About South Africa – Quick Facts & A Brief History

As South African expats in the US, we have found that many Americans don’t know very much about South Africa. To help people get a better understanding of South Africa, here is a quick overview…

Quick Facts About South Africa

  • location of south africa in africaSouth Africa is a country situated at the southern tip of the continent Africa. (It’s surprising how many people don’t know this.)
  • It is almost twice (1.75 times) as big as Texas.
  • It has a population of about 52 million people.
  • South Africa’s currency is the Rand.
  • The Atlantic ocean is on the west coast and the Indian ocean is on the east coast and south coast. The two oceans meet at Cape Town.
  • South Africa’s neighbors are Namibia, Botswana, Zimbabwe, Mozambique, Swaziland, and Lesotho.
  • The Limpopo river forms a big part of South Africa’s northern border.

A Brief History

The earliest history of South Africa is not well-documented. The earliest people living in South Africa were the Khoi and San. While there seems to be some dispute over exactly when the first Blacks moved across the Limpopo river into modern-day South Africa, some sources put it at around the 1500s – 1600s. The first Europeans to set foot in South Africa were Portuguese sailors in 1488.

The written history of South Africa began in 1652 when the Dutch landed on April 6 at what is Cape Town today. The Suez Canal did not exist in those days and the only route from Europe to the East was around the southern tip of Africa. Due to the length of the voyage, sailors would get sick due to the lack of fresh food and water onboard the ships. The purpose of the Dutch arrival was to build a settlement that could resupply these ships with fresh water and food about mid-way through their long voyage.

The Dutch settlement expanded to the east until the settlers met with the westerly-expanding Xhosa people. This resulted in a series of wars between the Dutch and Xhosa.

In the early 1800s, Great Britain seized the Cape Colony from the Dutch and continued the wars against the Xhosa. Many of the Dutch colonists wouldn’t accept British rule and moved to the north to where Johannesburg is today, as well as to the northeast to where the province known as Kwazulu-Natal is today. This was known as the Great Trek.

The discovery of gold and diamonds in the mid-1800s near Johannesburg led to further expansion by the British. This resulted in two wars with the Dutch colonists who moved to the north. These wars were known as the Anglo-Boer wars. The Boers (Dutch) won the first war but were defeated in the second war after the British implemented a “scorched earth” campaign and placed Boer women and children in concentration camps. The defeat of the Boers led to the formation of the Union of South Africa in 1910 as a self-governing state of the British Empire.

In 1948, the government began implementing a series of segregationist laws that later became known as apartheid (“separateness”). Apartheid was simply meant to be a system of separate development of South Africa’s diverse racial groups, each developing within their own group. It was the implementation and enforcement of Apartheid that produced problems.

In 1961 the Union of South Africa gained independence from Britain and became the Republic of South Africa.

Apartheid had a negative impact on South African society in many ways. It became increasingly controversial and eventually led to international sanctions and massive unrest amongst South Africa’s people. Although some of the unrest was coerced (people were forced to participate under the threat of violence), it still had the effect of destabilizing the country.

This eventually led to the country’s first multi-racial elections in 1994. The African National Congress (ANC) won the election overwhelmingly and Nelson Mandela became South Africa’s first Black president.

(This is an extremely brief overview of South Africa’s history. If you are interested in the subject, you may want to read some of several books published on the subject.)


According to a census in 2011, South Africa’s population of approximately 52 million (45 million in 2000) people is made up of 79% Blacks (75% in 2000), 9% Whites (14% in 2000), 9% Coloureds (9% in 2000), and 3% Asians (3% in 2000).

The Black population consists of Zulu, Xhosa, Basotho, Bapedi, Venda, Tswana, Tsonga, Swazi, and Ndebele. Whites descend mostly from Dutch, German, French, and British immigrants. The Coloured people are a mixed race descending mostly from the indigenous Khoisan, Blacks, Whites, Malay, and Indian. The Asian population are mostly Indian and some Chinese.

