The Republic of South Africa (also known by other official names) is the country at the southern tip of Africa. It borders the Atlantic and Indian oceans and Namibia, Botswana, Zimbabwe, Mozambique, Swaziland, and Lesotho, an independent enclave surrounded by South African territory. South Africa is a member of the Commonwealth of Nations, and, due to its having the largest economy in Africa, is widely regarded as the most socially, economically and infrastructurally developed country on the continent.
South Africa has experienced a different history from other nations in Africa because of early immigration from Europe and the strategic importance of the Cape Sea Route. European immigration began shortly after the Dutch East India Company founded a station at what would become Cape Town, in 1652. The closure of the Suez Canal during the Six-Day War exemplified its significance to East-West trade. The country's relatively developed infrastructure made its mineral wealth available and important to Western interests, particularly throughout the late nineteenth century and, with international competition and rivalry, during the Cold War. South Africa is ethnically diverse, with the largest Caucasian, Indian, and racially mixed communities in Africa. Black South Africans, who speak nine officially recognised languages, and many more dialects, account for slightly less than 80% of the population.
Racial strife between the white minority and the black majority has played a large part in South Africa's history and politics, culminating in apartheid, which was instituted in 1948 by the National Party (although segregation existed before that time). The laws that defined apartheid began to be repealed or abolished by the National Party in 1990, after a long and sometimes violent struggle (including economic sanctions from the international community) by the Black majority as well as many White, Coloured, and Indian South Africans.
Several philosophies and ideologies have developed in South Africa, including ubuntu (the belief in a universal bond of sharing that connects all humanity) and Jan Smuts's holism. Regular elections have been held for almost a century; but the majority of South Africans were not enfranchised until 1994.
South Africa is often called the "Rainbow Nation", a term coined by Archbishop Desmond Tutu and later adopted by then President Nelson Mandela. Mandela used the term "Rainbow Nation" as a metaphor to describe the country's newly developing multicultural diversity after segregationist apartheid ideology. The country's socially progressive policies are rare in Africa, for example, by 2007, the country had joined Belgium, the Netherlands, Canada, Spain, and parts of the United States in legalising same-sex marriage.
The primary sources of South Africa law were Roman-Dutch mercantile law and personal law with English Common law, as imports of Dutch settlements and British colonialism. The first European based law in South Africa was brought by the Dutch East India Company and is called Roman-Dutch law. It was imported before the codification of European law into the Napoleonic Code and is comparable in many ways to Scottish law. This was followed in the 19th century by British law both common and statutory. Starting in 1910 with unification, South Africa had its own parliament which passed laws specific for South Africa, building on those previously passed for the individual member colonies.
The Victoria & Alfred Waterfront in Cape Town with Table Mountain in the background. Cape Town has become an important retail and tourism centre for the country, and attracts the largest number of foreign visitors in South AfricaBy UN classification South Africa is a middle-income country with an abundant supply of resources, well-developed financial, legal, communications, energy, and transport sectors, a stock exchange (the JSE Securities Exchange), that ranks among the top twenty in the world, and a modern infrastructure supporting an efficient distribution of goods to major urban centres throughout the region. South Africa is ranked 24th in the world in terms of GDP, corrected for purchasing power parity.
In many respects, South Africa is under-developed, however; advanced development is significantly localised around four areas, namely Cape Town, Port Elizabeth, Durban, and Pretoria/Johannesburg. Beyond these four economic centres, development is marginal and poverty still reigns despite government efforts. Consequently the vast majority of South Africans are poor. However, key marginal areas are experiencing rapid growth recently. Such areas include: Mossel Bay to Plettenberg Bay; Rustenburg area; Nelspruit area; Bloemfontein; Cape West Coast; KwaZulu-Natal North Coast amongst others.
Large income gaps and a dual economy designate South Africa as a developing country. South Africa has one of the highest rates of income inequality in the world. The white South African minority tends to be considerably wealthier than the rest of the population. A decade of continual economic growth has helped to lower unemployment, but daunting economic problems remain. Other problems are crime, corruption, and HIV/AIDS. At the start of 2000, President Thabo Mbeki vowed to promote economic growth and foreign investment by relaxing restrictive labour laws, stepping up the pace of privatisation, and cutting unneeded governmental spending. His policies face strong opposition from organised labour. South Africa is also the continent's largest energy producer and consumer. The South African rand (ZAR), the world's most actively-traded emerging market currency, has joined an elite club of fifteen currencies, the Continuous linked settlement (CLS), where forex transactions are settled immediately, lowering the risks of transacting across time zones. The rand was the best-performing currency against the United States dollar (USD) between 2002 and 2005, according to the Bloomberg Currency Scorecard.
The volatility of the rand has affected economic activity, with the rand falling sharply during 2001, hitting an historic low of 13.85 ZAR to the USD, raising fears of inflation, and causing the Reserve Bank to increase interest rates. The rand has since recovered, trading at 7.14 ZAR to the dollar as of September 2007 while the South African Reserve Bank's policy of inflation targeting has brought inflation under control. The stronger rand has however put exporters under considerable pressure, with many calling for government to intervene in the exchange rate to help soften the rand, and many others dismissing staff.
According to the latest 2001 national census, Christians accounted for 79.7% of the population. This includes Zion Christian 11.1%, Pentecostal (Charismatic) 8.2%, Catholic 7.1%, Methodist 6.8%, Dutch Reformed 6.7%, Anglican 3.8%, and other Christian 36%. Islam accounted for 1.5% of the population, Hinduism about 1.3%. 15.1% had no religious affiliation, 2.3% were other and 1.4% were unspecified.
African Indigenous Churches were the largest of the Christian groups. It was believed that many of these persons who claimed no affiliation with any organised religion adhered to traditional indigenous religions. Many persons combined Christian and traditional indigenous religious practices.
Islam in South Africa probably pre-dates the colonial period, and consisted of isolated contact with Arab and East African traders. Many South African Muslims are described as Coloureds, notably in the Western Cape, including those whose ancestors came as slaves from the Indonesian archipelago (the Cape Malays). Others are described as Indians, notably in KwaZulu-Natal, including those whose ancestors came as traders from South Asia; they have been joined by others from other parts of Africa as well as white or black South African converts. It is estimated that Islam is the fastest growing religion of conversion in the country, with the number of black Muslims growing sixfold, from 12,000 in 1991 to 74,700 in 2004.
Hinduism in South Africa dates back to British Colonial period primarily but later waves of continuous immigrants from India have contributed to sizeable Hindu population. Most Hindus are predominantly ethnically South Asians but there are many who come from mixed racial stock and many are converts with the efforts of Hindu missionaries such as ISKCON.