Learn About South Africa

Cape Town's Table Mountain (photo: Lorraine Greenwald)

Sir Francis Drake once called the southernmost tip of Africa, where South Africa is located, "the fairest cape in all the world." This beautiful, lush land has been marked by one of the fiercest struggles for freedom and human rights in the 20th century. For the past two decades, the eyes of the world have been on South Africa, as many people fought to overcome unfair laws that forced people of different races to live apart. Now South Africa is changing its course.

About twice the size of Texas, South Africa is located at the very bottom of Africa, and its shores are lapped by the Indian and southern Atlantic oceans. While not a huge country, South Africa has many contrasts in land and climate. Most of the country's interior is made up of velds, or plateaus. Surrounding them is a ring of highlands called the Great Escarpment. Along the coast is a narrow plateau. In the north, South Africa includes part of the Kalahari Desert. Most of South Africa is semi-arid, with warm days and cool nights. Only 10 percent of the land is good for crops, so farmers need to irrigate their land.

However, what is underneath South Africa's land makes it very rich — minerals, such as gold and diamonds. It has, by far, the most diamonds in the world and the second largest amount of gold of any country. It is the leading industrial country in Africa, with factories that make everything from cars and plastics to electrical equipment.

Many tourists now visit South Africa to see its cities, such as Cape Town, with its famous Table Mountain nearby (it looks like a giant table). Visitors also flock to South Africa's huge wild-game parks to see lions and elephants and take in the country's great natural beauty. However, the country's long-standing policies against people of color prompted other countries to take actions, especially in the 1980s, that discouraged investment and tourism.

Just after World War II, a group known as the Nationalists — whose ancestors were mainly Dutch — came to power. They believed that people of different races should be kept very far apart in their country, calling their policy "apartheid" (pronounced a-par-tate). The word means "apartness." Laws divided the South African people into four groups based on their race: whites, blacks, Asians, and people of mixed race, known as coloreds. South Africa's population is 75 percent black, 14 percent white, and 11 percent colored and Indian.

Under the apartheid policies, black people were forced to live in small, barren areas called "homelands" or crowd into dangerous shantytowns on the edges of cities. They were not allowed to vote, and most held low-paying jobs, if they were lucky. The government spent 12 times as much money on white schoolchildren as on black schoolchildren.

The policies lasted for many decades, despite efforts by people who opposed apartheid, such as Nelson Mandela and his group, the African National Congress. Mandela spent 27 years in jail for his activities, but he remained dedicated to the cause of freedom. Slowly, life began to change in South Africa. In the 1980s, many countries refused to do business with South Africa. South African athletes weren't allowed to compete in the Olympics or in other athletic competitions. Finally, in 1990, South Africa's president released Nelson Mandela from jail. People of all races came together to draft a new constitution, which was adopted in 1996. Mandela was elected president.

Today, black and white children can go to school together or live in the same neighborhood. But most whites are still far better off financially than most blacks, and the struggle to overcome the effects of apartheid and bad feelings between some blacks and whites remains. No one knows what South Africa's future course will be, but many citizens are trying to build this future together.

History Highlights
Ancient times: Bushmen and Hottentots are original inhabitants. Later, tall cattle-owning Bantu peoples, such as the Xhosa and Zulus, move in from the north.
1488: Bartolomeu Diaz, a Portuguese explorer, sails around the Cape of Good Hope.
1600s: Dutch settle in the Cape of Good Hope. They call themselves Boers, a Dutch word meaning "farmers."
1806: Great Britain seizes the Cape. Many Dutch trek north and found two republics, the Orange Free State and the Transvaal.
1867: Diamonds are discovered in the region.
1899–1902: The Anglo-Boer War takes place between the English and the Afrikaners, who are Dutch descendants.
1910: The British, after their victory, create the Union of South Africa.
1948: The policy of apartheid (a-par-tate), or separation of the races, becomes official.
1961: The Union becomes the Republic of South Africa.
1970: All black citizens are forced to become citizens of one of South Africa's "homelands," whether or not they had ever been there. This move means many blacks lose their South African citizenship.
1990: Black nationalist leader Nelson Mandela is freed after 27 years in prison.
1991: President F. W. de Klerk announces plans to end the laws of racial separation.
1994: South Africa has first elections in which all of its people can vote. They elect Nelson Mandela as president.

And Did You Know That...

  • one of the most unusual trees in South Africa is the baobab? A baobob can live a thousand years, and is famous for its thick trunk, which can be up to 50 feet in diameter!
  • the city of Johannesburg was built at the site of huge gold mines? For many years, builders built homes and neighborhoods around huge piles of dirt left over from the digging.
  • you have to be careful getting out of your car when you visit South Africa's Kruger National Park? The park — which is about the size of Massachusetts — is full of animals, including lions, elephants, wildebeests, hyenas, giraffes, vultures, and other creatures.
  • there are big sharks off all the beaches in Durban, South Africa, but it's safe to go in the water? The beaches are protected by shark net
  • a South African physician, Dr. Christiaan Barnard, performed the first open-heart surgery?
  • South Africa is home to one of the world's deadliest snakes, the black mamba. The venom from these 12-foot-long snakes can paralyze and kill someone in a few minutes.

Write about it:
Even though the era of apartheid is over, its legacy remains. What are things South Africa and the world can do to repair some of the damage caused by apartheid?

Learn more about South Africa in these selected Web sites:
This page includes links outside of Scholastic.com.
Every Web site we link to was visited by our team at one point in time to make sure it's appropriate for children. But we do not monitor or control these sites, and these sites can change. In addition, many of these sites may have links to other sites that we have not reviewed. Be sure to get permission from your parents or teacher before leaving this site, and remember to read the Privacy Policy and Terms of Use of any site you visit.

Virtual Safari:
Take a virtual safari as you view and learn about the animals of Kruger National Park.

Nelson Mandela:
Read about the life of Nelson Mandea. This site offers a wealth of information from his biography to letters he wrote to his wife during his 18 years in the notorious prison of Robben Island.

National Anthem:
Read a history of the South African national anthem and see versions of it in English and Xhosa.