A PORTRAIT OF Putting South Africa on the Map

The southernmost country on the African continent, South Africa is roughly five times the size of Britain. It covers an area of 1,223,201 sq km (472,156 sq miles) and has a population of around 46 million. The sovereign kingdom of Lesotho lies within its borders. The Atlantic, which washes its western shores, and the Indian Ocean, which laps the East Coast, meet at Cape Agulhas, Africa’s most southerly tip. To the north of South Africa lie the neighboring states of Namibia, Botswana, Zimbabwe, Swaziland, and Mozambique

Road Map of South Africa
International airports at Johannesburg, Cape Town, and Durban link South Africa with the rest of the world, while domestic airports serve many of the smaller centers. International ocean liners dock at the ports of Cape Town, Durban and Port Elizabeth. An efficient road network spans the vast interior, linking cities and towns.

Blue skies, game parks, wilderness areas, and the promise of a sun-drenched holiday are what draws most visitors to South Africa. While the country continues to be troubled by deep-rooted racial divisions, the determination of her people to begin anew makes it an inspiring and beautiful place to explore. Acacia trees survive along the parched fringes of the Kalahari desert South Africa, roughly the size of Spain and France combined, encompasses an astonishing diversity of environments: from the dramatic arid moonscapes of the northwest to the forest fringe coastline of the Garden Route; from the flat, dry Karoo interior to the craggy Drakensberg in the east; the manicured vineyards of the Cape to the spring flower fields of Namaqualand. South Africa is the only country in the world that can lay claim to an entire floral kingdom within its borders. Centered on a small area in the Western Cape, fynbos (literally “fine-leaved bush”) comprises a unique variety of proteas, ericas, and grasses.

The many wildlife parks further north are home to the Big Five: buffaloes, elephants, leopards, lions, and rhinos, while the wetlands and marine reserves along the east coast team with sea creatures and colorful birds, great and small, that are often overlooked. And then there are the beaches, favorite holiday destination of the locals, for boardsailing, swimming, surfing, angling, and suntanning.

The “rainbow people of God” is how former Anglican Archbishop Desmond Tutu described the newly liberated South African nation – this conglomeration of beliefs, traditions, and heritages living within a country of breathtaking natural wonders.

Yet, these stark contrasts do not exist in scenery alone. Many observers speak of two worlds within one country: a first and a third. Although 60 percent of the continent’s electricity is generated in South Africa, more than half of the nation’s households still have to rely on paraffin, wood, and gas for light, cooking, and heating their homes.

The modern South African state began as a halfway station. Dutch traders of the 17th century, on long sea voyages to their colonies in the East, replenished their stores at the Cape. A fertile land, South Africa is still largely self-reliant today, compelled to become so as a result of the long period of international political isolation that resulted from its former policy of racial discrimination known as apartheid (apartness).

South Africa became a world producer of gold and petroleum. Impressive advances were made in communication, weapons technology and mining, but apartheid stood in the way of harmony and economic growth. In the late 1960s, while the world’s first human heart transplant was performed at Groote Schuur Hospital in Cape Town, the majority of South Africans struggled to fulfill their most basic needs of food, shelter, and education.

In a land of such differences, it is hardly surprising that South Africans lack a collective identity. In 1994, English, Afrikaans, and nine Bantu tongues were recognized as official languages. Afrikaans, derived from Dutch and altered through contact with other tongues, is spoken by 18 percent of the population.

South Africa’s cultural mix has its roots in a colonial past. The original hunter-gatherer inhabitants of the Cape were joined, about 1,000 years ago, by migrating Bantu-speakers from the north. In the 17th century, European settlers appeared – first the Dutch, then the British and French – with their slaves from Indonesia, Madagascar, and India. Later followed indentured laborers from India. Settlers and slaves alike brought with them their culinary traditions, and if there is a national cuisine it is Cape Malay: mild lamb and fish curries sweetened with spiced fruit. Although seafood is relished, South Africans are really a meat-loving nation.

The outdoor braai (barbecue) is popular all around the globe, but no one does it quite like South Africans, with the fiercely guarded secret recipe, and competitions for the best boerewors (a kind of sausage) and potjiekos (a tasty stew prepared in a three-legged cast iron pot). Religion crosses many of the cultural and social divides. The African independent churches have a large following, as their approach includes aspects of tribal mysticism and a firm belief in the influence of ancestral spirits. The Dutch Reformed, Roman Catholic, Presbyterian, and Anglican churches draw worshippers from all population groups. Islam is strongly represented in the Western Cape, while Buddhist sand Hindus are mainly found in Durban.

An awareness of African identity is increasingly apparent. Music, which has always played a central part in traditional ceremony and celebration, clearly leads the way. Regular church choir-festivals attest to the popularity of, especially, gospel and choral harmony. The distinctive sound of Zulu mbube (unaccompanied choral singing) has become one of South Africa’s best-known exports.

Feast day preparations in a Cape Town mosque Penny whistler African choir performing gasp by a jubilant South Africa probably did more than anything else to unite the nation. South Africa won the tournament again in 2007. Soccer, cricket, boxing, horse racing, and athletics also draw expectant crowds. The country hosted the soccer World Cup in 2010.