Republic of South Africa

POPULATION: 54.00 million (2014)

AREA: 471,008 sq. mi. (1,219,912 sq. km)

LANGUAGES: English, Afrikaans, Ndebele, Pedi, Sotho, Swazi, Tsonga, Tswana, Venda, Xhosa, and Zulu (all are official)


PRINCIPAL RELIGIONS: Christian 68%, Traditional and animistic 28.5%, Muslim 2%, Hindu 1.5%

CITIES: Pretoria (administrative capital), 1,508,000 (2001 est.); Cape Town (legislative capital), 2,993,000 (2001 est.); Bloemfontein (judicial capital), 300,150 (1991 est.); Johannesburg

ANNUAL RAINFALL: Varies from 40 in. (1,000 mm) on east coast to only 2.4 in. (61 mm) in the extreme west.

ECONOMY: GDP $350.1 billion (2014)


  • Agricultural: corn, wheat, sugarcane, wine grapes, macadamia nuts, vegetables, livestock, wool, dairy
  • Manufacturing: automobile assembly, metalworking, machinery, textiles, iron and steel, chemicals, fertilizer, food processing
  • Mining: gold, diamonds, chromium, and coal
  • Services: tourism

GOVERNMENT: Granted self-governing power from Britain, 1910. Became part of British Commonwealth in 1931. Declared an independent republic in 1961. Republic with president elected by the National Assembly. Governing bodies: 400-seat National Assembly, elected by universal suffrage; 90-seat National Council of Provinces, with 10 members elected by each of the nine provincial legislatures.


  • 1961–1967 President Charles Robberts Swart
  • 1967–1968 President Jozua Francois Naude
  • 1968–1975 President Jacobus Johannes Fouche
  • 1975–1978 President Nicholaas Diederichs
  • 1978–1979 President Balthazar J. Vorster
  • 1979–1984 President Marais Viljoen
  • 1984–1989 President Pieter W. Botha
  • 1989–1994 President Frederik W. de Klerk
  • 1994–1999 President Nelson Mandela
  • 1999– President Thabo Mbeki

ARMED FORCES: 82,400 (2001 est.)

EDUCATION: Compulsory for ages 7–16; literacy rate 82% (2001 est.)

Republic of South Africa

The modern state of South Africa includes former British and Dutch colonies in which white settlers brutally dominated the region's black African population. As an independent nation, South Africa expanded and strengthened this pattern of racial discrimination under a policy known as APARTHEID, meaning “separateness.” Suffering greatly under the rule of the white minority government and police, black South Africans continued their resistance. The dramatic defeat of the white government in 1994 signaled an end to apartheid and the beginning of a new era of black majority rule. It did not, however, mark the end of the country's political and economic troubles.


South Africa occupies the southernmost tip of the African continent and includes several small offshore islands. It is bordered on the north by NAMIBIA, BOTSWANA, ZIMBABWE, MOZAMBIQUE, and SWAZILAND. The small independent nation of LESOTHO lies within South African territory. South Africa's terrain can be divided into three major regions: the coast, the mountains that run parallel to the coast, and a broad plain north of the mountains.

Along the westernmost part of the coast, the climate is generally warm and dry with a long rainy season. Just inland, several small mountain ranges divide the coast from the KALAHARI DESERT. Some plants and animals do live in the Kalahari, which receives a small amount of precipitation. Flanked by the Drakensberg range, South Africa's highest mountains, the eastern coast is hot and humid.

Beyond the central and eastern mountains lie the veld, made up of high plateaus. Grassy hills roll across the north central plateau known as the highveld. It includes the Witwatersrand (or Rand), a rocky ridge that is the source of several rivers and enormous deposits of gold and diamonds. The bushveld, a grassy plain dotted with trees and bushes, stretches north of the Rand. To the west, the Cape Middleveld includes the basin of the Orange River.

South Africa's climate does not have many extremes, with an average temperature of about 60°F. The western part of the country averages less than 20 inches of rain per year. The eastern part receives more precipitation and is the site of most of the country's major agriculture.

