South Africa’s apartheid legacy lingers on in high unemployment and a vast wealth gap between rich and poor, yet it remains one of the wealthiest countries on the continent. Its vast mineral resources (it has some of the world’s largest gold, diamond, platinum and chromium deposits) have powered the economy for over a century, but – as the 2009 downturn revealed – also makes it vulnerable to the vagaries of the global commodities market. However, there’s a well-established tertiary economy that makes it a continental headquarters for the banking, telecommunications and manufacturing industries. Since democratic elections in 1994, tourism has – especially in the coastal regions – become an important pillar of economic growth.
While scenic Cape Town, with its strong tourism and creative industries, may get more flattering media exposure, it’s Johannesburg that calls the shots when it comes to business. The province of Gauteng – the ‘place of gold’ – is the richest on the continent, and the economic powerhouse of Africa. In the capital city of Pretoria, an hour’s drive to the north, you’ll find more embassies than corporate empires. The coastal city of Durban is the busiest port in Africa, while Port Elizabeth – thanks to the neighbouring Coega Industrial Development Zone – also carries its fair share of imports and exports. Bloemfontein, in the heartland of the country, is the country’s judicial capital.
South Africa enjoys one of the more amenable climates in southern Africa, with temperate conditions across much of the country. Gauteng has warm summers that are characterised by frequent afternoon thundershowers. Winters tend to be clear and cold, with temperatures regularly dropping below freezing. Cape Town has a Mediterranean climate – expect summer days to be hot and windy, while winters are cold and wet, punctuated by frequent storm fronts. In the extreme north and east of the country, tropical conditions predominate year-round, with higher temperatures and increased humidity.
Most passport-holders do not require a visa to visit South Africa, and a 30-day entry permit is issued on arrival at international border posts. However, your passport must be valid for no less than 30 days after intended date of departure, and there must be two blank pages available for entry/departure endorsements. A full list of passport-holders that do not require a visa to enter South Africa can be found at dha.gov.za. Travellers arriving from countries where yellow fever is endemic (as of 2011, this includes Zambia) will also be required to show a certificate of vaccination.
While not yet on a par with the northern hemisphere, South Africa has excellent Internet access on both fixed-line, fibre-optic and wireless 3G networks. Most hotels offer Internet access (frequently Wi-Fi), and Internet cafés are common in urban areas. All of the country’s major airports offer Wi-Fi access, with credit purchasable by credit card. The country’s extensive GSM mobile network allows for easy international roaming for both voice and data.
Crime is a constant concern in South Africa, and travellers should be wary – but not paranoid – in major cities. Avoid carrying valuables with you on the street, especially at night, and be cautious of displaying electronics or jewellery in public. Credit and debit cards are widely accepted in shops, hotels and restaurants, so there’s no need to carry large amounts of cash with you, unless travelling in rural areas. Prices for flights and accommodation increase dramatically during the school holiday periods, particularly for coastal cities. Many businesses also close for 2-3 weeks over Christmas, so avoid travelling during this time.
O.R. Tambo International Airport in Johannesburg is the main air gateway into southern Africa, processing 17 million passengers each year. From Johannesburg there are direct air links to dozens of cities both worldwide and across the continent. Cape Town also offers a number of direct international and regional services, although these are mostly to European cities and some are seasonal (with more airlines serving Cape Town during summer).
Durban is increasingly courting international traffic, although currently only offers direct services on Air Mauritius (to Mauritius) and Emirates (Dubai). While South African Airways has the largest route network on domestic and regional routes, a growing number of low-cost airlines (including Mango, Kulula, Velvet Sky and 1Time) also offer flights to local and regional destinations. When using the airline’s official website, Internet booking is both safe and convenient.
A passenger railway service connects the major coastal cities as well as Johannesburg – fares are extremely affordable, but expect long journey times. A range of coach companies offer nationwide bus services. Tar roads in urban and rural areas are generally well maintained, and you’ll find international car-hire companies at all airports. Petrol is widely available across the country, including rural areas. Self-drive is both safe and accessible, but ask for local advice on areas to avoid at night, especially in the cities. Metered or pre-booked taxis are widely available in major cities.
There are few health issues to be concerned about in South African cities – the tap water is drinkable and there are no major diseases to guard against. If you are travelling in rural areas, stick to bottled water where possible, and consider a Hepatitis A vaccination against water-borne diseases. In the sub-tropical eastern areas of the country (including Maputaland and the Lowveld around the Kruger National Park) malaria is present throughout the year. Consult your travel doctor three weeks before travel for appropriate prophylactics. Yellow fever is not present in South Africa.
Population: 49 million
Time zone: GMT +2
Plugs: 3-pin round socket
Dialling code: +27 + area code + number required
Currency: South African Rand. US$1=ZAR7.96
GDP growth rate (2010 est.): 2.8%
Language: South Africa has 11 official languages, but English is the language of business and is spoken across the country.