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The Commonwealth
South Africa



Did you know:

Of the many internationally acclaimed South African writers, two – Nadine Gordimer (in 1991) and John Maxwell Coetzee (in 2003) – have Nobel Prizes; and Coetzee (2000) and Manu Herbstein (Best First Book in 2002) have been overall winners in the Commonwealth Writers’ Prize.

Scholarships for postgraduate study are awarded by South Africa to citizens of other Commonwealth countries under the Commonwealth Scholarship and Fellowship Plan.

Key facts

Joined Commonwealth: 1931 (Statute of Westminster; left in 1961, rejoined in 1994)
Population: 52,776,000 (2013)
GDP: 0.9% p.a. 1990–2013
UN HDI: World ranking 118
Official language: 11 most widely spoken
Timezone: GMT plus 2hr
Currency: rand (R)


Area: 1,221,038 sq km
Coastline: 2,800km
Capital city: Pretoria
Population density (per sq. km): 43

The Republic of South Africa has land borders with: Namibia, Botswana, Zimbabwe, Mozambique and Swaziland. Its sea borders are with the South Atlantic and Indian Oceans. Lesotho is enclosed within its land area.

The country comprises nine provinces: Eastern Cape (provincial capital Bhisho), Free State (Bloemfontein), Gauteng (Johannesburg), KwaZulu-Natal (Pietermaritzburg), Limpopo (Polokwane), Mpumalanga (Nelspruit), Northern Cape (Kimberley), North-West (Mafikeng) and Western Cape (Cape Town).

Main towns:

Pretoria (administrative capital, Gauteng, pop. 1.76m in 2011), Cape Town (legislative capital, Western Cape, 3.43m), Bloemfontein (judicial capital, Free State, 464,591), Johannesburg (Gauteng, 7.86m), Durban (KwaZulu-Natal, 2.79m), Soweto (Gauteng, 1.27m), Nelson Mandela Bay (Eastern Cape, 1.15m), Port Elizabeth (Eastern Cape, 876,436), Soshanguve (Gauteng, 728,063), Evaton (Gauteng, 605,504), Pietermaritzburg (KwaZulu-Natal, 475,238), Tembisa (Gauteng, 463,109), Vereeniging (Gauteng, 377,922), East London (Eastern Cape, 295,644), Boksburg (Gauteng, 260,321), Polokwane (Limpopo, 227,407), Kimberley (Northern Cape, 225,155), Welkom (Free State, 211,014), Benoni (Gauteng, 158,777), Mafikeng (North-West, 64,359), Nelspruit (Mpumalanga, 58,670), Richards Bay (KwaZulu-Natal, 50,511) and Bhisho (Eastern Cape, 11,192).


There are 364,130 km of roads (17 per cent paved) and 20,500 km of railway (about half electrified). This substantial rail network serves not only South Africa with its mining and heavy industries, but also neighbouring countries.

Ports also serve South Africa and its landlocked neighbours: Botswana, Lesotho, Swaziland, Zambia and Zimbabwe. The main commercial ports are at Durban, Port Elizabeth, Cape Town and East London. Durban is the leading port, with capacity for deep-sea ro-ro vessels and a principal terminal of the 3,100-km long underground oil pipeline.

International airports are at Bloemfontein, Cape Town, Durban, Johannesburg and Port Elizabeth, while East London, Kimberley and Pretoria are important domestic airports. There are also some 210 licensed aerodromes and 40 heliports.

International relations:

South Africa is a member of the African, Caribbean and Pacific Group of States, African Union, Indian Ocean Rim Association for Regional Cooperation, Non-Aligned Movement, Southern African Customs Union, Southern African Development Community, United Nations and World Trade Organization.