As a result of this diverse population, South Africa has 11 official languages. They are Afrikaans, English, Ndebele, Northern Sotho, Southern Sotho, Swati, Tsonga, Tswana, Venda, Xhosa, and Zulu.


South Africa’s economy is the strongest in Africa and its GDP represents about 30% of the GDP of entire Africa.

The country has an abundant supply of natural resources and well-developed financial, legal, communications, energy, and transport sectors.

South Africa’s currency, the Rand, is the world’s most actively traded emerging market currency, and from 2002 to 2005 it was the best performing currency against the US Dollar.



South Africa has one of the highest HIV/AIDS infection rates in the world, with 20% of adults being HIV positive. The South African government’s response to this problem has been slow. In 2000 South Africa’s President (Thabo Mbeki) questioned whether HIV caused AIDS and suggested instead that poverty caused AIDS!

It is projected that AIDS will have a devastating impact on the South African economy and society unless urgent action is taken.

Here’s a Wikipedia article about AIDS in South Africa if you’d like to know more.


Unfortunately, South Africa also has one of the highest crime rates in the world, with murder and carjackings being rife. In particular, violent crime with an element of vindictiveness (house robberies with victims being raped or otherwise tortured and often killed afterward) has reared its ugly head in recent years.

The South African government has been reluctant to acknowledge and address the problem. In 2006 the South African Safety and Security Minister (Charles Nqakula) suggested to those who didn’t like the crime, to leave South Africa.

Here’s a Wikipedia article discussing crime in South Africa if you’d like to know more.


South Africa is a popular tourist destination due to its spectacular coastline and many well-developed nature parks.

Some of the most popular attractions include Cape Town and the surrounding area, including Table Mountain and the Western Cape wine region, the south coast, and the game parks, like the Kruger Park, Shamwari, and many more.

South Africa attracts many big game hunters every year. Many travel agencies specialize in putting together safari packages for tourists.

An airline flight from Europe takes approximately 10 – 12 hours, and a flight from the U.S. directly to Johannesburg takes approximately 18 hours. South Africa is serviced by several major airlines, like South African Airways, Delta Airlines, British Airways, Virgin Atlantic, and Air France.

Brain Drain

South Africa has experienced a significant brain drain, the emigration of highly-skilled people, over recent years. Although those leaving South Africa are from all racial groups, the overwhelming majority have been Whites.

The major reasons given by emigrants for leaving South Africa are crime (discussed earlier) and affirmative action (called “BEE” or “Black Economic Empowerment”), which has made it tough for Whites to find work or be promoted. In recent times, fears about collapsing infrastructure, like the Eskom electricity crisis in early 2008, has played a role as well.

South African emigrants typically go to the US, Canada, the UK, Australia, and New Zealand, with a smaller number going to Europe and some going to the UAE.

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  • The two oceans do not meet in Cape Town, they meet at Cape Agulhas, which is the southern most point of Africa.

    • Thanks, Inge. During a recent trip to South Africa, which included visits to Cape Point and Cape Agulhas, I’ve discovered that to be true. The official meeting point of the two oceans is indeed Cape Agulhas. That said, at Cape Point there was a sign that said the marine life of the two oceans start to blend at Cape Point, hence it being the “unofficial meeting place” of the two oceans.

  • Hi. You might have mentioned that Apartheid was implemented by whites, enforced by whites, and that the limited voting rights some people of colour possessed were removed by the Afrikaner white majority from 1948. THAT essentially is what caused “unrest” – more correctly described as a struggle for political liberation by a dispossessed people.

    • Tony, yes, I could’ve written more about the ugliness of Apartheid. But then I could also have written more about the ugliness of the Anglo-Boer wars. As I said at the end of that section, “This is an extremely brief overview of South Africa’s history. If you are interested in the subject, you may want to read some of several books published on the subject.”

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