South Africa is located at the southernmost region of Africa, with a long coastline that stretches more than 2,500 km (1,553 mi) and along two oceans (the South Atlantic and the Indian). At 1,219,912 km2 (471,011 sq mi),

According to the UN Demographic Yearbook, South Africa is the 25th-largest country in the world. It is about the same size as Colombia, twice the size of France, three times as big as Japan, four times the size of Italy and five times the size of the United Kingdom.

Mafadi in the Drakensberg at 3,450 m (11,320 ft) is the highest peak in South Africa. Excluding the Prince Edward Islands, the country lies between latitudes 22° and 35°S, and longitudes 16° and 33°E.

The interior of South Africa consists of a vast, in most places almost flat, plateau with an altitude of between 1,000 m (3,300 ft) and 2,100 m (6,900 ft), highest in the east and sloping gently downwards towards the west and north, and slightly less noticeably so to the south and south-west. This plateau is surrounded by the Great Escarpment whose eastern, and highest, stretch is known as the Drakensberg.

The south and south-western parts of the plateau (at approximately 1100–1800 m above sea level), and the adjoining plain below (at approximately 700–800 m above sea level – see map on the right) is known as the Great Karoo, which consists of sparsely populated scrubland. To the north the Great Karoo fades into the even drier and more arid Bushmanland, which eventually becomes the Kalahari desert in the very north-west of the country. The mid-eastern, and highest part of the plateau is known as the Highveld. This relatively well-watered area is home to a great proportion of the country’s commercial farmlands, and contains its largest conurbation (Gauteng Province). To the north of Highveld, from about the 25° 30' S line of latitude, the plateau slopes downwards into the Bushveld, which ultimately gives way to the Limpopo lowlands or Lowveld.

The coastal belt, below the Great Escarpment, moving clockwise from the northeast, consists of the Limpopo Lowveld, which merges into the Mpumalanga Lowveld, below the Mpumalanga Drakensberg (the eastern portion of the Great Escarpment). This is hotter, drier and less intensely cultivated than the Highveld above the escarpment. The Kruger National Park, located in the provinces of Limpopo and Mpumalanga in northeastern South Africa, occupies a large portion of the Lowveld covering 19,633 square kilometres (7,580 sq mi.) South of the Lowveld the annual rainfall increases as one enters KwaZulu-Natal Province, which, especially near the coast, is subtropically hot and humid. The KwaZulu-Natal – Lesotho international border is formed by the highest portion of the Great Escarpment, or Drakensberg, which reaches an altitude of over 3,000 m (9,800 ft). The climate at the foot of this part of the Drakensberg is temperate.

The coastal belt below the south and south-western stretches of the Great Escarpment contains several ranges of Cape Fold Mountains which run parallel to the coast, separating the Great Escarpment from the ocean. (These parallel ranges of fold mountains are shown on the map, above left. Note the course of the Great Escarpment to the north of these mountain ranges.) The land (at approximately 400–500 m above sea level) between two of these ranges of fold mountains in the south (i.e. between the Outeniqua and Langeberg ranges to the south and the Swartberg range to the north) is known as the Little Karoo, which consists of semi-desert scrubland similar to that of the Great Karoo, except that its northern strip along the foothills of the Swartberg Mountains, has a somewhat higher rainfall and is therefore more cultivated than the Great Karoo. The Little Karoo is historically, and still, famous for its ostrich farming around the town of Oudtshoorn. The lowland area (700–800 m above sea level) to the north of the Swartberg mountain range up to the Great Escarpment is the lowland part of the Great Karoo (see map at top right), which is climatically and botanically almost indistinguishable from the Karoo above the Great Escarpment. The narrow coastal strip between the most seaward Cape Fold Mountain range (i.e., the Langeberg–Outeniqua mountains) and the ocean has a moderately high year-round rainfall, especially in the George-Knysna-Plettenberg Bay region, which is known as the Garden Route. It is famous for the most extensive areas of indigenous forests in South Africa (a generally forest-poor country).

In the south-west corner of the country the Cape Peninsula forms the southernmost tip of the coastal strip which borders the Atlantic Ocean, and ultimately terminates at the country’s border with Namibia at the Orange River. The Cape Peninsula has a Mediterranean climate, making it and its immediate surrounds the only portion of Africa south of the Sahara which receives most of its rainfall in winter. The greater Cape Town metropolitan area is situated on the Cape Peninsula and is home to 3.7 million people according to the 2011 population census. It is the country's legislative capital.

The coastal belt to the north of the Cape Peninsula is bounded on the west by the Atlantic Ocean and the first row of north-south running Cape Fold Mountains to the east. The Cape Fold Mountains peter out at about the 32° S line of latitude, after which the coastal plain is bounded by the Great Escarpment itself. The most southerly portion of this coastal belt is known as the Swartland and Malmesbury Plain, which is an important wheat growing region, relying on winter rains. The region further north is known as Namaqualand, which becomes more and more arid as one approaches the Orange River. The little rain that falls, tends to fall in winter, which results in one of the world’s most spectacular displays of flowers carpeting huge stretches of veld in spring (August–September).

South Africa also has one possession, the small sub-Antarctic archipelago of the Prince Edward Islands, consisting of Marion Island (290 km2 or 110 sq mi) and Prince Edward Island (45 km2 or 17 sq mi) (not to be confused with the Canadian province of the same name).


South Africa has a generally temperate climate, due in part to being surrounded by the Atlantic and Indian Oceans on three sides, by its location in the climatically milder Southern Hemisphere and due to the average elevation rising steadily towards the north (towards the equator) and further inland. Due to this varied topography and oceanic influence, a great variety of climatic zones exist. The climatic zones range from the extreme desert of the southern Namib in the farthest northwest to the lush subtropical climate in the east along the Mozambique border and the Indian Ocean. Winters in South Africa occur between June and August.

