The Republic of South Africa is on the southern tip of Africa and is bordered by Namibia, Botswana, Zimbabwe, Mozambique, the Indian Ocean and the Atlantic Ocean. South Africa completely encircles Lesotho and surrounds much of Swaziland.
South Africa is divided into nine provinces: North-West, Western Cape, Northern Cape, Northern Province, Gauteng, Mpumalanga, Free State, Eastern Cape and KwaZulu-Natal.
Pretoria (Tshwane) is South Africa's administrative capital with its legislative and judicial centres in Cape Town and Bloemfontein respectively.
Two-thirds of the terrain is plateau, called Highveld. The Great Escarpment runs along the east, south and west of the Highveld. There is a thin coastal strip, the Lowveld. The Orange river runs from the east to the west of the country.
South Africa's weather is generally sunny and temperate although there are regional variations. Much of the country is prone to drought and is semiarid.
South Africa's varied landscape includes veld (grasslands), wetlands, mountains, beaches, rainforest and desert.
There are thousands of species of flowers; the Western Cape is known as the Floral Kingdom and has eight and a half thousand species of flowers. Trees include the baobab and trees introduced from abroad such as oaks and pines.
The Kruger National Park is South Africa's largest game reserve and was opened to protect the wildlife of the Lowveld.
Animals in the national parks and game reserves are monkeys, baboons, hyenas, impalas, antelopes, zebras, giraffes, buffalo, wildebeest, hippopotamuses, rhinoceroses, lions, leopards, elephants, crocodiles and snakes. The springbok is the national animal. There are eight hundred and fifty species of birds and whale watching is popular in the waters off the Cape.
Many tourists visiting South Africa choose to go on an animal safari to see the "Big Five": the elephant, lion, leopard, rhino and buffalo.
Traditional South African building materials were those readily available: mud, wattle and daub, thatch and stone. Rural buildings were circular such as the Zulu Kraal.
The Dutch introduced rectangular buildings. Cape-Dutch style buildings were constructed with thick walls and an emphasis on gables. The oldest stone Dutch building in the Cape is the castle, built to protect the early settlers.
Corrugated iron was introduced as a building material and in some farm houses the thatched roof was replaced with sheets of this material. In fact, Cape Town has two contemporary corrugated iron buildings designed by Johannesburg architects.
European architectural styles introduced to South Africa include Art Deco of the 1920s and 1930s. An example is the City Hall in Benoni (Gauteng) constructed in 1937.
Today skyscrapers dominate many city skyscapes. These prosperous areas are surrounded by shanty towns populated by people looking for work and living in shacks built with cardboard and packing materials. (2000)
The population of South Africa was estimated at 44,344,136 in 2005. Just over seventy-five percent of the people are black; around thirteen and a half percent are white; thirteen and a half percent are termed "coloured" (of mixed descent) and two point six percent are Indian.
Official languages are Afrikaans, English, Ndebele, Pedi, Sotho, Swazi, Tsonga, Tswana, Venda, Xhosa and Zulu.
Nearly seventy percent of the people are Christian with small minorities of Hindus and Muslims. Around thirty percent practise African religions that include animist beliefs.
South African food is greatly influenced by the varied ethnic origins of its inhabitants. The Dutch introduced baked foods, the English meat pies, and the Indians and Malays brought Asian food to South Africa.
Food developed by the Boers (farmers) and used as provisions for the Treks north included boerewors (a sausage), biltong and droewors (dried salted meat).
Other food eaten includes maize porridge, crushed corn with beans and African salad.
Popular drinks are local beer and wine.
In the mid seventeenth century, the Dutch East India Company sent a number people from the Netherlands to start a settlement in South Africa. These colonists were joined by French Protestants (Huguenots); their descendants were known as Boers (farmers) or Afrikaners.
People already living in the region were the San and "Bantu" (including the Zulu people). The Dutch brought slaves to South Africa from other parts of Africa, Madagascar, Malaysia and Java. Later, in 1860, indentured labour from India arrived to work on the sugar plantations.
The Cape was an important station where ships collected new supplies on their way to the East. Britain was interested in the Cape and following the Napoleonic War the Congress of Vienna assigned the area to the United Kingdom. The first British colonists arrived in 1820.
With the introduction of British administration many Afrikaners trekked north to found their own republics. The Great Trek started in 1835 with thousands of Afrikaners moving north. They eventually founded the Boer Republics of the Orange Free State and the Transvaal.
In 1867 the first diamonds were found near Kimberley and in 1886 gold was discovered in Witwatersrand (the Rand) in the Transvaal.
Conflict continued between the Boers and the British and in 1880 the first Anglo-Boer War started between the British and the Transvaal. This was followed in 1899 by the outbreak of the second Boer War. The war resulted in a victory for the British (1902), followed by self-government of the Transvaal and Orange Free State, within the British Empire.
