witnessing the superb hunting prowess of these highly efficient hunters.

Ratel

Weight 7-16kg; length 75-100cm The ratel or 'honey badger' may be the fiercest of all African animals. It finds its honey by following honey guide birds to beehives.

Aardwolf

Weight 8-12kg; length 75-110cm This slender, tawny animal is actually the smallest hyena, but its fearsome carnivorous tendencies are limited to lapping up soft-bodied termites.

Spotted Hyena

Weight 40-90kg; length 125-215cm Living in packs ruled by females that grow penis-like sexual organs, these savage fighters use their bone-crushing jaws to disembowel terrified prey on the run, or to do battle with lions.

Hunting (Wild) Dog

Weight 20-35kg; length 100-150cm Fabulously and uniquely patterned, hunting dogs run in packs of 20 to 60 that ruthlessly chase down antelopes and other animals. Organised in complex hierarchies maintained by rules of conduct, these highly social canids are incredibly efficient hunters.

Meerkat

Weight 0.5-1kg; length 50cm South Africa's nine species of mongoose may be best represented by the delightfully named meerkat. Energetic and highly social, meerkats spend much of their time standing up with looks of perpetual surprise.

Birds of Prey

South Africa is home to about 60 species of hawks, eagles, vultures and owls. Look for them perching on trees, soaring high overhead or gathered around a carcass. Your first clue to their presence, however, may be the scolding cries of small birds harassing one of these feared hunters.

African Fish Eagle

Length 75cm Given its name, it's not surprising that you'll see the African fish eagle hunting for fish around water. It is most familiar for the loud ringing vocalisations that have become known as 'the voice of Africa'.

Bateleur

Length 60cm The bateleur is an attractive serpent eagle. In flight, look for this eagle's white wings and odd tailless appearance; close up, look for the bold colour pattern and scarlet face.

Bearded Vulture

Length 110cm Around the soaring cliffs of the Drakensberg, you may be lucky to spot one of the world's most eagerly sought-after birds of prey – the massive bearded vulture, also known as the lammergeier.

Secretary Bird

Length 100cm In a country full of unique birds, the secretary bird literally stands head and shoulders above the masses. With the body of an eagle and the legs of a crane, this idiosyncratic, grey-bodied raptor is commonly seen striding across the savannah.

Lappet-Faced Vulture

Length 115cm Seven of South Africa's eight vulture species can be seen mingling with lions, hyenas and jackals around carcasses. Here, through sheer numbers, they often compete successfully for scraps of flesh and bone. The monstrous lappet-faced vulture, a giant among its cohorts, gets its fill before the other vultures move in.

Other Birds

Come to South Africa prepared to see an astounding number of birds in every shape and colour imaginable. If you're not already paying attention to every bird you see, you may find them an energising and pleasant diversion after a couple of days staring at impala and snoring lions.

Lesser Flamingo

Length 100cm Coloured deep rose-pink and gathering by the thousands on salt lakes, the lesser flamingo creates some of the most dramatic wildlife spectacles in Africa, especially when they all fly at once or perform synchronised courtship displays.

Ground Hornbill

Length 90cm Looking somewhat like a turkey, the ground hornbill spends its time on the ground stalking insects, frogs, reptiles and small mammals, which it kills with fierce stabs of its large powerful bill.

Lilac-Breasted Roller

Length 40cm Nearly everyone on safari gets to know the gorgeously coloured lilac-breasted roller. Related to kingfishers, rollers get their name from the tendency to 'roll' from side to side in flight to show off their iridescent blues, purples and greens.

Ostrich

Length 200-270cm If you think the ostrich looks prehistoric, you aren't far off. Weighing upwards of 130kg, these ancient flightless birds escape predators by running away at 70km/h or lying flat on the ground.

African Penguin

Length 60cm Yes, they are silly looking, but African penguins get their nickname, the 'jackass penguin', for their donkey-like calls, part of the ecstatic courtship displays given by the males. Found along the coast and on offshore islands, some penguin colonies are ridiculously tame.

