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Physical Features of South Africa

Updated on April 3, 2014
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Republic of South Africa is the largest and most powerful of several states situated in the southernmost part of Africa. South Africa came into existence in 1910 through the union of the two British colonies of Cape of Good Hope and Natal and the two former Afrikaner (Boer) republics of Orange Free State and the South African Republic (Transvaal). The state was named the Union of South Africa until 1961, when it became the Republic of South Africa and withdrew from the Commonwealth of Nations.

South Africa administered the former German colony of South West Africa (present-day Namibia), which was entrusted to it under a League of Nations mandate in 1919, until March 21, 1990. At that time, Namibia proclaimed independence, although South Africa continued to maintain sovereignty over Walvis Bay, the port through which the bulk of Namibia's exports passed, until March 1, 1994.

South Africa's population is ethnically diversified. Blacks make up 79%; Coloureds (persons of mixed heritage), 8.9%; and Asians, 2.5%. The black population consists of nine main ethnic groups. The white population, 9.6% of the total, is divided on linguistic, cultural, and political lines between the Afrikaners (mainly of Dutch descent) and the English-speakers (mainly of British descent).

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In 1994 South Africa was redivided into nine provinces: Cape Province became Eastern Cape, Western Cape, Northern Cape, and a part of North-West; Orange Free State became Free State; Natal became KwaZulu-Natal; and Transvaal became Pretoria-Witwatersrand-Vereeniging (Gauteng), Eastern Transvaal (Mpumalanga), Northern Transvaal (Limpopo), and a part of North-West.

South Africa is a country of great diversity and beauty with a wide variety of landscapes and climatic zones; these include deserts, dramatic mountain ranges, Mediterranean coastal areas, and savanna grasslands. Tourists are attracted to South Africa because of its splendid scenery, game reserves and national parks, and pleasant climate. Unfortunately the country has no navigable rivers and is handicapped by a lack of water resources and soil erosion.

Landforms

The Northern, Western, and Eastern Cape provinces as well as KwaZulu-Natal border on the coast; the three cape provinces have roughly 1,300 miles (2,090 km) of coastline, and KwaZulu-Natal has 380 miles (610 km). The conventional boundary between the South Atlantic and the Indian Ocean is at 20° east longitude, or a line extending south from the vicinity of Cape Agulhas. Behind Cape Town, the South Atlantic port, mountains rise to 3,555 feet (1,084 meters), and along much of the southern coast are spectacular ramparts of hills cutting off the interior from the low-lying coastline. For the most part the harbors are unprotected and the mouths of the rivers choked by sandbars, except at the major ports of Saldanha Bay, Cape Town, Port Elizabeth, East London, Durban, and Richards Bay.

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From the coast, the land surface of South Africa rises in four plateaus: the coast plateau; the Southern, or Little, Karoo (Karroo); the Great, or Central, Karoo; and the Northern Karoo, or High Veld. The coast plateau, with an average elevation of 500 to 600 feet (150–180 meters), varies in width from 3 to 30 miles (5–50 km). The Southern Karoo, some 15 miles (25 km) in width, is a narrow tableland with an average elevation of 1,500 feet (460 meters).

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The Great Karoo rises from 2,000 to 3,000 feet (610–910 meters). The Northern Karoo—which includes most of Northern Cape Province, all of Free State, and most of North-West, Mpumalanga, Limpopo, and Gauteng—lies mainly above 4,000 feet (1,220 meters), rising as high as 11,425 feet (3,482 meters) in Lesotho, an independent state surrounded by South African territory. Each of these plateaus is separated from the others by mountain ranges. The main watershed is formed by the Drakensberg Range ( also called uKhahlamba) running through Lesotho and KwaZulu-Natal, and the land slopes down to the Indian Ocean from these mountains through green and fertile valleys.

There are few lakes in South Africa, apart from some artificial ones, and none of the rivers is navigable. The most important river is the Orange, which rises in the foothills of the Drakensberg Range about 120 miles (190 km) from the Indian Ocean and flows westward for about 1,400 miles (2,250 km) to the Atlantic. For months at a time, however, it is absorbed into the dry land before reaching the sea. The Orange and its tributaries, the Vaal and the Caledon, are important sources of water for South Africa. The Witwatersrand ("ridge of white waters"), where South Africa's major source of gold was discovered in 1886, forms the watershed between the tributaries of the Vaal River and those of the Limpopo River. The Limpopo is the boundary between Limpopo province and Zimbabwe and flows through Mozambique to discharge into the Indian Ocean.

The land surface of South Africa has in many areas been worn down severely by continual erosion. Only about 12% of the land is markedly fertile, and even this suffers from erosion. The mouths of most streams are stained red with soil carried from the interior. In the past, volcanic activity occurred in many of the mountain ranges, notably those lying between Lesotho and Eastern Cape Province, but the volcanoes have been extinct for many ages.

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