The southern part of the ancient African plateau forms the centre of South Africa, falling through rolling hills and coastal plains to the coastal belt. The Great Escarpment, containing the Drakensberg and Cape mountain ranges, marks the high edge of the plateau. The plateau lies at an altitude of about 1,500m in the south and east, dipping towards the north and west. On the plateau, land is flat or undulating and dotted with round hills or ‘koppies’. The Limpopo and Orange are the major river systems, although Natal and parts of the Cape are traversed by fast-flowing, seasonal rivers with coastal lagoons. Surface water is in short supply.


Climate varies with altitude and continental position: Mediterranean climate in the Western Cape; humid subtropical climate on the northern KwaZulu-Natal coast; continental climate of the highveld; and arid Karoo and Kalahari fringes, with a great temperature range, giving very hot summer days and cold dry nights. The south-east trade winds, blowing first over KwaZulu- Natal, are the principal source of precipitation, falling in summer. Winter rains reach the Western Cape.


The most significant environmental issues are soil erosion, desertification, air pollution and resulting acid rain, and pollution of rivers from agricultural run-off and urban discharges. In a country with relatively few major rivers and lakes, extensive water conservation and control measures are necessary to keep pace with rapid growth in water usage.


Varies with climate, including temperate hardwood forest, dense coastal bush, Mediterranean scrub (including many varieties of aloes and proteas), vast grasslands of the veld dotted with flat-topped thorn trees, and bushveld scrub. South Africa’s native flora have been developed as garden flowers all over the world. Forest covers eight per cent of the land area, having declined at 1.8 per cent p.a. 1990–2010. Arable land comprises ten per cent and permanent cropland less than one per cent of the total land area.


South Africa’s wildlife, among which are the large mammals characteristic of the African grassland, includes species, such as the white rhino, that are endangered elsewhere. The game reserves such as the Kruger and Hluhluwe are considered among the world’s best. The wide range of bird species includes many migrants from the northern hemisphere. South Africa was a founder member of the International Union for the Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources (IUCN). Some 24 mammal species and 41 bird species are thought to be endangered (2014).


Stone-age Khoisan hunter-gatherers inhabited the region for about 8,000 years. At some period before AD 300 iron-age communities of pastoralists (almost certainly people of the Bantu groups) were living in the interior. The San people (Bushmen) were pushed towards the hostile desert areas; the Khoi-Khoi (Hottentots) added pastoralism to their economy, possibly learned from the more advanced and powerful Bantu, and inhabited the South-West Cape.

People of the Bantu groups, constituting South Africa’s majority, are related to the peoples of other east and southern African countries, and come from four main linguistic groups: the Nguni, Sotho-Tswana, Venda and Tsonga. The Nguni (including Zulu, Xhosa and Swazi peoples) are by far the largest.

The first European settlers – Dutch farmers sent to re-provision ships of the Dutch East India Company – arrived at the Cape in 1652. They were joined in 1688 by Huguenots (French Protestant refugees), followed by groups from Belgium, Britain, France and Germany, and augmented by often highly skilled slaves from Indonesia and Malaya. Control of the Cape passed from the Dutch to the French and, after 1814, to the British. The European and racially mixed groups developed the language of Afrikaans, a sense of folk identity as Afrikaners, or Boers (farmers), and a religious identity as strict Calvinists. They developed a ranching-centred style of agriculture suitable to the terrain (and similar to that of the Bantu peoples) and, as their numbers grew and the distant administrative authority became more irksome and foreign, migrated towards the interior.

Continuing friction on the Eastern Cape frontier and the abolition of slavery by Britain triggered a significant migration, the Great Trek, which from 1836-38 onwards brought them into direct conflict with the African peoples. While the black societies welcomed the traders and missionaries, between them and the Boers was direct competition for land. The Africans were themselves in upheaval in the 19th century. In Natal, a military genius, Shaka, had moulded the formerly insignificant Zulus into a powerful fighting force and developed an economy of war. The Xhosas had been weakened by 100 years of battle with the white settlers along the Eastern Cape frontier. The Boers trekked inland, defeating first the Ndebele and then other tribes, and establishing the Boer Republics of the Transvaal (South African Republic) and Orange Free State.

