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Country of the Week: South Africa

In Countries by Continental StaffLeave a Comment

We’ve been to every continent save one with our Country of the Week posts. To rectify that, we’ve made the long journey to Africa, specifically South Africa. Officially the Republic of South Africa (RSA), this country has overcome a troubled history and today stands united as an active member of the international community.

  • Capital: Pretoria (executive), Bloemfontein (judicial), Cape Town (legislative)
  • Largest City: Johannesburg
  • Population (2014): 54,002,000 (24th)
  • Total Area: 1,221,037 km2 (25th)
  • Official Languages: Afrikaans, Northern Sotho, English, Southern Ndebele, Southern Sotho, Swazi, Tsonga, Tswana, Venda, Xhosa, Zulu
  • Currency: South African rand (R) (ZAR)
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An aerial shot of the city of Cape Town

History

Before Europeans ever made their way to South Africa, the dominant group were the Bantu-speaking peoples. From the fourth or fifth century AD onwards, the Bantu peoples slowly made their way into the region from other parts of Africa. Many existing tribes were either assimilated or destroyed.

This would begin to change in 1487 when Bartolomeu Dias (a Portuguese explorer) landed in what is now Namibia. After sailing around the southern point of Africa without spotting it, he eventually saw the cape on his return. His king, John II, called it the Cape of Good Hope – a gateway to the prosperous East Indies.

Over 150 years later, European colonization began in earnest. The Dutch East India Company established a settlement (which would become the city of Cape Town) to act as a stop for merchant vessels. The British seized the Cape in 1795 with the view of using it as a rest-point between Britain and its colonies in the east (India and Australia). The following decades were characterized by violent struggles against the indigenous peoples (particularly the Zulus). Meanwhile the Dutch influenced Boer Republic resisted British encroachment as well, though they were eventually defeated. At this time, the European colonists held most of the power and land, a precursor to the institutionalized segregation and racial policies that would follow.

In 1931, South Africa became independent from Great Britain (though it was not until 1961 when the country became a republic – renouncing Queen Elizabeth II as the reigning monarch). In 1948, the National Party came to power. The staunchly nationalistic government instituted strict divisions and rules governing the different races in South Africa. This system (known as apartheid) meant that the white minority (about 20%) controlled the black majority.

The second half of the 20th century saw intense pressure from both within and without to abolish apartheid. The African National Congress (ANC) was arguably the main resistance group, and bombings, marches, and other protests would occur. Despite Western countries coming out against South Africa for their racial policies, the country continued to be a strong regional power. In the late 1970’s, they were even one of the few to develop nuclear weapons (though they were dismantled in the early 90’s).

Finally, beginning in 1990, the tides began to turn. The National Party got rid of the ban on the ANC (and other parties). Finally, President F.W. de Klerk negotiated with ANC president Nelson Mandela. The first universal elections were held in 1994 with the ANC winning by a huge margin. They have been in power ever since.

Though apartheid is no more, South Africa still has problems. Unemployment remains high and HIV/AIDS is a serious problem in the country. Despite these issues, South Africa has found a comfortable place on the world stage, and is one of the most stable countries in Africa. They even successfully hosted the World Cup in 2010 – a testament to just how far South Africa has come.

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Rorke’s Drift in KwaZulu-Natal, South Africa – Site of the second major engagement of the Anglo-Zulu War in 1879

Culture

The culture of South Africa is unique in the African context due to the ethnic and historical diversity. Though apartheid is gone, many black South Africans still live in poverty stricken rural areas. In these regions, some old parts of tribal culture survive (in language and customs). In the cities, life is more urbanized and westernized. This is especially true of the middle class (still mainly white). For them, life is similar to what would be found in North America, Western Europe, or Australia.

Post apartheid, there has also been a large influx of Asian immigration (particularly Indian). This adds yet another ethnic group (and customs and heritage with it) to the South African demography. Christians, Muslims, Hindus and more have all immigrated to South Africa, and continue to practice their religions and in some cases bring their language.

This diversity in customs and ethnicity means there is no simple way to sum up South African culture. One thing everyone can agree on however is a love of sport. The most popular are soccer, rugby union, and cricket. With these sports, the British influence can definitely be felt. Rugby and soccer can often be used as a way to highlight the racial divide in the country. Rugby was the sport of the white minority while soccer the sport of the black majority. The Rugby World Cup in 1995 went a long way towards bridging the gap, and the World Cup five years ago perhaps even further.

Geography

A large portion of South Africa is dry and semi-arid. The Central Plateau dominants the (you guessed it) central part of the country. This elevated region is bordered by the Great Escarpment that leads down towards the coast with steep drops that resemble a mountain range. The coastline, which stretches for more than 2,500 km, is relatively smooth with an absence of gorges, ravines, or natural harbours.

Parts of the country are classified as veld (or veldt). Small shrubs and grass with a relative lack of trees usually populate this wide-open landscape. Winters are mild and summers are very hot in the veld, and drought can be an issue in some years. In addition, the Kalahari Desert extends into South Africa, bringing with it the type of savannah one would come to expect from the African wilderness.

In addition to a striking natural landscape, South Africa also has many developed and large cities. Foremost among these is Johannesburg (or Jo’burg). With the largest economy in sub-Saharan Africa, it is a true global city. Other important cities include the 3 capitals (Pretoria, Bloemfontein, and Cape Town) as well as the subtropical Durban – known for its beaches and manufacturing industry.

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The Pinnacle Rock in the indigenous forest in Mpumalanga, South Africa

Did you know?

  • Films shot in South Africa include District 9 and Invictus as well as the TV show Black Sails
  • Actors from South Africa include Sharlto Copley (District 9) and Charlize Theron
  • Archbishop Desmond Tutu used the term ‘Rainbow Nation’ to refer to South Africa – in reference to diversity in post-apartheid times
  • Outside of Europe and the Mediterranean, South Africa has been making wine the longest
  • 80% of the railroads in Africa are in South Africa
  • Penguins live near the Cape, thanks to cold currents from Antarctica
  • South Africa is divided into 9 provinces which are then divided into 52 districts each
  • Table Mountain is one of the oldest mountains in the world
  • More than 2000 shipwrecks dot the coast of South Africa
  • SABMiller, the second largest beer brewer in the world, started as South African breweries in 1895
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The City of Johannesburg – the largest in South Africa

Last Word

Despite the shadow of apartheid hanging over the country, South Africa has worked hard to move past that and into the 21st century. Despite some economic and crime problems, South Africa is a largely developed, modern, and Western country and the most successful in southern Africa.

Stay tuned to the Current for our Country of the Week. We’ll explore the familiar and the foreign, plus uncover some hidden gems.

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