50 fascinating facts about South Africa

By Ashworth Africa, December 3, 2018

There’s a lot to know about South Africa. A country rich in cultures and people, with a complicated and often bloody history, a wealth of natural beauty and incredible biodiversity, South Africa is endlessly interesting. Here are 50 facts to whet your interest in our Rainbow Nation.

Durban, KZN, South Africa
Beach volleyball in Durban, KwaZulu-Natal. Credit: South African Tourism.

Language

1. There are 11 official languages: Afrikaans, English, Ndebele, Northern Sotho, Sotho, SiSwati, Tsonga, Tswana, Venda, Xhosa and Zulu.

2. Afrikaans is a language that evolved from Dutch; the Dutch colonised South Africa from the 17th century.

3. Zulu is the most widely spoken language, with nearly a quarter of the nation speaking it as a first language; over half the population understand it.

4. English is the main language used in government since the African National Congress (ANC) took power in 1994.

Zulu dancers, KZN, South Africa
Zulu dancers in KZN. Credit: South African Tourism.

People

5. The population is around 57.7 million.

6. Black Africans make up 80.2% of the population, according to the 2011 census.

7. Durban is home to the biggest population of Indians outside India. Thousands of Indians were brought over as indentured servants during British rule in the second half of the 1800s.

8. The biggest city is Johannesburg with a population of 4.4 million; 8 million people live in the Greater Johannesburg Metropolitan Area.

Johannesburg, South Africa
Johannesburg, the City of Gold.

9. The indigenous or first people of what is now South Africa are the hunter-gatherer San and the pastoralist Khoi, who lived in Southern Africa for thousands of years. Bantu-speakers migrated south from central Africa throughout the earliest centuries AD.

10. Evidence of modern human life dating back 125,000 years has been found in South Africa.

11. Before Homo sapiens, Australopithecines lived in South Africa: a skull believed to be 2.51 million years old was found at Blombos Cave in 1924.

Rock art, South Africa
Ancient rock art near Bushman’s Kloof Retreat in the Cederberg area of South Africa.

Colonial history

12. The Portuguese were the first European country to ‘find’ South Africa. Bartolomeu Dias sailed around the coast in 1488 while figuring out a trade route to the Far East. Dias named the southernmost coastline the Cape of Storms.

13. In December 1497, Vasco da Gama led a Portuguese fleet past the point at which Dias had to turn back, reaching what is now KwaZulu-Natal. Da Gama gave the province part of its current name, calling the land Natal – Portuguese for Christmas. His expedition was a success, opening a new trading route linking Europe and Asia.

14. The Dutch East India Company established a base in the Cape to act as a stopover for their sailors, a venture led by Jan van Riebeeck in 1652. This was the year Cape Town, as it’s now called, was founded.

Cape Town, South Africa
Modern-day Cape Town. Credit: Craig Howes/Cape Town Tourism.

15. To farm the land and produce food for passing ships, the Dutch brought in their own farmers and thousands of slaves from Indonesia, India, Mauritius, Madagascar and East Africa. French Huguenots, fleeing persecution in Catholic France, arrived in the late 1680s.

16. The British took over the Cape settlement in 1795 to prevent France from seizing it after the French Empire gained control of the Kingdom of Holland. The British later agreed to hand it back to the Dutch in 1802 and surrendered the colony in 1803. In 1806, they regained the Cape following the Battle of Blaauwberg, part of the Napoleonic Wars raging between the French Empire and a coalition mostly led by Britain.

17. Shaka Zulu is one of the most famous Zulu warriors. He became king of the Zulu people in the area that is now KwaZulu-Natal in 1816, leading a fearsome army expanding the Zulu Empire, until he was murdered by his half-brothers in 1828. During his reign, it’s estimated that between one and two million people were killed.

Battlefields, South Africa
The Isandlwana battlefields in KZN. Credit: Terry Feuerborn, Flickr.

18. Throughout the Anglo-Zulu War of 1879, the British fought the Zulus in a number of battles, including the Battle of Isandlwana, which the Zulus won. Eventually, the British overcame the Zulus and used the kingdom, now KwaZulu-Natal, for their sugar plantations.

19. In 1893, a young lawyer named Mahatma Gandhi arrived in Durban. He’d come to help the cause of Indians in Natal. He later claimed that his 21 years in South Africa, witnessing great prejudice against Indians, helped shape his future politics and his commitment to non-violent protest.

Mahatma Gandhi's house in Durban, South Africa
Mahatma Gandhi’s house in Phoenix, Durban.

20. English-language rule and the abolishment of slavery by the British in 1838 forced the Dutch farmers, the Boers – whose farms were worked by slaves – out of the Cape. They established the South African Republic or the Transvaal in 1852, later losing their independence after the British won the Second Boer War in 1902.

21. In 1899, Winston Churchill – then a journalist covering the Boer War – escaped from a prisoner of war camp in Pretoria. He later filed reports from his suite at the Mount Nelson Hotel in Cape Town.

The Mount Nelson Hotel in Cape Town, South Africa
The Mount Nelson Hotel in Cape Town.

22. Diamonds were discovered between 1866 and 1867, which changed the nature of British colonialism in South Africa. By the 1870s, 95% of the world’s diamonds were from the Kimberly mines. The revenue of the Cape Colony tripled between 1871 and 1875.