However, the Western Cape province in the far southwest does enjoy enough rainfall in winter to grow wheat, fruit, and wine grapes. South Africa has only one true lake but several large rivers. The Orange, Vaal, and Limpopo Rivers form a major river system in the central and northern areas. Several other rivers drain the southern and eastern coasts into the ocean. However, water is scarce in some areas, and people must use water transported from other parts of the country.


Issues of race and segregation have dominated South African history and politics. While informal at first, discrimination against nonwhites eventually became enshrined in law. It reached a peak after 1948 in the state policy of apartheid, which denied blacks even the most basic of civil rights. Years of resistance to apartheid finally bore fruit in 1994 with the election of Nelson MANDELA, the country's first black president.

History Before 1910

Western South Africa was originally inhabited by HUNTING AND GATHERING peoples known as the San and nomadic herders called Khoi. BANTU-speaking farmers dominated the eastern part of the region. In the mid-1600s Dutch farmers settled the area that is now CAPE TOWN. They eventually expanded north and east, killing and enslaving the Khoi and San and fighting with the XHOSA and other indigenous groups.

The British took over the Cape Colony in 1806. They drove indigenous people off much of the land and gave it to British colonists. The Dutch settlers, known as Boers or Afrikaners, resented British rule, and in the 1830s and 1840s thousands of them moved north and east across the Orange River into lands where groups such as the ZULU, Sotho, and NDEBELE had been warring with each other. The Dutch colonists established several independent states including the Orange Free State and Transvaal.

The situation changed quickly when gold and diamonds were found on Afrikaner lands. Settlers and investors rushed to the Afrikaner republics, founding boom towns such as JOHANNESBURG. They soon built a huge mining industry on the labor of black workers. Increasing conflicts between Afrikaner and British interests led to war in 1899. Winning the war, Britain created a new state in which white colonists— Dutch as well as British—held power over a large population of black Africans.

The Union of South Africa, established in 1910, was part of the British Empire. Louis Botha and James Hertzog led the largest political party, the South African Party, which adopted moderate policies based on the shared interests of the Europeans. However, Hertzog and his supporters, mainly rural Afrikaners, split off to form the Nationalist Party.

The Rise of Black Politics

In 1912 the South African government passed laws to restrict the areas where blacks could own or purchase land. These laws also limited the movement of other nonwhites, including Asians and the mixed-race population known as CAPE COLOURED PEOPLE. Mohandas K. Gandhi, a leader of the Indian community in the Transvaal and Natal provinces, protested these laws with a strategy of nonviolent resistance. He later used this strategy to great effect in leading India to independence.

The tensions caused by these laws were typical of the social and political atmosphere in South Africa. Afrikaners rose up in arms several times, and other white workers loudly protested labor conditions. Black workers also began to organize, staging a series of strikes just after World War I. In the 1920s Clements KADALIE formed the first mass African political movement, the Industrial and Commercial Worker's Union (ICU), with over 100,000 members at its height.

Political parties emerged as well. The African Native Convention (ANC), formed in 1912, represented the political hopes of black people, and changed its name to the African National Congress in 1925. The African Political Organization fought for the rights of the Coloured population. The Communist Party of South Africa also became involved in politics, and by the late 1920s it had formed close ties with the ANC and called for black majority rule.

By the end of the 1920s, however, most of these labor and political movements were fading. The great labor campaigns of the ICU lost steam, while internal bickering nearly destroyed the Communist Party. The ANC spoke only for the black middle class, a small group, and had few supporters among the mass of poor and rural Africans.

The Road to Apartheid

In the 1930s, the worldwide Great Depression brought new hardships. The main white parties chose to cooperate in a new United Party. But in 1934 the Afrikaner politician Daniel Malan left the organization to form the National Party (NP). The NP worked to bring together Afrikaners of all social classes by emphasizing their common ethnic identity, skin color, and language— Afrikaans, a version of Dutch. The NP campaigned on a platform of white supremacy that called for total racial segregation and discrimination. Many English-speaking conservatives supported the NP's proposals. The government passed laws that forced black people to move into specially created “native reserves” and gave their land to white settlers. Black people were not permitted to live in some areas of cities or have certain jobs.

