South Africa's geography
South Africa occupies the southern tip of Africa, its long coastline stretching more
than 2 500km from the desert border with Namibia on the Atlantic coast,
southwards around the tip of Africa, then north to the border with subtropical
Mozambique on the Indian Ocean.
The low-lying coastal zone is narrow for much of that distance, soon giving way to a
mountainous escarpment that separates it from the high inland plateau. In some
places, notably the province of KwaZulu-Natal in the east, a greater distance separates
the coast from the escarpment.
Size and provinces
South Africa is a medium-sized country, with a total land area of slightly more than
1.2-million square kilometres, making it roughly the same size as Niger, Angola, Mali,
It is one-eighth the size of the US, twice the size of France, and over three times
the size of Germany. South Africa measures about 1 600km from north to south,
and roughly the same from
east to west.
Map: Mary Alexander, MediaClubSouthAfrica.com
The country has nine provinces, which vary considerably in size. The smallest is
tiny and crowded Gauteng, a highly urbanised region, and the largest the vast, arid and
empty Northern Cape, which takes up almost a third of South Africa's total land area.
On dry land, going from west to east, South Africa shares long borders with
Namibia and Botswana, touches Zimbabwe, has a longitudinal strip of border with
Mozambique to the east, and lastly curves in around Swaziland before rejoining
Mozambique's southern border.
In the interior, nestled in the curve of the
bean-shaped Free State, is the small
mountainous country of Lesotho, completely surrounded by South African territory.
South Africa has three capitals:
Cape Town, in the Western Cape, is the legislative capital and is where the
country's Parliament is found.
Bloemfontein, in the Free State, is the judicial capital, and home to the
Supreme Court of Appeal.
Pretoria, in Gauteng, is the administrative capital, and the ultimate capital
of the country. It is home to the Union Buildings and a large proportion of the public
The largest and most important city is Johannesburg, the economic heartland of
the country. Other important centres include Durban and Pietermaritzburg in KwaZulu-
Natal, and Port Elizabeth in the Eastern Cape.
Climate and topography
Although the country is classified as semi-arid, South Africa has considerable
variation in climate as
well as topography.
The great inland Karoo plateau, where rocky hills and mountains rise from sparsely
populated scrubland, is very dry, and gets more so as it shades in the north-west
towards the Kalahari desert. Extremely hot in summer, it can be icy in winter.
Habitat types: South Africa has eight major terrestrial biomes, or
habitat types – broad ecological life zones with distinct environmental conditions and
related sets of plant and animal life. See South
Africa's plant life
In contrast, the eastern coastline is lush and well watered, a stranger to frost. The
southern coast, part of which is known as the Garden Route, is rather less tropical but
also green, as is the Cape of Good Hope – the latter especially in winter.
corner of the country has a Mediterranean climate, with wet
winters and hot, dry summers. Its most famous climatic characteristic is its wind, which
blows intermittently virtually all year round, either from the south-east or the north-
The eastern section of the Karoo does not extend as far north as the western part,
giving way to the flat landscape of the Free State, which though still semi-arid receives
somewhat more rain.
North of the Vaal River, the Highveld is better watered, and saved by its altitude
(Johannesburg lies at 1 740m; its average annual rainfall is 760mm) from
subtropical extremes of heat. Winters are cold, though snow is rare.
Further north and to the east, especially where a drop in altitude beyond the
escarpment gives the Lowveld its name, temperatures rise: the Tropic of Capricorn
slices through the extreme north. This is also where one finds the typical South African
Bushveld of wildlife fame.
for an opportunity to ski in winter head for the high Drakensberg
mountains that form South Africa's eastern escarpment, but one of the coldest places in
the country is Sutherland, in the western Roggeveld Mountains, with midwinter
temperatures as low as -15ºC.
The deep interior provides the hottest temperatures. According to the South African
Weather Service, the highest temperature recorded in South Africa was in Dunbrody, in
the Sunday River Valley in the Eastern Cape: 50ºC on 3 November 1918. The hottest
place in South Africa is Letaba (Limpopo Province) with a mean annual temperature of
23.3ºC and an average annual maximum temperature of 35ºC.
The coldest temperature ever recorded in South Africa was on 28 June 1996 at
Buffelsfontein, near Molteno in the Eastern Cape: -18.6ºC. In fact, Buffelsfontein is the
coldest place in South Africa, with a mean annual temperature of 11.3ºC and an
average annual minimum temperature of
Oceans and rivers
By far South Africa's biggest neighbour is the ocean – or two oceans, which meet at
the southwestern corner. Its territory includes Marion and Prince Edward Islands, nearly
2 000km from Cape Town in the Atlantic Ocean.
The cold Benguela current sweeps up from the Antarctic along the Atlantic coast,
laden with plankton and providing rich fishing grounds. The east coast has the north-to-
south Mozambique/Agulhas current to thank for its warm waters.
These two currents have a major effect on the country's climate, the ready
evaporation of the eastern seas providing generous rainfall while the Benguela current
retains its moisture to cause desert conditions in the west.
Several small rivers run into the sea along the coastline, but none are navigable
and none provide useful natural harbours. The coastline itself, being fairly smooth,
provides only one good natural harbour, at Saldanha Bay north of Cape Town. A lack of
fresh water prevented major development here.
Nevertheless, busy harbours exist at Richards Bay and Durban in KwaZulu-Natal,
East London and Port Elizabeth in the Eastern Cape, and Mossel Bay and Cape Town in
the Western Cape. The newest commercial port, the Port of Ngqura, is off the coast
from Port Elizabeth and has the deepest container terminal in sub-Saharan Africa.
There are only two major rivers in South Africa: the Limpopo, a stretch of which is
shared with Zimbabwe; and the Orange (with its tributary, the Vaal), which runs with a
variable flow across the central landscape from east to west, emptying into the
Ocean at the Namibian border.
In so dry a country, dams and irrigation are extremely important. The largest dam
is the Gariep on the Orange River.
SAinfo reporter and MediaClubSouthAfrica.com
Reviewed: 28 June 2012