Understanding South Africa’s history is integral to making sense of its current political and economic issues. From the first arrival of Dutch colonists in the 1600s through to the early 1900s, European colonials treated South Africa’s indigenous majority as second-class citizens at best and slave labour at worst. This arrangement continued largely unabated in the Union of South Africa, which was established in 1910 following a British victory during the Boer War.

This racist system was institutionalised in 1948, when the National Party (NP) took power on a platform of state-sponsored segregation and discrimination. Under the apartheid government the country’s large black population was denied the right to free movement, free association, high-quality education, work, and various other basic social and civil rights.

Opposition to white minority rule began to coalesce in 1912 with the creation of the South African Native National Congress – which would eventually become the African National Congress (ANC) – but accelerated under the apartheid regime, as opposition to the NP’s policies grew rapidly.

By the 1980s, the system earned condemnation from a wide coalition of international observers, including the UN and various foreign governments. During this period the international community instituted boycotts of South African products and imposed sanctions on the apartheid government, which took a serious economic toll on the country.

As a result, by the late 1980s and early 1990s the NP announced it would begin dismantling the apartheid system. In 1990 Nelson Mandela was released from jail after nearly 30 years. For the next four years Mandela worked with Frederik Willem de Klerk, the leader of the NP and South Africa’s president from 1989 through 1994, to write a new constitution and bring about a peaceful transition to representative democracy. This effort culminated in South Africa’s first multi-racial elections in 1994, as a result of which the ANC, with Mandela as president, took charge of the new Republic of South Africa. Since then South Africa has regularly occupied the top spot in Africa on many development and economic indices, and while the legacy of apartheid continues to cast a shadow over issues such as socioeconomic mobility, the country has made great strides in narrowing the income gap, improving rural development and strengthening education (see Economy chapter).


South Africa has for a long time served as the “gateway to Africa” and while recent years have seen other economies make up ground, it remains one of the most accessible, dynamic and well-regulated entry points to the continent’s 1bn consumers.

South Africa has the second-largest economy in Africa after Nigeria and, according to figures from the IMF, the 33rd-largest economy in the world. The country is the world’s single largest producer of platinum, in addition to being a major producer of gold, coal, diamonds and manganese, as well as a variety of other minerals (see Mining chapter).

South Africa also benefits from some of the most sophisticated financial markets in the world, with a robust regulatory system, and is home to the headquarters of a number of major multinationals in the industrial, energy and financial sectors.

Despite the size of South Africa’s economy, the country nonetheless faces several significant economic challenges, including high unemployment, a volatile currency, power outages and frequent labour stoppages (see Economy chapter).


South Africa is a constitutional democracy. At the federal level the government comprises a total of three branches, namely the executive authority, which includes the president and the Cabinet of ministers; a bicameral legislature; and an independent judiciary system.

Each of the country’s nine provinces – namely Eastern Cape, Western Cape, Northern Cape, Free State, Gauteng, KwaZulu-Natal, Limpopo, Mpumalanga and North West – is governed by a provincial executive and legislative authority. Power is further decentralised in local authorities across 278 municipalities.

The three branches of South Africa’s government are spread around the country. The executive authority and federal administration is headquartered in Pretoria, the National Assembly sits in Cape Town and the Constitutional Court is located in Bloemfontein.

Geography & Climate

South Africa boasts an impressively wide range of climates and landscapes, from arid semi-desert in areas such as Karoo to jagged Alpine landscapes in Ukhahlamba Drakensberg and rich farmland in the Western Cape.

South Africa’s interior is dominated by a high, largely flat plateau, the edges of which are marked by a series of steep cliffs known as the Great Escarpment. The plateau is around 2100 metres in altitude in the east and slowly slopes downward to around 1000 metres above sea level in the west. As a whole, the climate is generally temperate, though as a result of the varied topography and long coastline, the country is home to a wide variety of microclimates.

The country is ringed by water, with more than 2500 km of coastline on three sides, and in total covers 1.22m sq km of land on the southern tip of the African continent, which makes it the world’s 25th-largest country. South Africa is connected to the South Atlantic Ocean to the south and south-west, and the Indian Ocean to the east and south-east, sitting on a key Asia-Europe trade route. Its northern border abuts Namibia, Botswana, Zimbabwe, Mozambique and Swaziland, from west to east, and it completely surrounds the independent state of Lesotho.


According to Statistics South Africa (Stats SA), the country’s official statistical bureau, South Africa’s population as of July 2015 was 54.96m, 51% of whom were female. Gauteng, which comprises Johannesburg and Pretoria, was home to the largest share of the population, with 13.2m people in total. Just under one-third of the country’s population was 15 years old or younger as of mid-2015. The country’s life expectancy shows a distinct gender imbalance, at 60.6 years for males and 64.3 years for females.

The population is comparatively diverse for the continent. According to Stats SA, 81% of the populace identified as black African, roughly 9% as coloured (which describes individuals of mixed ethnic origin), 8.5% as white and 2.5% as Indian or Asian.

Meanwhile, the country has 11 official languages, although most South Africans speak English as a second language and the majority of official communication is conducted in English.

Hindus, Jews and Muslims combine to comprise roughly 5% of the population, with another 15% either following traditional beliefs or identifying as non-religious. Some 80% of South African citizens identify themselves as Christian, a legacy of the Dutch and British settlers that first introduced the religion to the region. Of the Christian population, the majority are classified as either Protestant or Pentecostal.

Natural Resources

South Africa’s economy is in many ways the result of centuries of exploitation of the country’s natural wealth. Ivory and gold from South Africa have been traded across the continent, and as far away as India and China, for over 500 years.

The biggest development came in the late 1880s, when huge gold deposits were discovered in what is now Gauteng Province, in and around modern-day Johannesburg. The subsequent gold rush led to a population boom, and brought fortune-seekers from around the world. However, the country’s richesse extends far beyond gold. South Africa has significant commercial deposits of diamonds, uranium and coal, along with three-quarters of the world’s platinum reserves. These natural resources form the basis of what has become the fifth-largest mining industry in the world, which accounts for over 5% of GDP.

Despite recent hydrocarbons discoveries, most of South Africa’s oil is imported for refining: the country processes around 20m tonnes of oil a year and consumes 23m tonnes of liquid fuel products, of which 45% is petrol and 26% diesel. South Africa utilises its abundant supplies of cheap coal to generate most of its electricity, although recent initiatives have sought to increase renewable activity through independent power producers (see Energy chapter).

Flora & Fauna 

South Africa has been a popular safari destination for years due to its landscape and world-famous wildlife, including elephants, rhinos, leopards, buffaloes and lions, dubbed the “Big Five”. This is in addition to hippopotami, zebras, wildebeests, cheetahs, giraffes and other famed species. However, poachers, suburban sprawl and expanding agricultural activity have all had an impact on the sustainability of wildlife habitats. A number of public and civil society initiatives are looking to reverse this trend. In addition to laws and awareness campaigns, several areas have been designated national parks and wildlife reserves in order to protect the animals.