23. De Beers Consolidated Mines was co-founded by British imperialist Cecil John Rhodes in 1888.

24. Gold was found in the late 19th century in the Transvaal. The mining city that immediately sprung up was Johannesburg – hence its City of Gold nickname.

25. The world’s largest diamond was found in 1905 near Pretoria. The Cullinan Diamond is 3,106.75 carats (621.35 g). It was gifted to King Edward VII in 1907 and cut into smaller stones; the two largest are set in the British royal family’s sceptre and crown, part of the Crown Jewels.

26. In 1910, the British brought together the four colonies – the Cape, Natal, the Transvaal and Orange River – into one self-governing country called the Union of South Africa.

Franschhoek, South Africa
Sunset scenes at Franschhoek in the Cape Winelands. Credit: South African Tourism.

27. South Africa sent nearly 250,000 soldiers to fight alongside the Allies in World War I. In World War II, around 334,000 South Africans volunteered to fight overseas.

28. Apartheid was formalised in 1948 with a series of legislation set by the Afrikaaner Nationalist Party that segregated the country and discriminated against anyone of colour.

29. In 1960, there was a referendum in which white South Africans voted to cut ties with the British monarchy and become a republic. Thus, in March 1961, the Republic of South Africa was born.

Tugela River in the Drakensberg, South Africa
Tugela River in the Drakensberg, South Africa.

Anti-apartheid

30. The 1960 massacre of 69 passive protestors at Sharpeville was one of the most important events of the anti-apartheid movement; after this, anti-apartheid parties such as the African National Congress (ANC) were banned and a state of emergency was declared.

31. There are countless anti-apartheid protestors who fought for freedom. Some of the most famous were Nelson Mandela, Winnie Madikizela-Mandela, Steve Biko, Helen Joseph, Walter Sisulu, Molly Blackburn, Desmond Tutu, Harry Schwarz and Joe Slovo.

Robben Island, South Africa
Robben Island, one of the prisons in which many anti-apartheid activists including Mandela were held. Credit: Cape Town Tourism.

32. Nelson Mandela spent 27 years in prison for his anti-apartheid activism. He was finally released in 1990. Mandela is commonly and affectionately referred to as Madiba – the name of his Thembu clan.

33. In 1991, the government annulled apartheid laws and a referendum in 1992 saw 68% of white South Africans vote for democracy.

Nelson Mandela casting the ballot in his country’s first all-race elections at Ohlange High School near Durban. Credit: UN Photo/Chris Sattlberger
Nelson Mandela casting the ballot in his country’s first all-race elections at Ohlange High School near Durban. Credit: UN Photo/Chris Sattlberger.

34. In 1994, the country’s first democratic elections took place and Nelson Mandela was elected President of South Africa. The current South African flag was flown for the first time, symbolising the country coming together and moving forward as one.

South African flag
The South African flag, introduced in 1994.

Post-independence

35. In 1967, the world’s first heart transplant was performed by Dr. Christiaan Barnard in Cape Town’s Groote Schuur Hospital.

36. Nando’s was founded in Johannesburg in 1987.

37. In 1991, South Africa became the first country in the world to protect great white sharks.

38. The ANC has remained in power since 1994. Cyril Ramaphosa is the current president.

39. In 2006, South Africa was the first country in Africa and the fifth worldwide to recognise same-sex marriage.

Rocktail Beach in KZN, South Africa
Rocktail Beach in KZN, South Africa.

Random facts

40. South Africa’s national animal is the springbok.

41. The national flower is the king protea.

Proteas, South Africa
A woman selling proteas at the Cape Town flower market. Credit: South African Tourism.

42. And its national bird is the blue crane.

43. There are three capital cities: Cape Town, which is the legislative capital; Pretoria, the administrative capital; and Bloemfontein, which is the judicial capital.

44. The Comrades Marathon in KwaZulu-Natal is the oldest ultra-marathon in the world, established in 1921. The route is approximately 54 miles or 87 kilometres.

45. The highest commercial bridge bungee in the world is at Bloukrans Bridge along the Garden Route, at a height of 216 metres (709 feet).

Bloukrans Bridge, South Africa
Bloukrans Bridge, the highest bridge bungee in the world.

46. Ubuntu is a philosophy that means ‘I am because we are’ – the belief that a shared bond connects all humankind. Nelson Mandela and Desmond Tutu have popularised Ubuntu outside Southern Africa.

47. Vilakazi Street in Soweto, Johannesburg, is the only street in the world to have housed two Nobel Peace Prize winners: Mandela and Tutu both lived here.

48. A South African speciality, Rooibos tea is only found in the Cederberg area of the Western Cape.

49. The Cape Floral Kingdom in the south-west of South Africa is the only one of the world’s six Floral Kingdoms contained within one country and has the highest concentration of plant life in the world. Its fynbos vegetation is unique to the region and 70% of the 9,600 species are endemic to the Cape. Table Mountain alone is home to over 2,200 species.

Fynbos, South Africa
The Cape Floral Kingdom is the only Floral Kingdom contained in one country. Credit: Grootbos.

50. South Africa’s first national park was Kruger National Park, established in 1926 by Paul Kruger, President of the South African Republic in the Transvaal. Today it is home to more large mammal species (147) than any other reserve in Africa.

Elephants, South Africa
Spotting elephants at Singita Boulders.

There’s much more to learn about South Africa. Contact us to start planning your trip.

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