South Africa recovered from the Depression thanks to a dramatic rise in the price of gold and an increase in industry during World War II. Blacks looking for work flocked to the cities in large numbers, leading to housing shortages and slums. White people, who controlled all the businesses and resources, grew richer while their black workers and servants stayed poor. More and more black people joined unions, strikes, and demonstrations.

By this time younger elements in the ANC forced the party to take a more aggressive position toward the government. In 1949 the ANC adopted a program of “national freedom” that called for black autonomy and an end to white domination. The National Party responded with an openly racist program, designed to put an end to black political activity. Campaigning on proposals for a system of apartheid, the NP won a narrow victory in the elections of 1948.

The Apartheid Era

The NP passed a series of laws that made segregation a part of every public institution. Residential and business districts were classified as white or black, and many blacks were forcibly removed from neighborhoods where their families had lived for generations. Public places and services were segregated to prevent the mixing of races.

At birth, each South African was classified as white, black, Asiatic, Coloured, or other. This racial identity determined where an individual could live, work, and go to school. It also affected whether people could vote, where they could own property, and even where they were allowed to stand. Pass laws required all citizens to carry passbooks identifying them by name and race. Police could demand to see passbooks at any time and arrest anyone caught in a forbidden area.

Under apartheid, each race had separate schools. While the nation's Department of Education focused only on white schools, the government drastically cut funding for black schools. While white students were trained for technical and professional careers, black students were expected to take unskilled jobs.

In 1958, under Prime Minister Hendrik VERWOERD, the South African government changed the name of the native reserves to “black homelands.” It assigned each of these desperately poor rural areas to a different African ethnic group and gave them some degree of autonomy. The government promised independence to any homeland that requested it. But many black people, including the ANC, saw the plan as a way to ignore the needs of the black population while keeping the best land in white hands. Moreover, the millions of black people who lived in slums around white cities had no voice in either the white government or the black homelands.

The ANC Fights Back

The ANC responded to apartheid with massive protests and resistance campaigns. The party allied itself with other organizations, including the South African Indian Congress, the Coloured People's Congress, the South African Congress of Trade Unions, and a group of white liberals called the Congress of Democrats. But in the late 1950s, a group of black members refused to accept white allies and formed an “Africanist” organization called the Pan-African Congress (PAC).

In 1960 both the ANC and PAC sponsored demonstrations against the pass laws. In the town of Sharpeville, police officers fired on an unarmed crowd of demonstrators, killing 69. The government declared a state of emergency, banned the ANC and PAC, and arrested over 2,000 activists.

The leaders of the ANC and PAC went underground to avoid arrest. The ANC and the Communist Party formed a military group called Umkhonto we Sizwe, or “Spear of the Nation,” also known as MK. This organization carried out armed guerrilla attacks. The government increased the powers of the police: anyone suspected of a crime could be arrested and held for up to ten days; those suspected of terrorism could be jailed without a trial or a time limit. In 1963 the police caught MK leaders including Nelson Mandela and Walter Sisulu. They were sentenced to life in prison without parole.

For the next ten years, the apartheid system enjoyed its greatest success. White industry owners made huge profits, and foreign investment poured into the country. Segregation increased in all spheres of life. The police stepped up arrests under the pass laws, keeping black people out of the cities except to work.

Apartheid in Crisis

By the early 1970s, events both inside and outside of South Africa increased the pressure for changes in the system. A worldwide economic slowdown led to inflation and unemployment. The country depended on goods and technology imported from abroad, and its own exports could not keep pace. Meanwhile, black trade unions, banned since the 1950s, began to reassert themselves in the form of strikes and protests.

Active opposition to apartheid spread throughout black society. Steve BIKO's Black Consciousness Movement swept through schools and colleges. In 1976, teachers in the black township of Soweto led schoolchildren in a protest against a rule that English and Afrikaans be used equally in classes, although most black schools operated entirely in English. Police opened fire on the protesters, and the resulting deaths sparked a week of rioting and revolt. The police cracked down with overwhelming force, killing over 174 blacks and wounding over 1,200.

