South Africa: Land and people

Extracted from: Susan Booysen & Grant Masterson 2009 "Chapter 11: South Africa" IN Denis Kadima and Susan Booysen (eds) Compendium of Elections in Southern Africa 1989-2009: 20 Years of Multiparty Democracy, EISA, Johannesburg, 390-391.

Many of South Africa's political and electoral practices are directly or indirectly affected by the fundamentals of geography, demography and economy - and these factors, in turn, also impact on electoral politics. It is thus useful to present a basic overview.

South Africa, being located on the southern tip of Africa, is bordered by two oceans and six other countries, inclusive of landlocked Lesotho and Swaziland. Its ocean borders comprise the Atlantic Ocean on the west and south, and the Indian Ocean on the south and east. It shares a border with neighbouring states Namibia, Botswana and Zimbabwe in the north, Mozambique and Swaziland in the east, and fully surrounds Lesotho. Almost all of South Africa's 1.2 million km² is situated below the Tropic of Capricorn, with the country divisible into three main geographic regions: an expansive central plateau; a nearly continuous escarpment of mountain ranges that ring the plateau on the west, south and east; and a low-lying strip of mostly tropical-climate land along the coast. Most of the central plateau consists of grasslands, known as Highveld, some 1220-1800 metres above sea level. The highest point of the escarpment is found in the Drakensberg mountains on the eastern escarpment, with the highest peaks reaching some 3050 metres above sea level.

South Africa is a semi-arid country, with annual rainfall across most of the country falling primarily in the summer months, the exception being the south-western areas near Cape Town, where winter rainfall dominates. A large part of the west and north-west of South Africa is made up of semi-desert habitat, known as the Karoo. The majority of South Africa's agricultural produce comes from the central and eastern parts of the country, with maize, sugarcane and citrus crops comprising a large part of the country's agricultural produce. South Africa is also home to a diverse and varied number of species of fauna and flora, many unique to the Southern African region (Frame 2008).

South Africa's ethno-cultural profile includes four major groups: Africans (which broadly includes isiZulu-, isiXhosa-, Sepedi-, Setswana-, Sesotho-, Xitsonga-, Siswati-, Tshivenda- and Ndebele-speaking populations), jointly comprising nearly 79 per cent of South Africa's population; whites (9.6 per cent), which include English- and Afrikaans-speaking communities; so-called Coloureds (8.9 per cent and frequently also Afrikaans-speaking) and Asians (2.5 per cent), primarily the Indian community (Statistics South Africa 2001).


FRAME, I 2008 (ed.), Africa South of the Sahara 2008, London, Routledge.

STATISTICS SOUTH AFRICA 2001, [www] (offline 25 Mar 2010).