Often described as 'a world in one country', South Africa offers the visitor a breathtaking variety of scenery, from desert and lush forest, to soaring mountains and vast empty plains.
Culturally as diverse as the landscape, many visitors are drawn to experience for themselves the miracle of the peaceful overthrow of apartheid. Others are attracted by the endless golden beaches, big game, and activities such as diving and snorkelling, or bird-watching. Whatever their reasons, visitors will find South Africa positively inviting, with world-class infrastructure, transport and accommodation.
Population (Census 2011): 51.77-million
Measures: metric system
Currency: One rand (R) = 100 cents
Time: Two hours ahead of GMT
Internet domain: .za
Area: 1 219 090 square kilometres
Agriculture: 81.6% of total land area
Arable land: 12.1% of total
Irrigated land: 10.15% of arable land
Cape Town (legislative)
South Africa has nine provinces, which vary considerably in size: Eastern Cape, Free State, Gauteng, KwaZulu-Natal, Limpopo, Mpumalanga, Northern Cape, North West and the Western Cape.
The smallest is tiny and crowded Gauteng, a highly urbanised region, and the largest the vast, arid and empty Northern Cape, which takes up almost a third of South Africa's total land area.
Real GDP growth rate (second quarter 2012): -3.2%
Consumer inflation rate (May 2012): 5.7% y/y [StatsSA]
Producer inflation rate ((May 2012): 6.6% y/y [StatsSA]
Prime overdraft lending rate of banks (July 2012): 9%
Unemployment (first quarter 2012): 25.2% [StatsSA]
South Africa is a medium-sized country, with a total land area of 1 219 090 square kilometres, or roughly equivalent in size to Niger, Angola, Mali or Colombia. It is one-eighth the size of the US, about a third the size of the European Union, twice the size of France and over three times the size of Germany. It measures some 1 600km from north to south, and roughly the same from east to west.
The country lies between 22° and 35° south, flanked on the west by the Atlantic Ocean and on the east by the Indian Ocean, whose waters meet at the country's ï¿½ and Africa's ï¿½ most southern tip, Cape Agulhas.
The coastline stretches 2 798 kilometres from a desert border in the northwest, down the icy Skeleton Coast to Cape Agulhas, then up along the green hills and wide beaches on the coast of the Indian Ocean, to a border with subtropical Mozambique in the northeast.
The low-lying coastal zone is narrow for much of that distance, soon giving way to a mountainous escarpment that separates it from the high inland plateau.
A subtropical location, moderated by ocean on three sides of the country and the altitude of the interior plateau, makes South Africa a warm and sunny country. But it's also dry, with an average annual rainfall of about 464mm. While the Western Cape gets most of its rainfall in winter, the rest of the country is mostly a summer-rainfall region.
South Africa is a multilingual country. The country's new democratic Constitution, which came into effect on 4 February 1997, recognises 11 official languages, to which it guarantees equal status. These are:
Besides the official languages, scores of others - African, European, Asian and more - are spoken in South Africa, as the country lies at the crossroads of southern Africa.
According to the 2001 census, isiZulu is the most common home language is, spoken by nearly a quarter of the population. It is followed by isiXhosa at 17.6%, Afrikaans at 13.3%, Sepedi at 9.4%, and English and Setswana each at 8.2%.
Sesotho is the mother tongue of 7.9% of South Africans, while the remaining four official languages are spoken at home by less than 5% of the population each.
Most South Africans are multilingual, able to speak more than one language. English- and Afrikaans-speaking people tend not to have much ability in indigenous languages, but are fairly fluent in each other's language. Most South Africans speak English, which is fairly ubiquitous in official and commercial public life. The country's other lingua franca is isiZulu.
South Africa is a vigorous multiparty democracy with an independent judiciary and a free and diverse press.
Until 1994, the country was known for apartheid - white-minority rule. South Africa's remarkable ability to put centuries of racial hatred behind it in favour of reconciliation was widely considered a social miracle, inspiring similar peace efforts in Northern Ireland, Rwanda and elsewhere.
The highest law of the land is the new Constitution, considered to be one of the most progressive in the world. The Constitution's Bill of Rights protects equality, freedom of expression and association, property, housing, healthcare, education, access to information, and access to courts. Protecting those rights is the country's independent judiciary, subject only to the Constitution and the law.
With 13 parties in Parliament, South Africa has a vibrant political system. The African National Congress is in the majority, but opposition parties remain robust and vocal. National elections have been held in 1994, 1999, 2004 and 2009.