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South Africa

Geography, climate and population


South Africa is the southernmost country on the African continent. Its coastline of over 3 000 km links the east and west coasts of Africa. The country stretches on almost 1 600 km from north to south as well as from east to west, totalling an area of 1.22 million km▓ (Table 1). South Africa is bordered by Botswana and Zimbabwe to the north, Mozambique and Swaziland to the northeast and east, the Indian Ocean to the southeast and south, the Atlantic Ocean to the southwest and west and Namibia to the northwest. Lesotho, an independent constitutional monarchy, is entirely surrounded by South African territory in the south-eastern part of the country.

A plateau that covers the largest part of the country dominates the topography. The plateau drops from 2 400 metres in the Lesotho region in the east to 600 meters in the sandy Kalahari in the west. The plateau comprises the Highveld in its centre and is separated from the surrounding areas of generally lower elevation by the Great Escarpment, reaching nearly 3 300 meters. The latter is known by various local names: the Drakensberg, the Stormberg, the Nuweveld Range and the Roggeveld Mountains. On both sides of the Great Escarpment, the topography tends to be relatively broken, with common mountains and deeply incised valleys but little genuine coastal plain. For most of its 2 900 km length, the coastline is characterized by fairly steep slopes rising rapidly inland. South of the Orange river lies the Great Karoo region. Cape Fold mountainsľbetween 1 000 and 2 500 metresľlie in the southwest of the country including Table Mountain associated with Cape Town.

The agricultural land of 96.8 million ha consists mostly of permanent meadows and pastures (87 percent) (Table 1). The cultivated area is estimated at 12.9 million ha in 2013 (FAO, 2016). Natural forests cover less than one million ha, plantation forestry less than 1.27 million ha and the woodlands, also known as savannahs, collectively cover about 30 million ha (DAFF, 2015). The natural vegetation includes shrubs and desert grasses in the dry central and western parts of the plateau, fynbos in the southwestern parts of the country with its Mediterranean climate and grasslands, savannah, bushveld and forest depending on the altitude in the eastern parts. There are 528 protected areas, including 20 marine areas. Over 3.75 million ha are protected in 20 national parks and 7 transboundary conservation areas (DAFF, 2015).


South Africa is a semi-arid country with an average annual rainfall of 495 mm, ranging from less than 100 mm/year in the western deserts to about 1 200 mm/year in the eastern part of the country. Only 35 percent of the country has a precipitation of 500 mm or more, 21 percent has a precipitation of less than 200 mm.

Based on annual rainfall, three climate zones can be distinguished:

  • The eastern parts of the country, which are summer rainfall areas with an annual precipitation of 500 mm and more;
  • The central and the western parts of the great plateau, which are semi-arid to arid and are characterized by late summer rains, varying from less than 100 mm/year to approximately 500 mm/year;
  • The Cape Fold mountains and the area between them and the sea have a winter rainfall season in the west and rainfall throughout the year in the more south-easterly parts. Annual precipitation in this region varies from about 300 mm to more than 900 mm.

Therefore, 65 percent of the country does not receive enough rainfall for successful rainfed crop production and is used as grazing land. Crops grown in this area are grown under irrigation. Except for the Western Cape, with a Mediterranean climate and winter rainfall, the rest of the country has summer rainfall. Summer is from October to March with temperatures from 15║C at night to 30║C at noon. Winter is from April to September with temperatures from 0║C at night to 18║C at noon. Winter temperatures in the interior often drop below zero and frost is common on the great plateau limiting the choice of crops and resulting in strong seasonal patterns for most crops grown. South Africa ranks very high as far as sunshine days are concerned and high levels of evaporation are common due to the hot climate.


The total population of the country is estimated at 54.5 million in 2015, of which 36 percent is rural (Table 1). The annual population growth rate over the period 2005-2015 is 1 percent, down from almost 2 in the 1990s. The average population density is 45 inhabitants/km▓, ranging from 21 in rural areas to more than 100 inhabitants/km▓ in more densely populated areas.

In 2014, the Human Development Index ranks South Africa 116 among 188 countries (UNDP, 2016). Life expectancy in South Africa is 57 years and the under-five mortality is 41 per 1000 births, the latter progressing from 95 per 1000 in the 1990s while the former declined from over 60 years in the 1990s. With no significant distinction between boys and girls, almost all children in 2013 are enrolled in primary and secondary education (WB, 2016). Adult literacy is 94 percent in 2012, with less than 2 points difference between female and male. Poverty concerns more than half of the population (54 percent) and is mainly a rural phenomenon where 75 percent of the poor live. It affects mostly women and children, in particular the female headed households (RSA, 2013). In 2015, 99.6 percent of the urban and 81.4 percent of the rural population were using improved drinking water sources, that is 93.4 percent of the total population This improved since 2002 when only 87 percent of the population had access to an improved drinking water source (JMP, 2015).


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       Quote as: FAO. 2016. AQUASTAT website. Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO). Website accessed on [yyyy/mm/dd].
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