The three-minute guide to South Africa

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, this country is the powerhouse of Africa, the most advanced, broad-based economy on the continent, with infrastructure to match any first-world nation.

You can drive on wide, tarred highways all 1 600 kilometres from Messina at the very top of the country to Cape Town at the bottom. Or join eight million passengers who disembark at our airports every year.

Two-thirds of Africa’s electricity is generated here. Forty percent of the phones are here. Twenty percent of the world’s gold is mined here. And almost everyone who visits is astonished at how far a dollar will stretch. Welcome to the Republic of South Africa.

What languages do people speak?
There are 11 officially recognised languages, most of them indigenous to South Africa. Forty percent of the population speak either isiZulu or isiXhosa. You don’t speak either? Not to worry. Everywhere you go, you can expect to find people who speak or understand English. 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. English is the language of the cities, of commerce and banking, of government, of road signs and official documents. Another major language is Afrikaans, a derivative of Dutch. Northern Europeans will find it surprisingly easy to follow Afrikaans.

Africa is full of dictatorships. Is South Africa a democracy?
South Africa is a vigorous multi-party democracy with an independent judiciary and a free and diverse press. The world’s newest – and most progressive – constitution protects both citizens and visitors. You won’t be locked up for shouting out your opinions, however contrary. But be careful about smoking cigarettes in crowded restaurants!

Who lives in South Africa?
Some 43 million people live here. Almost 77% are black (or African), 11% white and 9% “coloured”, the local label for people of mixed African, Asian and white descent. Just over half the population live in the cities. Three-quarters are Christian, with the largest church the indigenous Zion Christian Church, followed by the Dutch Reformed and Catholic churches. Most of the other major world religions are represented here, but none has a following greater than 2%.

What’s the weather like?
Summery, without being sweltering. In Johannesburg, the country’s commercial heart, the weather is mild all year round, but can get cool at night. Durban, the biggest port, is hot and sometimes humid, a surfing paradise. And in Cape Town, where the tourists flock to admire one of the world’s most spectacular settings, the weather is usually warm, but 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 suntan lotion; leave the mackintosh 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 added together. To an American, maybe not – it’s an eighth the size of the USA. Still, it’s a two-day drive down the highway from Johannesburg in the north to Cape Town in the south, with the topography ranging from lush green valleys to semi-desert.

Does South Africa have 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 just lie back on a couch and choose from five analogue and 53 digital TV channels.

What are the big cities?
There are 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.

You say the roads are tarred?
Yes, even in the smallest towns, where main roads often date back to the 19th century, and are wide enough to turn ox-wagons. Outside the cities, there are 8 000 kilometres of tarred and regularly maintained national highway, plus a thousand more kilometres of toll roads. Almost 1 500 kilometres of those routes are dual carriageway, with this number constantly rising. The national railway has 30 600 kilometres of rail track connecting the smallest hamlets. Some 3 600 locomotives pull 124 000 wagons of freight each day. There are three international airports big enough to land jumbos, 10 national airports large enough for most big commercial jets, and another 700 smaller airports.

I’ll be able to phone home?
The phones work, and they dial abroad. The country’s telecommunications operator Telkom, part government and part foreign owned, is the 28th largest in the world, and accounts for 39% of the phone lines on the African continent. It is well ahead of targets on an ambitious scheme to push telecommunications into the remotest rural communities. Cellular phones are ubiquitous in South Africa, where there were 11.2 million users in January 2001 – a figure that grows by 9 000 each day.

What about apartheid?
Over a dozen years ago, South Africa was known for “apartheid” or white-minority rule. But the country’s remarkable ability to put centuries of racial hatred behind it in favour of reconciliation was widely considered a social “miracle” and inspired similar peace attempts elsewhere, such as Northern Ireland and Rwanda. These days, post-apartheid South Africa has a government comprising all races, and is better known as the “rainbow nation”, a phrase coined by Nobel Peace Prize winner, Archbishop Desmond Tutu.

Is South Africa eager for international business?
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 particularly favourable. And if you’re doing businesses anywhere in Africa, this is the gateway to the continent.

Are there modern banks?
You can use Visa and Mastercard almost everywhere, and bank by ATM or online. There’s a sophisticated financial sector, abreast of all the latest technological trends. There are 13 commercial and merchant banks, and the Johannesburg Stock Exchange is the world’s 15th largest in terms of market capitalisation.

How far will my money go?
Okay, not as far as it would have a year ago, when South Africa's currency was well over 10 to the US dollar. Now the rand is a lot stronger (in November 2003 it was at around R7/$, R8/€ and R11/£), but with the exchange rate still definitely in your favour, you'll find South Africa a very inexpensive destination.

What about mineral resources?
This is one of earth’s great treasure troves. South Africa is the world’s leading producer of gold (20% of the world total), vermiculite (75%), vanadium (62%), ferrochromium (44%), chrome (48%) and alumino-silicates (60%). It is number two in the world in platinum (43%), zirconium (26%) and titanium (23%), and number three in manganese (14%). And all that excludes diamonds – some of the world’s most spectacular stones come from here.

And the animals?
The animals alone are reason to visit. One of the world’s first wildlife conservation areas was South Africa’s Kruger Park, more than a century old. Today it is just one part of a single broad conservation area that spans private and public game parks, and even stretches across national borders into neighbouring Mozambique and Zimbabwe. 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. South Africa is also a bird watchers’ paradise.

Of course there are other reasons for holidays too: like 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 … and dollar for dollar, one of the least expensive holiday places you’ll find. Source:,
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