Meanwhile, Britain was also expanding, taking Natal in 1843 and then following the Boers inland. The first Indians came in 1860 to work as indentured labourers in the Natal sugar fields and, in 1867, diamonds were discovered, triggering adventurer immigrants from many countries. Gold was discovered in 1871 – in a Boer Republic. Britain went to war with the Boers and, with difficulty, defeated them. Having also finally defeated the Zulus, Britain gained control of all South Africa. The four provinces were united in 1910 into the dominion of the Union of South Africa, and the country’s independence was formally recognised under the Statute of Westminster in 1931.

The country had come to independence with a constitution which effectively denied black rights. Most areas excluded black, coloured and Indian people from the vote. Resistance to racial discrimination was begun by Mahatma Gandhi, who arrived in South Africa as a young lawyer in 1893. He led the first passive resistance to the pass laws in 1906. In 1912, the African National Congress (ANC) was founded, to fight for full constitutional rights for blacks.

However, South Africa steadily reduced black rights. In 1913, land acts severely limited the rights of blacks to own land or live in certain areas. In 1936, black voters were removed from the common voters’ roll in the Cape.

The apartheid years

In 1948, the National Party (NP) came to power on an electoral platform of apartheid, and moved rapidly in enacting a policy of racial segregation into law. The ANC, in collaboration with the Indian Congress, Coloured People’s Congress and Congress of Democrats (mainly white communists and anti-racists), launched the Freedom Charter and, in 1952, the Defiance Campaign in response. More apartheid laws, separating education and public amenities, followed. Then, in 1960, the police at Sharpeville shot and killed 69 peaceful demonstrators. The ANC, Pan-Africanist Congress (PAC), South African Communist Party (SACP) and other anti-apartheid movements were banned and went under ground or into exile. The ANC adopted a policy of armed struggle and Nelson Mandela, as head of its new military wing, launched a sabotage campaign. In 1963 Mandela, Walter Sisulu and other ANC leaders were sentenced to life imprisonment. After the Sharpeville massacre the world woke up to apartheid. South Africa became a pariah nation, forced out of the Commonwealth and increasingly isolated internationally. The UN declared apartheid to be a danger to world peace in 1961 and a crime against humanity in 1966.

During the 1970s some 3 million people were forcibly resettled in ‘homelands’. Further shockwaves ran through the international media when, in 1976, schoolchildren in Soweto protesting against school classes in the Afrikaans language were shot by police and this sparked a violent uprising throughout the country in which some 600 mainly young people were killed. Popular activist Steve Biko (a young leader of the Black Consciousness Movement) was beaten to death while in police custody in 1977, and his name became a rallying cry of resistance.

In 1983, the government introduced a new tricameral parliament, which gave representation (in separate chambers) to white, coloured and Indian people, but excluded blacks. Intended as an act of appeasement, this aroused new united opposition, led by a new umbrella body, the United Democratic Front, with strong representation from the churches and trade unions as well as political parties. In 1985, the Congress of South African Trade Unions was founded. Despite the powerful police and military apparatus, black resistance intensified.

From the mid-1980s, the Commonwealth, USA and EU introduced political, sporting, cultural and economic sanctions. The Commonwealth was consistently among the leaders in international action against apartheid, for example with its Gleneagles Agreement against sporting contacts with South Africa (1977). The Commonwealth also led the peaceful dismantling of apartheid, starting in 1985 with establishment of the Commonwealth Eminent Persons Group (led by Olusegun Obasanjo of Nigeria and former Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Fraser).

Within South Africa, political protest grew, and began to take an increasingly violent form, influenced by Umkhonto we Sizwe (‘Spear of the Nation’, the military wing of the ANC). The country was becoming ungovernable, and its economy disastrously weakened.