The Soweto Massacre generated a wave of protest both at home and abroad. In South Africa, it sounded the call for a younger generation of black activists to take up the struggle. Overseas, officials of the ANC pressed foreign governments to boycott South African goods and refuse to sell weapons to the South African police and military. Archbishop Desmond TUTU issued a powerful moral message.

Meanwhile, events in neighboring African countries also spelled trouble for the NP government. In the mid-1970s, communist guerrilla movements won independence for black Africans in two Portuguese colonies, ANGOLA and Mozambique. Shortly afterward, black guerrillas overthrew the white supremacist government of Ian Smith in Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe). White South Africa found itself surrounded by independent, hostile black nations.

The Total Strategy

In response to these pressures, President Pieter W. Botha adopted a policy known as “Total Strategy.” He hoped to preserve apartheid through compromise and force. He increased spending on black education and eased rules governing black labor and residency. But at the same time, he gave the police, army, and intelligence services a larger role in the government. More than ever, South Africans lived in a police state.

The NP also tried to form alliances with prosperous Indians and Coloured people against the black groups. It created a new National Assembly with three bodies—one for whites, one for Indians, and one for Coloureds—but still with no black representation. The white upper house had the authority to impose laws without the consent of the other houses and could veto any law those houses proposed.

Botha's plan failed to satisfy black South Africans. In the 1980s they organized against apartheid as youths, as women, as workers, as students, and as neighbors. The MK staged several astonishing military attacks, and the ANC returned from exile to center stage in South African politics. Strikes, protests, and riots shook the nation, and the state responded with massive detentions, trials, police brutality, and army troops sent into the black townships. Abroad, ANC leaders and their supporters convinced other nations and corporations to withdraw economic support from South Africa. In return, wealthy Western nations pressured the ANC to abandon its communist goals. As the economy staggered, the NP replaced Botha with a new president, F.W. DE KLERK.

The Beginning of the End

By 1990 both the state and the ANC were facing a crisis. The declining economy and deteriorating social situation sapped the government's strength. Meanwhile, the ANC lost its bases in Angola and Mozambique, while the Soviet Union dramatically reduced its funding for communist groups such as the ANC. In February Mandela wrote to President de Klerk from prison, and the two leaders met. De Klerk freed Mandela and other political prisoners and proposed negotiations.

Not everyone was excited about this turn of events. Some white South Africans opposed any real equality for black citizens. Meanwhile, the ANC faced a stiff challenge from the Inkatha Freedom Party (IFP), which had been created in the early 1970s when the ANC was officially banned. The ANC had always had its base in the Xhosa, Sotho, and Tswana ethnic groups; the IFP has strong ties with the Zulu people. While many ANC supporters came from urban slums, Zulu members of the IFP generally had a fairly stable lifestyle and hoped to avoid widespread violence by cooperating with the white government.

With the release of Mandela, the ANC once again became a legal party—as well as a rival of the IFP for black power. The IFP deeply resented a government measure, passed under pressure from the ANC, that banned the Zulu practice of carrying spears and other traditional weapons. The IFP's leader, Gatsha Buthelezi, called for a separate Zulu state, and clashes between IFP and ANC supporters became commonplace, leading to thousands of deaths.

The End of Apartheid

Despite increasing chaos and uncertainty, plans for a new constitution went forward. After three years of negotiation, elections were set for early 1994. On May 10, 1994, the results were announced, with the ANC winning nearly two-thirds of the votes. Mandela took office as the first black president of South Africa. The ANC abandoned its earlier communist ideals. It called for a capitalist market economy in which state-owned business would be sold to private and foreign investors.

Mandela's victory did not end black discontent. The ANC made many election promises, most of which it could not possibly keep due to the condition of the nation's economy. Efforts to privatize industries and reduce the size of government led to layoffs that angered the unions and the Communist Party. Labor strikes, protests, and political violence remained common.

