In South Africa, one finds the world's strangest and most dramatic landscapes, a unique wealth of animal and plant life, a treasure of gold, diamonds and other minerals, and a kaleidoscope of fascinating cultures.
Nature's tools of creation, the wind, sun, ice and rain, have worked a special magic. There are extremes of deserts, savannas, snow-covered mountains, grasslands, high forests and tropical mangrove swamps. Within these climatic zones, Earth's most diverse plant population flourishes. South Africa is also the home of big game, and hosts birds as varied as the vast range of habitats and foods that nature has prepared for them.
It is the variety of South Africa's fascinating and diverse peoples that is its greatest asset. South Africa is often called the cradle of civilization, for this is where archaeologists discovered 2.5 million-year-old fossils of our earliest ancestors, as well as 100 000-year-old remains of modern man.
Although South Africans come from many cultural traditions, they belong to one nation, a dynamic blend of age-old customs and modern ways, building a new South African society to create a better life for all.
The South African population consists of the following groups: the Nguni people (including the Zulu, Xhosa and Swazi), who account for two-thirds of the population; the Sotho-Tswana people, who include the Southern, Northern and Western Sotho (Tswana); the Tsonga; the Venda; Afrikaners; English; coloureds; Indians, and people who have immigrated to South Africa from the rest of Africa, Europe and Asia and who maintain a strong cultural identity. A few members of the Khoi and the San also live in South Africa.
Recognising the historically diminished use and status of the indigenous languages, the Constitution expects the Government to take positive measures to elevate the status and advance the use of these languages. According to the Census '96 figures, isiZulu is the mother tongue of 22,9% of the population, followed by isiXhosa (17,9%), Afrikaans (14,4%), Sepedi (9,2%) and English (8,6%).
Its surface area is 1 219 090 km2. It has common boundaries with the republics of Namibia, Botswana and Zimbabwe, while the Republic of Mozambique and the Kingdom of Swaziland lie to the north-east. Completely enclosed by South African territory in the south-east is the mountain kingdom of Lesotho.
To the west, south and east, South Africa borders on the Atlantic and Indian oceans. Isolated, 1 920 km southeast of Cape Town in the Atlantic, lie Prince Edward and Marion islands, annexed by South Africa in 1947.
The contrast in temperature between these two currents partly accounts for important differences in climate and vegetation between the east and west coasts of South Africa. It also causes big differences in marine life. The cold waters of the west coast are much richer in oxygen, nitrates, phosphates and plankton than those of the east coast. Consequently, the South African fishing industry is centred on the west coast.
Most river mouths are unsuitable for use as harbours because large sand bars block entry for most of the year. These bars are formed by the action of waves and currents, and by the intermittent flow, heavy sediment load and steep gradients of most South African rivers. Only the largest rivers, such as the Orange and Limpopo, maintain narrow permanent channels through the bars. For much the same reasons, the country has no navigable rivers.
Inland from the Escarpment lies the interior plateau, which is the southern continuation of the great African plateau stretching north to the Sahara Desert.
The plateau itself is characterised by wide plains with an average height of 1 200 m above sea level.
Surmounting the plateau in places are a number of well-defined upland blocks. The dissected Lesotho plateau, which is more than 3 000 m above sea level, is the most prominent. In general, the Escarpment forms the highest parts of the plateau.
Between the Great Escarpment and the coast lies an area which varies in width from 80 to 240 km in the east and south to a mere 60 to 80 km in the west. At least three major subdivisions can be recognised: the eastern plateau slopes, the Cape folded belt and adjacent regions, and the western plateau slopes.
The country also falls squarely within the subtropical belt of high pressure, making it dry, with an abundance of sunshine.
The wide expanses of ocean on three sides of South Africa have a moderating influence on its climate. More apparent, however, are the effects of the warm Agulhas and cold Benguela currents along the east and west coasts respectively. While Durban (east coast) and Port Nolloth (west coast) lie more or less on the same latitude, there is a difference of at least 6?C in their mean annual temperatures.
Gale-force winds are frequent on the coasts, especially in the south-western and southern coastal areas.
In Cape Town, the capital city of the Western Cape, the average rainfall is highest in the winter months, while in the capital cities of the other eight provinces, the average rainfall is highest during summer.
South Africa's rainfall is unreliable and unpredictable. Large fluctuations in the average annual figure are the rule rather than the exception in most areas of the country. Years when a below-average figure is recorded are more common than years with an above-average total. South Africa is periodically afflicted by drastic and prolonged droughts, which often end in severe floods.
Secondly, despite a latitudinal span of 13 degrees, average annual temperatures are remarkably uniform throughout the country. Owing to the increase in the height of the plateau towards the northeast, there is hardly any increase in temperature from south to north as might be expected.
The third feature is the striking contrast between temperatures on the east and west coasts. Temperatures above 32°C are fairly common in summer, and frequently exceed 38°C in the lower Orange River valley and the Mpumalanga Lowveld.
Frost, humidity and fog
In certain areas, however, notably the hot, humid KwaZulu-Natal coast, Mpumalanga and the Northern Province, June and July are the ideal holiday months.
Religion: Religious groups in South Africa
Freedom of worship is guaranteed by the Constitution, and official policy is one of noninterference in religious practices.