The ending of apartheid

In 1989, F W de Klerk succeeded P W Botha as president, and immediately began negotiations to unscramble apartheid. Within months Walter Sisulu and seven other imprisoned leaders were released and the bans on the ANC, PAC and SACP were lifted. In February 1990, Mandela was released. Apartheid laws were repealed. In August 1990, the ANC suspended the armed struggle, and began negotiations with the government.

Political violence intensified within South Africa, with fierce competition between the ANC and the Zulu traditionalist Inkatha Freedom Party. Nonetheless, all-party negotiations – the Convention for a Democratic South Africa – began in December 1991. An all-white referendum showed that the whites were in favour of abolishing apartheid and agreement was reached in June 1993. A multiparty transitional executive council was formed to partner the government until the elections for a new parliament could be held. As the reform process gathered momentum from 1989, international sanctions were lifted. South Africa’s first non-racial and democratic elections were held in April 1994, with Commonwealth, UN and other teams of observers present. The observers concluded that despite technical problems during the elections, the results were an overwhelming expression of the will of the people. The elections gave the ANC an overall majority with 252 seats, and 63% of the votes. The NP obtained 20% and the Inkatha Freedom Party (IFP) 11%.

Nelson Mandela, president of the ANC, was elected president of South Africa at the first sitting of the National Assembly in May 1994. Although the ANC had an overall majority, in the interests of achieving consensus, a Government of National Unity (GNU) was formed, with a cabinet comprising 18 ANC, six NP, three IFP MPs and one independent MP. Mandela appointed Thabo Mbeki (ANC) and F W de Klerk (NP) as deputy presidents. The then ANC Secretary-General Cyril Ramaphosa was elected Chairperson of the Constitutional Assembly. In June 1994 South Africa rejoined the Commonwealth and reclaimed its seat at the UN.

The Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) was established with Archbishop Desmond Tutu as its chair in 1996 to provide a public forum for the personal accounts of human rights abuses during the apartheid years. It was attended by some 7,000 individuals (including ANC leaders, but not Buthelezi or de Klerk) and delivered its final report in October 1998. People attended hearings on a voluntary basis and were then entitled to apply to the TRC for amnesty from prosecution.

The NP withdrew from the GNU in 1996 to form the parliamentary opposition, but the IFP remained in the national government, although this collaboration was not reflected in the provincial government of KwaZulu-Natal. In October 1996 a new constitution was approved by the National Assembly and came into force in February 1997. At the 50th national conference of the ANC in December 1997, Mandela stood down as party president, making way for Thabo Mbeki.

In the second democratic general election in June 1999, the ANC received 66% of the votes, the Democratic Party (DP) 9%, the IFP just under 9%, the (renamed) New National Party (NNP) 7% and the newly formed United Democratic Movement (UDM) 4%. With 266 out of the National Assembly’s 400 seats, the ANC was able to command a two-thirds majority (necessary for changes to the constitution) with the support of the Minority Front, which had one seat. Mbeki succeeded Mandela as president and IFP leader Mangosuthu Buthelezi was reappointed as home affairs minister, while the 22-member cabinet was partially reshuffled with Jacob Zuma becoming deputy president. The DP replaced the NNP as the official opposition, and in June 2000 the DP and the NNP merged to become the Democratic Alliance.

A Brief History of South Africa, with Dave Steward

History of South Africa Pt 1 of 12 Many Societies

Learn more about South Africa on The Commonwealth site
Society, Economy, Constitution & politics, History and Travel.

South Africa
By Monica M. Cole (1961) (pdf)

South Africa 1486-1913
By A. Wyatt Tilby (1914) (pdf)

South Africa - A Planned Tour of the Country to-day
Describing its towns, its scenic beauties, its wild and its historic places, and telling of the men who made or discovered them by A. W. Wells (1949) (pdf)

Ultra South Africa 2017

Cape Town Vacation Travel Guide

Business in the Commonwealth
Web site of the Country

Return to our Commonwealth Page


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