The Republic of South Africa, also known by other official names, is a country located at the southern tip of the continent of Africa. The South African coast stretches 2,798 kilometres (1,739 mi) and borders both the Atlantic and Indian oceans. To the north of South Africa lie Namibia, Botswana and Zimbabwe, to the east are Mozambique and Swaziland, while the Kingdom of Lesotho is an independent enclave surrounded by South African territory.
Modern human beings have inhabited South Africa for more than 100,000 years. A century and a half after the discovery of the Cape Sea Route, the Dutch East India Company founded a refreshment station at what would become Cape Town in 1652. Cape Town became a British colony in 1806. European settlement expanded during the 1820s as the Boers (original Dutch, Flemish, German and French settlers) and the British 1820 Settlers claimed land in the north and east of the country. Conflicts arose among the Xhosa, Zulu and Afrikaner groups. However, the discovery of diamonds and later gold triggered the conflict known as the Anglo-Boer War as the Boers and the British fought for the control of the South African mineral wealth. Although the Boers were defeated, limited independence was given to South Africa in 1910 as a British dominion. Anti-British policies focused on ultimate independence which was achieved in 1961 when South Africa was declared a republic. The leading National Party legislated for a continuation of racial segregation begun under Dutch and British colonial rule, Boer republics, and subsequent South African governments (and which in 1948 became legally institutionalised segregation known as apartheid), despite opposition both in and outside of the country. In 1990 the then president F.W. de Klerk began to dismantle this legislation, and in 1994 the first democratic election was held in South Africa. This election brought Nelson Mandela and the current ruling party, the African National Congress to power, and the country rejoined the Commonwealth of Nations.
South Africa is known for its diversity in cultures, languages, and religious beliefs, and eleven official languages are recognised in its constitution. English is the most commonly spoken language in official and commercial public life, however it is only the fifth most spoken home language. South Africa is ethnically diverse, with the largest Caucasian, Indian, and racially mixed communities in Africa. Although 79.6% of the South African population is Black, this category is neither culturally nor linguistically homogeneous, as people within this classification speak a number of different Bantu languages, nine of which have official status. Midyear 2007, the South African population was estimated at 47.9 million.
South Africa is located at the southernmost region of Africa, with a long coastline that stretches more than 2,500 kilometres (1,550 mi) and across two oceans (the South Atlantic and the Indian). At 470,979 sq mi (1,219,912 km²), South Africa is the 25th-largest country in the world (after Mali). It is comparable in size to Colombia. Njesuthi in the Drakensberg at 3,408 m (11,424 ft) is the highest peak in South Africa.
South Africa has a generally temperate climate, due in part to it being surrounded by the Atlantic and Indian Oceans on three sides, by its location in the climatically milder southern hemisphere and due to the average elevation rising steadily towards the north (towards the equator) and further inland. Due to this varied topography and oceanic influence, a great variety of climatic zones exist.
The climatic zones vary, from the extreme desert of the southern Namib in the farthest northwest to the lush subtropical climate in the east along the Mozambique border and the Indian ocean. From the east, the land quickly rises over a mountainous escarpment towards the interior plateau known as the Highveld. Even though South Africa is classified as semi-arid, there is considerable variation in climate as well as topography.
The interior of South Africa is a vast, rather flat, and sparsely populated scrubland, Karoo, which is drier towards the northwest along the Namib desert. In contrast, the eastern coastline is lush and well-watered, which produces a climate similar to the tropics. The extreme southwest has a climate remarkably similar to that of the Mediterranean with wet winters and hot, dry summers, hosting the famous Fynbos Biome. This area also produces much of the wine in South Africa. This region is also particularly known for its wind, which blows intermittently almost all year. The severity of this wind made passing around the Cape of Good Hope particularly treacherous for sailors, causing many shipwrecks. Further east on the south coast, rainfall is distributed more evenly throughout the year, producing a green landscape. This area is popularly known as the Garden Route.
The Free State is particularly flat due to the fact that it lies centrally on the high plateau. North of the Vaal River, the Highveld becomes better watered and does not experience subtropical extremes of heat. Johannesburg, in the centre of the Highveld, is at 1,740 metres (5,709 ft) and receives an annual rainfall of 760 millimetres (30 in). Winters in this region are cold, although snow is rare.
To the north of Johannesburg, the altitude drops beyond the escarpment of the Highveld, and turns into the lower lying Bushveld, an area of mixed dry forest and an abundance of wildlife. East of the Highveld, beyond the eastern escarpment, the Lowveld stretches towards the Indian ocean. It has particularly high temperatures, and is also the location of extended subtropical agriculture.
The high Drakensberg mountains, which form the south-eastern escarpment of the Highveld, offer limited skiing opportunities in winter. The coldest place in South Africa is Sutherland in the western Roggeveld Mountains, where midwinter temperatures can reach as low as −15 degrees Celsius (5 °F). The deep interior has the hottest temperatures: A temperature of 51.7 °C (125 °F) was recorded in 1948 in the Northern Cape Kalahari near Upington.
South Africa also has one possession, the small sub-Antarctic archipelago of the Prince Edward Islands, consisting of Marion Island (290 km²/112 sq mi) and Prince Edward Island (45 km²/17.3 sq mi) (not to be confused with the Canadian province of the same name).