The quick guide to South Africa
What languages do South Africans speak? Is South Africa a democracy? Are there big cities with modern amenities? Are the roads tarred? How far will my money go? … You've got three minutes to spare? Here's the lowdown on why South Africa's going to surprise you.
Welcome to the southern tip of Africa. Here, two great oceans meet, warm weather lasts most of the year, and big game roams just beyond the city lights.
This is where humanity began: our ancestors' traces are still evident in fossilised footprints 80 000 years old, and in the world's oldest rock paintings.
Today, South Africa is the powerhouse of Africa, the most advanced, broad-based economy on the continent, with infrastructure to match any first-world country.
You can drive on wide, tarred highways all 2 000 kilometres from Musina at the very top of the country to Cape Town at the bottom. Or join the millions of international travellers who disembark at our airports every year.
About two-thirds of Africa's electricity is generated here. Around 40% percent of the continent's phones are here. Over half the world's platinum and 10% of its gold is mined here. And almost everyone who visits is astonished at how far a dollar, euro or pound will stretch. Welcome to the Republic of South Africa.
Who lives in South Africa?
South Africa is a nation of 51.77-million people of diverse origins, cultures, languages and beliefs. Around 79% are black (or African), 8.9% "coloured" – the local label for people of mixed African, Asian and white descent – 8.9% white, and 2.5% Indian or Asian. Around 280 000 people classified themselves as "other" in the census undertaken in 2011.
The majority of South Africans are Christian, the largest church being the indigenous Zion Christian Church, followed by the Dutch Reformed and Catholic churches. Many churches combine Christian and traditional African beliefs, and many non-Christians espouse these traditional beliefs. Other significant religions – though with much smaller followings – are Islam, Hinduism and Judaism.
What languages do people speak?
There are 11 officially recognised languages, most of them indigenous to South Africa. Just under 40% of the population speak either isiZulu or isiXhosa. You don't speak either? If your English is passable, don't worry. Everywhere you go, you can expect to find people who speak or understand English.
English is the language of the cities, of commerce and banking, of government, of road signs and official documents. Road signs and official forms are in English. The President makes his speeches in English. At any hotel, the receptionists, waiters and porters will speak English.
Another major language is Afrikaans, a derivative of Dutch, which northern Europeans will find surprisingly easy to follow.
Is South Africa a democracy?
South Africa is a vigorous multiparty democracy with an independent judiciary and a free and diverse press. One of the world's youngest – and most progressive – constitutions protects both citizens and visitors. You won't be locked up for shouting out your opinions, however contrary.
What about apartheid?
Up until 1994, South Africa was known for apartheid, or white-minority rule. The country's remarkable ability to put centuries of racial hatred behind it in favour of reconciliation was widely considered a social miracle, inspiring similar peace efforts in places such as Northern Ireland and Rwanda. Post-apartheid South Africa has a government comprising all races, and is often referred to as the rainbow nation, a phrase coined by Nobel Peace Prize winner Desmond Tutu.
Is foreign business welcome?
The "open for business" signs are up. The country offers an investor-friendly environment in which 100% foreign ownership is allowed. Repatriation of profits is liberal. The exchange rate is favourable. And if you're doing businesses anywhere in Africa, this is the gateway to the continent.
What's the weather like?
Summery, without being sweltering. In Johannesburg, the country's commercial capital, the weather is mild all year round, but can get cool at night. Durban, the biggest port, is hot and sometimes humid, a beach paradise. And in Cape Town, where travellers flock to admire one of the world's most spectacular settings, the weather is usually warm, though temperamental. If you're visiting from the northern hemisphere, just remember: when it's winter over there, it's summer over here. Bring sunglasses and sunscreen; leave the raincoat at home.
Is it a big country?
To a European, yes. The country straddles 1.2-million square kilometres, as big as several European countries put together. To an American, maybe not – it's an eighth the size of the US. Still, it's more than a day's drive down the highway from Johannesburg in the north to Cape Town in the south (if you're driving sensibly), with the topography ranging across the spectrum from lush green valleys to semi-desert.
How is it divided up?
South Africa has nine provinces. Gauteng, the smallest and most densely populated, adjoins Limpopo, North West and Mpumalanga in the north. The Northern Cape, the largest province with the smallest population, is in the west. The Free State is in the middle of the country. And the coastal provinces of KwaZulu-Natal, the Eastern Cape and the Western Cape lie to the south.
