The land

The quick guide to South Africa

Key facts on South Africa’s currency, time, geography, population, languages, provinces and government.

South Africa from space. The crew of the International Space Station captured this view of almost the entire country in April 2016. The Cape peninsula can be seen at lower left, and the coastlines of the Western Cape, Eastern Cape and KwaZulu-Natal towards the right. (Nasa / CC BY NC 2.0)

South Africa from space. The crew of the International Space Station captured this view of almost the entire country in April 2016. The Cape peninsula can be seen at lower left, and the coastlines of the Western Cape, Eastern Cape and KwaZulu-Natal towards the right. (Nasa / CC BY NC 2.0)

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Quick facts

  • Official name: Republic of South Africa
  • Population: 51.8-million (2011) • 56.5-million (2017)
  • Currency: Rand (ZAR). One rand (R) = 100 cents
  • Gross domestic product: US$315-billion (UNSD)
  • GDP per person: US$773
  • Time: Two hours ahead of Coordinated Universal Time (UTC)
  • Measures: metric system
  • Internet domain: .za

Geography

  • Capital cities: Pretoria (administrative), Cape Town (legislative), Bloemfontein (judicial)
  • Largest cities: Johannesburg (4.4-million people), Cape Town (3.7-million people), Durban (3.4-million people)
  • Surface area: 1,221,037 square kilometres
  • Coastline: 2,798 kilometres
  • Neighbouring countries: Namibia, Botswana, Zimbabwe, Mozambique, Swaziland and Lesotho
  • Oceans: Atlantic Ocean and Indian Ocean
  • Climate: Temperate

Population

The 2011 official census put South Africa’s population at 51,770,560 people. By 2017 it had grown to 56.5-million, according to Statistics South Africa’s mid-year population estimates.

Languages

South Africa’s Constitution recognises 11 official languages, and guarantees them equal status. Chapter 1 of the Constitution, the Founding Provisions, states that “all official languages must enjoy parity of esteem and must be treated equitably”.

According to Census 2011, isiZulu is the most common home language – spoken by almost a quarter of South Africans – followed by isiXhosa and Afrikaans.

English is most common in public life, but is only spoken as a home language by 9.6% of South Africans. The other languages are Sesotho sa Leboa (spoken by 9.1% of the population), Setswana (8%), Sesotho (7.6%), Xitsonga (4.5%), siSwati (2.5%) and Tshivenda (2.4%). Sign language is spoken by 0.5% of South Africans, and “other” languages by 1.6%.

Other languages mentioned in the Constitution as deserving to be promoted and respected are the Khoi, Nama and San languages, sign language, as well as “languages commonly used by communities in South Africa” such as German, Greek, Gujarati, Hindi, Portuguese, Tamil, Telegu and Urdu. Languages used for religious purposes are also mentioned, specifically Arabic, Hebrew and Sanskrit.

Provinces

South Africa has nine provinces, which vary considerably in both size and population.

The Northern Cape is by far the largest province, but only 2% of South Africans live there.

Gauteng is the smallest by land area, but is home to over a quarter of the country’s people.

According to the most recent population estimates, the city region of Gauteng is home to 25.3% of South Africans.

KwaZulu-Natal has 19.6% of the population, while the Eastern Cape and Western Cape have roughly similar populations – each 11.5% of the total.

Limpopo has 10.2% of the total, Mpumalanga 7.9%, North West 6.8%, the Free State 5.1% and the Northern Cape 2.1%.

 

Government

  • Government: Unitary parliamentary constitutional republic
  • National legislature: Bicameral Parliament elected every five years, made up of a 400-seat National Assembly and a 90-seat National Council of Provinces.
  • Electoral system: List-system of proportional representation based on universal adult suffrage.
  • Elections: National elections were held in 1994, 1999, 2004, 2009 and 2014. The next national election will take place in 2019.
  • Head of state: The President is elected by the National Assembly. Under the Constitution, the President is permitted to serve a maximum of two five-year terms.
  • Highest court: Constitutional Court

Researched and written by Mary Alexander
Updated 12 January 2018
Comments? Email southafrica.gateway@gmail.com