Location/Culture Reports

Location Report – South Africa

As you might expect, South Africa (roughly twice the size of Texas), is indeed the southernmost point in Africa.
Setting: This week we jump from the southern tip of one continent to the southern tip of another. As you might expect, South Africa (roughly twice the size of Texas), is indeed the southernmost point in Africa. A decade post-apartheid, South Africa is still a country in transition, and while conditions are improving all the time, the population is struggling with poverty, high crime rates and an AIDS epidemic (an estimated 5.3 million people with HIV/AIDS, nearly a quarter of the adult population). Despite the challenges, the country is an exciting place to visit, and has a delightful climate and great wildlife.

History: Humans have inhabited parts of South Africa for over 100,000 years. By the 15th century, most of the land in South Africa had been settled by pastoral peoples of various tribes (mostly Bantu and Khoisan). In 1498 everything changed when Vasco de Gama opened the Cape of Good Hope spice route between Europe and Asia. Dutch traders built a permanent settlement at Cape Town in the 17th century, and began what would become a long tradition of subjugation and slaughter of native peoples. With the decline of the Dutch empire, Britain seized the Cape of Good Hope area in 1806, pushing the Dutch further to the north. Because of instability between tribes in the area, the British settlers mostly kept to the urban areas, leading to an urban/rural dichotomy that still exists today. Slavery was abolished in 1833, but didn’t really change much because of the division of labor on the basis of skin color that existed.

The discovery of diamonds (1867) and gold (1886) spurred wealth and immigration and intensified the subjugation of the native inhabitants. The Dutch resisted British encroachments, but were defeated in the Boer War (1899-1902). The resulting Union of South Africa in 1910 began the policy that would become apartheid - the separate development of the races. Under apartheid, every individual was classified by race, and race determined where you could live, work, pray and learn. Blacks were restricted to “homelands,” which had virtually no infrastructure or industry. The inability of these areas to produce enough food led to widespread famine and suffering, and resulted in many individuals returning to the cities where they had been evicted to live in illegal “squatter” camps.

Violence and political unrest was common in the area for the next decades. By the 1980s the United Nations imposed economic and political sanctions against the country. Finally in 1989 the tide began to turn, and reforms were put in place to repeal apartheid. In 1994 the first free elections were held in South Africa, and Nelson Mandela became president.

Nature: No doubt you know about South Africa’s rich mammalian wildlife heritage, with the largest (elephant), smallest (pygmy shrew), tallest (giraffe) and fastest (cheetah) mammals all found in the wild. And of course, lions, water buffalo, hippos, rhinoceros, and ungulates galore. No llamas, though.
South Africa is even richer in its botanical diversity, however, and is home to the Fynbos, which is one of the most unusual and richest areas of plant diversity on the planet.
South Africa is even richer in its botanical diversity, however, and is home to the Fynbos, which is one of the most unusual and richest areas of plant diversity on the planet. The number of plant species per km2 is highest in the world, and more than four times higher than the South American rainforests. Over 70% of these plant species are endemic, which means they are found nowhere else on earth. For these reasons (high diversity, high rate of endemism) the region has been targeted by many conservation organizations for protection and careful management. Check out Walker Bay Conservation Organization or Fauna and Flora International for more information about the conservation of this region.

The People: Describing the culture of South Africa would be a bit like trying to describe the culture of the United States. “Varied” is probably the best description! The country is made up of many ethnic groups, including 77% black, 10% white (60% of whites are of Afrikaaner descent, most of the rest are of British descent), 8% mixed race, 2.5% of Indian or Asian descent. Even within these broad categories, there is a lot of diversity. Southafrica.net maintains a fantastic site about the cultural diversity of South Africa, including tribal histories and culture. Recent improvement in education has raised the literacy rate to 86%. The religious make-up of the country includes Christian, Muslim, Hindu, Jewish and traditional religions.

Although apartheid has ended, there are still striking differences in the country by background. Years of suppression of the native peoples has led to loss of much of the traditional way of life, though some traditions do still exist in the more rural areas. In this region, most traditional cultures are based on beliefs in a masculine deity, ancestral spirits and supernatural forces.

Interesting tidbit: An article in the science journal Nature (April 2004, Vol. 428 Issue 6983) reported that there is a large magnetic patch under South Africa that is pointing in the opposite direction from the rest of the Earth's magnetic field. Scientists say this might indicate the poles are starting to flip, as they do every few million years.

South African tourism site
South African history online
Lonely Planet
Enviro-facts Guide to the Fynbos
The Fynbos
Botanical Society of South Africa
Sunset Beach pictures of the Fynbos