Despite these difficulties, Mandela managed to steer a middle course, balancing the demands of his supporters with the needs of the nation's economy and international relations. He set up a Truth and Reconciliation Commission to take testimony about the violence and injustice of South Africa's past. A new constitution went into effect in 1996, adding a Bill of Rights that guarantees broad freedoms. Elections in 1999 took place fairly peacefully, and the ANC remained the dominant party. Mandela retired, and his vice president, Thabo Mbeki, was elected president.

However, Mbeki inherited a country still struggling to deal with an ailing economy and a history of racial injustice. He and the ANC face formidable challenges in returning the country to the prosperity it once enjoyed without exploiting black workers. Mbeki has eased the process of privatizing industries and allowed investors to buy and sell freely in the country's markets. His policies have become more practical, but he does not speak with the moral voice of Mandela. Even so, the end of apartheid offers black citizens the freedom to participate in their government and to hope for peaceful change and progress.


Compared to its neighbors, South Africa has a large and diverse economy, but one that has grown slowly. Manufacturing now employs more than 25 percent of the workforce. The main industries are steel production, clothing, textiles, and food processing.

Mining, once the mainstay of the economy, has declined heavily in recent years. Although gold and diamonds are still important exports, the low price of gold threatens to close many mines. In addition, a financial crisis in Asian countries in the 1990s reduced the export of South African diamonds. However, coal has become a more important export, and it supplies most of South Africa's energy needs.

Less than 15 percent of the land in South Africa has fertile soil, and agriculture plays a small role in the country's economy. The main crops are wheat, corn, wine grapes, and macadamia nuts. South African farmers are among the world's leading producers of cannabis—the plant that produces marijuana and hashish—and it has an important role in the country's illegal economy.

The healthiest economic sector seems to be the TOURISM industry. Over 500,000 people work in the tourism industry, serving over five million visitors each year. Most of the tourists are fellow Africans who come to enjoy the country's stunning mountains and sparkling beaches. However, South Africa's crime rate, among the highest in the world, continues to discourage prospective visitors.


Like all developing countries, South Africa struggles to provide adequate HEALTH CARE and EDUCATION for its citizens. The country's greatest health challenge is undoubtedly AIDS.

South Africa's HIV infection rate is the highest in the world—one out of every five South Africans is HIV-positive. Unfortunately, AIDS drugs are very expensive, and the Western companies that produce them are only now beginning to take steps to make the drugs available at greatly reduced prices. Past government policies have aggravated the problem, researching ineffective solutions and even denying medical care to some.

Education is in as desperate condition as health care. In 1976 the ANC called for a boycott of schools, which resulted in a generation of young South Africans who cannot read and write. Although more than 90 percent of children are now enrolled in school, many do not attend classes, and schools face a critical shortage of teachers. The school system has not produced enough qualified graduates to fill jobs that demand skilled workers, and the economy has suffered for it. Education and job training are high priorities for South Africa's government.


South Africa includes a tremendous variety of ethnic groups and cultures. Most South Africans belong to Bantu-speaking groups such as the Nguni (which includes the Xhosa, Swazi, and Zulu peoples), Sotho, Venda, and Tsonga. The main difference among these groups is in their languages, although some cultural differences exist among them as well. Bantu groups were traditionally led by chiefs who inherited their position from older relatives. Councils assisted the chiefs at all levels of government. These power relationships were expressed by the saying, “A chief is chief by his people.” All Bantu groups worshiped ancestors and showed a great respect for the elderly. However, as Africans moved to the cities, their traditional beliefs and practices weakened.

Non-Bantu populations in South Africa include remnants of the San and Khoi, as well as white descendants of Dutch and English settlers. Since the mid-1970s the Inkatha Freedom Party has worked to establish a strong separate identity for the country's Zulu population. Indians, originally brought over as slaves in the late 1800s, have grown into an important urban population. They now total some one million people, located mostly in the southeastern portions of the country. The Cape Coloured population, descended from the mixing of whites, Asians, and Africans, numbers over three million. (See also Colonialism in AfricaGlobal Politics and Africa; Independence Movements; Indian Communities; Khoisan; Minerals and Mining; Southern Africa, History; Unions and Trade Associations.)