In 1910 the Cape, Natal, the Transvaal and Orange Free State became the Union of South Africa with Louis Botha as the country's first Prime Minister. Jan Smuts succeeded Botha, who in turn was succeeded by Hertzog. However Smuts was back again in 1939 taking South Africa into the Second World War on the side of Britain.
After the War, Daniel Malan became the Prime Minister leading the Nationalist and Afrikaner Parties. Once in government the Nationalists strengthened the policy of apartheid - the separation of the races. "Homelands" were set up for black people who were legally enforced to carry "pass" books that contained information details of their access to non-black areas.
In 1960 a number of black people in Sharpeville refused to carry the passes. The government declared a state of emergency and during this time seventy of the protesters were killed and just under two hundred wounded.
Britain was against to the system of apartheid and in 1961 the South African government severed its ties with Britain and the Commonwealth and became a republic.
Throughout the reign of apartheid those opposing the policy, such as members of the African National Congress (ANC) and the Pan Africanist Congress (PAC), were either imprisoned (for example, Nelson Mandela and Walter Sisulu) or lived in exile. The Black Consciousness Movement and The Inkatha National Cultural Liberation Movement also opposed apartheid.
In 1976, a rebellion in the black township of Soweto, near Johannesburg, was sparked by the imposition of the Afrikaans language (the language of apartheid) in black schools. Over the next months, rioting spread leading to the deaths of hundreds of the black population.
1977 saw the death of the Black Consciousness Movement leader, Stephen Biko. He died at the age of thirty whilst in police custody.
Eventually a new Constitution included "Coloureds" and Indians in the parliamentary system although the whites still held the majority and blacks were excluded.
Protests continued and in 1986 the South African Bishop, Desmond Tutu, pressed the United Nations for more sanctions against South Africa.
In 1989 F W de Klerk became Prime Minister and 1990 saw the release of Nelson Mandela, the ANC leader, after twenty-seven years in prison.
A referendum in 1992 showed white support for constitutional reform. The 1990s brought an end to apartheid and the ANC won an overwhelming victory with Nelson Mandela becoming the country's leader. In 1999 Thabo Mbeki succeeded Mandela as President of the African National Congress and President of South Africa.
A Truth and Reconciliation Commission (1996-98) led by Archbishop Desmond Tutu was set up to find out the truth about the atrocities committed during the period of apartheid.
South Africa has a developed infrastructure with good transport and communication systems. It has plentiful supplies of mineral resources and one of the largest stock exchanges in the world. However after years of apartheid there is a huge gap between the rich and the poor. Unemployment is around thirty percent - most of the unemployed are black. (2002)
South Africa is the world's largest producer of chromium, gold and platinum. Other resources are coal, copper, iron, manganese, nickel, phosphates, salt, tin, uranium, vanadium, natural gas and diamonds.
Industries include chemicals, fertiliser, iron and steel, metalwork, jewellery, electrical appliances, machinery, vehicle assembly, textiles and food production. South Africa also has a successful wine industry.
South Africa grows its own food. There are large modern farms as well as the small traditional farms. Most of the farmland is used for grazing livestock such as cattle, sheep and goats. Agricultural products are maize, fruit, sugarcane, groundnuts, dairy produce, tobacco, cotton and wool.
Finance, insurance and tourism are important to the country's economy.
South Africa has a variety of attractions for the tourist, for instance, the Durban coast and the Kruger National Park. In May 2004, FIFA, the Federation Internationale Football Association, announced that South Africa is to be the venue of the 2010 football World Cup. This event will draw many more tourists to South Africa and is said to be worth more than two hundred million pounds to the country's economy.
Over three thousand examples of Stone Age art has been preserved in South Africa - these are murals of people and animals.
Songs, stories and poetry have long been part of South Africa's heritage. Today modern poets continue the poetic tradition exploring the issues of the present. A number of books have been written which tell South Africa's story of apartheid including I Write What I Like by Steve Biko, Nelson Mandela's Long Walk to Freedom and Alan Paton's novel Cry The Beloved Country.
Music and dance are both integral parts of South Africa's culture. During the period of white supremacy, many black men worked in the mines, separated from their families; dance was a way of keeping in touch with their roots and helping them endure terrible living conditions. Today these dances are performed for tourists.
South Africa's pleasant weather has resulted in an outdoor lifestyle. Sport is a popular leisure activity and South Africa excels at international rugby and cricket.
During the period of apartheid a sport boycott took place against South Africa by many sporting bodies and individuals. For example, in cricket other cricket-playing nations refused to play against South Africa. However once South Africa was back, with players picked from all its people, the team soon became one of the top two or three in the world, with terrific fast bowlers, hard-hitting batsmen and athletic fielders.
The South African Football Association is also keen to promote their national team and in May 2004 it was announced that South Africa would host the 2010 World Cup.
Christmas, Easter and New Year (1 January) are public holidays. Other national holidays include Freedom Day and the Day of Reconciliation.