The extreme southwest has a climate remarkably similar to that of the Mediterranean with wet winters and hot, dry summers, hosting the famous fynbos biome of shrubland and thicket. This area also produces much of the wine in South Africa. This region is also particularly known for its wind, which blows intermittently almost all year. The severity of this wind made passing around the Cape of Good Hope particularly treacherous for sailors, causing many shipwrecks. Further east on the south coast, rainfall is distributed more evenly throughout the year, producing a green landscape. This area is popularly known as the Garden Route.

The Free State is particularly flat because it lies centrally on the high plateau. North of the Vaal River, the Highveld becomes better watered and does not experience subtropical extremes of heat. Johannesburg, in the centre of the Highveld, is at 1,740 m (5,709 ft) and receives an annual rainfall of 760 mm (29.9 in). Winters in this region are cold, although snow is rare.

The high Drakensberg mountains, which form the south-eastern escarpment of the Highveld, offer limited skiing opportunities in winter. The coldest place on mainland South Africa is Sutherland in the western Roggeveld Mountains, where midwinter temperatures can reach as low as −15 °C (5 °F). The Prince Edward Islands have colder average annual temperatures, but Sutherland has colder extremes. The deep interior of mainland South Africa has the hottest temperatures: a temperature of 51.7 °C (125.06 °F) was recorded in 1948 in the Northern Cape Kalahari near Upington, but this temperature is unofficial and was not recorded with standard equipment, the official highest temperature is 48.8 °C (119.84 °F) at Vioolsdrif in January 1993.


South Africa signed the Rio Convention on Biological Diversity on 4 June 1994, and became a party to the convention on 2 November 1995. It has subsequently produced a National Biodiversity Strategy and Action Plan, which was received by the convention on 7 June 2006. The country is ranked sixth out of the world's seventeen megadiverse countries.


Numerous mammals are found in the bushveld including Transvaal lions, African leopards, South African cheetahs, southern white rhinos, blue wildebeest, kudus, impalas, hyenas, hippopotamuses and South African giraffes. A significant extent of the bushveld exists in the north-east including Kruger National Park and the Sabi Sand Game Reserve, as well as in the far north in the Waterberg Biosphere. South Africa houses many endemic species, among them the critically endangered riverine rabbit (Bunolagus monticullaris) in the Karoo.


Up to 1945, more than 4900 species of fungi (including lichen-forming species) had been recorded. In 2006, the total number of fungi which occur in South Africa was conservatively estimated at about 200,000 species, but that did not take into account fungi associated with insects. If correct, then the number of South African fungi dwarfs that of its plants. In at least some major South African ecosystems, an exceptionally high percentage of fungi are highly specific in terms of the plants with which they occur. The country's biodiversity strategy and action plan does not mention fungi (including lichen-forming fungi).


With more than 22,000 different higher plants, or about 9% of all the known species of plants on Earth, South Africa is particularly rich in plant diversity. The most prevalent biome in South Africa is the grassland, particularly on the Highveld, where the plant cover is dominated by different grasses, low shrubs, and acacia trees, mainly camel-thorn and whitethorn. Vegetation becomes even more sparse towards the northwest due to low rainfall. There are several species of water-storing succulents like aloes and euphorbias in the very hot and dry Namaqualand area. The grass and thorn savannah turns slowly into a bush savannah towards the north-east of the country, with denser growth. There are significant numbers of baobab trees in this area, near the northern end of Kruger National Park.

The fynbos biome, which makes up the majority of the area and plant life in the Cape floristic region, one of the six floral kingdoms, is located in a small region of the Western Cape and contains more than 9,000 of those species, making it among the richest regions on earth in terms of plant diversity. Most of the plants are evergreen hard-leaf plants with fine, needle-like leaves, such as the sclerophyllous plants. Another uniquely South African flowering plant group is the genus Protea. There are around 130 different species of Protea in South Africa.

While South Africa has a great wealth of flowering plants, only 1% of South Africa is forest, almost exclusively in the humid coastal plain of KwaZulu-Natal, where there are also areas of Southern Africa mangroves in river mouths. There are even smaller reserves of forests that are out of the reach of fire, known as montane forests. Plantations of imported tree species are predominant, particularly the non-native eucalyptus and pine.

Conservation issues

South Africa has lost a large area of natural habitat in the last four decades, primarily due to overpopulation, sprawling development patterns and deforestation during the 19th century. South Africa is one of the worst affected countries in the world when it comes to invasion by alien species with many (e.g. black wattle, Port Jackson willow, Hakea, Lantana and Jacaranda) posing a significant threat to the native biodiversity and the already scarce water resources. The original temperate forest found by the first European settlers was exploited ruthlessly until only small patches remained. Currently, South African hardwood trees like real yellowwood (Podocarpus latifolius), stinkwood (Ocotea bullata), and South African black ironwood (Olea laurifolia) are under government protection. Statistics from the South African Environmental Affairs department show a record 1215 rhinos have been killed in 2014.

Climate change is expected to bring considerable warming and drying to much of this already semi-arid region, with greater frequency and intensity of extreme weather events such as heatwaves, flooding and drought. According to computer generated climate modelling produced by the South African National Biodiversity Institute parts of southern Africa will see an increase in temperature by about one degree Celsius along the coast to more than four degrees Celsius in the already hot hinterland such as the Northern Cape in late spring and summertime by 2050. The Cape Floral Kingdom, been identified as one of the global biodiversity hotspots, it will be hit very hard by climate change. Drought, increased intensity and frequency of fire and climbing temperatures are expected to push many rare species towards extinction.