Habitats

Nearly all of South Africa's wildlife occupies a specific type of habitat, and you will hear rangers and fellow travellers refer to these habitats repeatedly. Your wildlife-viewing experience will be greatly enhanced if you learn how to recognise these habitats, and the animals you might expect in each one.

Savannah & Grassland

Savannah is the classic African landscape, with broad, rolling grasslands dotted with acacia trees, and best known in East Africa. Known as bushveld in South Africa, this open landscape is home to large herds of zebra and antelope, in addition to fast-sprinting predators such as cheetahs. Grasslands lack woody plants, and on the central plateau they are known as highveld.

Fynbos

The dense, low shrub cover that can be found around Cape Town is so utterly unique that it is considered one of the six major plant biomes in the world. Of the 7500-plus plant species found here, around 80% occur nowhere else in the world. Many of the plants are unsuitable for grazing animals, but this is a region of remarkable insect and bird diversity.

Semiarid Desert

Much of western South Africa sees so little rain that shrubs and hardy grasses are the dominant vegetation. The Karoo and Kalahari semideserts comprise a huge portion of South Africa, which merges with true desert in Namibia. Lack of water keeps larger animals such as zebras and antelopes close to water holes, but when it rains this habitat explodes with plant and animal life. During the dry season, many plants shed their leaves to conserve water.

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

Cape Peninsula

Park/Reserve

Table Mountain National Park

Features

rocky headlands, seascapes; African penguins, elands, water birds, bonteboks

Activities

hiking, mountain biking

Best time to visit

year-round

Western Cape

Park/Reserve

Cederberg Wilderness Area

Features

mountainous and rugged terrain; San rock art, sandstone formations, plant life

Activities

hiking, climbing

Best time to visit

Mar-Oct

Mpumalanga/Limpopo

Park/Reserve

Kruger National Park

Features

savannah, woodlands, thornveld; the 'Big Five' animals

Activities

vehicle safaris, wildlife walks

Best time to visit

year-round

Mpumalanga

Park/Reserve

Blyde River Canyon Nature Reserve

Features

canyon, caves, river; stunning vistas

Activities

hiking, kloofing (canyoning), scenic drives

Best time to visit

year-round

Northern Cape

Park/Reserve

Augrabies Falls National Park

Features

desert, river, waterfalls; klipspringers, rock dassies; striking scenery

Activities

hiking, canoeing, rafting

Best time to visit

Apr-Sep

Northern Cape

Park/Reserve

|Ai-|Ais/Richtersveld Transfrontier Park

Features

mountainous desert, haunting beauty; klipspringers, jackals, zebras, plants, birds

Activities

hiking, 4WD adventures

Best time to visit

Apr-Sep

Eastern Cape

Park/Reserve

Addo Elephant National Park

Features

dense bush, grasslands, forested kloofs; elephants, black rhinos, buffaloes

Activities

vehicle safaris, walking trails, horse riding

Best time to visit

year-round

Eastern Cape

Park/Reserve

Garden Route National Park (Tsitsikamma section)

Features

coast, cliffs, rivers, ravines, forests; Cape clawless otters, baboons, monkeys, birdlife

Activities

hiking

Best time to visit

year-round

KwaZulu-Natal

Park/Reserve

Hluhluwe-iMfolozi Park

Features

lush, subtropical vegetation, savannah; rhinos, giraffes, lions, elephants, birds

Activities

wilderness walks, wildlife watching

Best time to visit

May-Oct

KwaZulu-Natal

Park/Reserve

iSimangaliso Wetland Park

Features

wetlands, coastal grasslands; elephants, birds, hippos, crocodiles

Activities

wilderness walks, vehicle/boat safaris

Best time to visit

Mar-Nov

KwaZulu-Natal

Park/Reserve

uMkhuze Game Reserve

Features

savannah, woodlands, swamp; rhinos and almost everything else; hundreds of bird species