Are there big cities with modern amenities?
There's more to Africa than lions. Johannesburg, a city of skyscrapers, sprawls wider than London or New York. The lights work, the water flows, there are multi-lane highways and – unfortunately – traffic jams. You can book into a Hilton or a Hyatt or a Holiday Inn and eat at cosmopolitan restaurants serving anything from sushi to burgers to crocodile steaks. Or you can lie back on a couch and choose from five analogue and over 50 digital TV channels.
What are the big cities?
South Africa has two capitals. Cape Town, the oldest city, is the legislative capital, where Parliament sits. Pretoria, 1 500 kilometres to the north, is the executive capital, where the government administration is housed. Next door to Pretoria, and close enough that the outer suburbs merge, is the commercial centre of Johannesburg, once the world's greatest gold mining centre, now increasingly dominated by modern financial and service sectors. The second-biggest city is Durban, a fast-growing port on the eastern coast, and the supply route for most goods to the interior.
How do I get to South Africa?
By air – unless you have a boat or rugged overland vehicle. More than 70 airlines and more than 23-million passengers a year move through South Africa's 10 principal airports, including the three major international airports in Johannesburg, Cape Town and Durban.
You say the roads are tarred?
Yes, even in the smallest towns. The major centres are connected by more than 16 000 kilometres of tarred and regularly maintained national roads, including thousands of kilometres of dual carriageway. The national railway has about 30 000 kilometres of rail track connecting the smallest hamlets.
I'll be able to phone home?
That, and more. With a network that is 99% digital and includes the latest in fixed-line, wireless and satellite communication, South Africa has the most developed telecommunications network in Africa. Almost 13-million South Africans own mobile phones, many using them to access the Internet. Increased capacity and more stable connections, largely as a result of undersea cables, as well as more competitive pricing are helping to grow the South African internet market.
Are there modern banks?
South Africa has a world-class, sophisticated financial sector, abreast of all the latest technological trends. From the moment you step off the plane you'll start seeing banks, bureaux de change and automatic tellers (ATMs) all over. All major credit cards can be used in South Africa, with American Express and Diners Club enjoying less universal acceptance than MasterCard and Visa. Foreign banks are well represented, and you can bank by ATM or internet.
How far will my money go?
With a favourable exchange rate for many international currencies, you'll find South Africa a very inexpensive destination. South Africa's unit of currency is the rand, which is divided into 100 cents. Coins come in denominations of 5c, 10c, 20c, 50c, R1, R2 and R5, and notes in denominations of R10, R20, R50, R100 and R200.
Can I drink the water?
High-quality tap (faucet) water is available in South Africa's urban areas, but not all water in rural areas is safe to drink straight from the tap.
In some areas, the water is mineral-rich, and you may experience a bit of gastric distress for a day or two until you get used to it. Bottled mineral water, both sparkling and still, is readily available in most places.
Is it safe to walk around?
Like anywhere, yes – provided you don't go wandering about deserted streets at the dead of night. Yes, there is crime in South Africa. But you don't need to do more than take the usual sensible precautions. Know where you're going before you set off, particularly at night. Don't walk alone or display valuable possessions carelessly in public. Lock the doors at night. And, like anywhere else in the world, know that there are some areas of the major cities where outsiders present a more vulnerable target. It is easy to avoid these areas without lessening your enjoyment of a country and a people who are, with a few exceptions, remarkably warm and welcoming.
Is it true that there are robots on the street corners?
Yes, there are. In South Africa, traffic lights are known as robots, although no one knows why. A pick-up truck is a bakkie, sneakers are takkies, a barbeque is a braai, an insect is a gogga and an alcoholic drink is a dop.
Will I get to see wild animals?
You won't have to go far to do so. An hour's drive from such urban jungles as Pretoria and Johannesburg, you can see lions, elephants, buffalo and hundreds more species in their natural environments.
One of the world's first wildlife conservation areas was South Africa's Kruger Park, more than a century old. Today it is part of a single broad conservation area that spans private and public game parks and stretches across national borders into neighbouring Mozambique and Zimbabwe.
There are other reasons for visiting South Africa too: golden beaches, some of the world's best surf, spectacular scenery ranging from mountains to deserts, eco-systems found nowhere else in the world, an opportunity to experience African culture first-hand – and one of the least expensive holiday destinations you'll find.
Reviewed: 12 November 2012
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