Activities

guided walks, bird walks, vehicle safaris

Best time to visit

year-round

KwaZulu-Natal

Park/Reserve

uKhahlamba-Drakensberg Park

Features

awe-inspiring Drakensberg Escarpment; fantastic scenery and wilderness areas

Activities

hiking

Best time to visit

year-round

Free State

Park/Reserve

Golden Gate Highlands National Park

Features

spectacular sandstone cliffs and outcrops; zebras, oribis, rheboks, elands, birds

Activities

hiking

Best time to visit

year-round

Sidebar: Unesco World Heritage Sites

  • iSimangaliso Wetland Park (KwaZulu-Natal)
  • Robben Island (Cape Town)
  • uKhahlamba-Drakensberg Park (KwaZulu-Natal)
  • Cradle of Humankind (Gauteng)
  • Mapungubwe cultural landscape (Limpopo)
  • Cape Floral Kingdom (Western Cape)
  • Vredefort Dome (Free State)
  • Richtersveld cultural and botanical landscape (Northern Cape)

Sidebar: Safari Guides

If you plan on wildlife watching without a guide, it's worth taking a specialist guidebook. Possibilities include Chris and Tilde Stuart's field guides, including Mammals of Southern Africa and Tracks and Signs of Southern and East African Wildlife, or Richard Estes' The Safari Companion: A Guide to Watching African Mammals.

Sidebar: Birding Guides

  • Birds of Southern Africa by Ber van Perlo
  • Newman’s Birds of Southern Africa by Kenneth Newman
  • Birds of Southern Africa by Ian Sinclair et al

Sidebar: SA Size

South Africa measures around 1,219,090 sq km, or five times the size of the UK. It’s Africa’s ninth-largest and fifth-most-populous country.

Sidebar: White Rhino

Rhinos aren’t named for their colour, but for their lip shape: ‘white’ comes from wijde (wide), the Boers’ term for the fatter-lipped white rhino.

Sidebar: eBirds of Southern Africa

Sasol eBirds of Southern Africa features images, distribution maps and descriptions of birds. This great app is essentially a digital version of the Sasol field guidebook. Compare birds, store a list of sightings and verify an identity by matching it to one of 630 recorded bird calls.

Sidebar: Wildlife & Environmental Society of South Africa

The Wildlife & Environmental Society of South Africa (www.wessa.org.za) is a leading environmental advocacy organisation that runs the high-profile Rhino Initiative to stop the illegal trade in rhino horn.

Sidebar: Scorched: South Africa’s Changing Climate

Scorched: South Africa’s Changing Climate by Leonie Joubert is a thought-provoking journey through South Africa. It transforms climate change and other environmental issues from dry discourse into sobering, near-at-hand realities.

Sidebar: Endangered Mammals

Endangered mammals include black rhinos (sometimes spotted in KwaZulu-Natal's uMkhuze Game Reserve and Hluhluwe-iMfolozi Park), riverine rabbits (found only near rivers in the central Karoo), wild dogs (Hluhluwe-iMfolozi Park and Kruger National Park) and roan antelope (Kruger National Park).

Sidebar: Endangered Birds

Endangered or threatened bird species include the African penguin, wattled crane, Cape vulture and blue swallow. For more on birdwatching and conservation in South Africa, visit www.birdlife.org.za.

Sidebar: Ocean Currents

Two major ocean currents shape South Africa's climate and provide for rich marine life. The chilly Benguela current surges up from Antarctica along the country's Atlantic Coast and is laden with plankton. The north-to-south Mozambique/Agulhas current gives the east coast its warmer waters.

Sidebar: Biosphere Reserves

Unesco has designated several areas of South Africa as biosphere reserves – places where local communities and governments pledge to collaborate to promote ecologically sustainable development and conservation. Biospheres are found in areas including the Western Cape's Winelands and Kogelberg as well as Limpopo's Waterberg.

Sidebar: Day Zero

Cape Town's dams are almost empty, with accusations of mismanagement flying as the drought continues. Water restrictions force residents to bathe together and hoard grey water for irrigation, as daily usage was limited to 50L per person by early 2018. Day Zero, when the taps run dry, is expected in 2018.