Currently viewing country profile for South Africa
Diversity is a key feature of South Africa, where 11 languages are recognised as official, where community leaders include rabbis and chieftains, rugby players and returned exiles, where traditional healers ply their trade around the corner from stockbrokers and where housing ranges from mud huts to palatial homes with swimming pools.
The diverse communities, however, have not had much representation for long.
Until 1994 South Africa was ruled by a white minority government which was so determined to hang onto power that it took activists most of the last century before they succeeded in their fight to get rid of apartheid and extend democracy to the rest of the population.
The white government which came to power in 1948 enforced a separation of races with its policy called apartheid. It dictated that black and white communities should live in separate areas, travel in different buses and stand in their own queues.
The government introduced grand social engineering schemes such as the forced resettlement of hundreds of thousands of people. It poisoned and bombed opponents and encouraged trouble in neighbouring countries.
The apartheid government eventually negotiated itself out of power, and the new leadership encouraged reconciliation. But the cost of the years of conflict will be paid for a long time yet, not least in terms of lawlessness, social disruption and lost education.
South Africa faces major problems, but having held four successful national elections as well as local polls since the end of white rule, a democratic culture appears to be taking hold, allowing people at least some say in the search for solutions.
Very much Africa's superpower, South Africa has the continent's biggest economy, though this went into recession in May 2009 following a sharp slowdown in the mining and manufacturing sectors. The construction industry, on the other hand, has benefited from a huge programme of government investment ahead of the 2010 World Cup.
Many South Africans remain poor and unemployment is high - a factor blamed for a wave of violent attacks against migrant workers from other African countries in 2008 and protests by township residents over poor living conditions during the summer of 2009.
Land redistribution is an ongoing issue. Most farmland is still white-owned. Having so far acquired land on a "willing buyer, willing seller" basis, officials have signalled that large-scale expropriations are on the cards. The government aims to transfer 30% of farmland to black South Africans by 2014.
South Africa has the second-highest number of HIV/Aids patients in the world. Around one in seven of its citizens is infected with HIV. Free anti-retroviral drugs are available under a state-funded scheme
- Full name: Republic of South Africa
- Population: 50.5 million (UN, 2010)
- Capitals: Pretoria (executive capital); Cape Town (legislative capital); Bloemfontein (judicial capital)
- Largest city: Johannesburg
- Area: 1.22 million sq km (470,693 sq miles)
- Major languages: 11 official languages including English, Afrikaans, Sesotho, Setswana, Xhosa and Zulu
- Major religion: Christianity, Islam, indigenous beliefs
- Life expectancy: 52 years (men), 54 years (women)
- Monetary unit: 1 Rand = 100 cents
- Main exports: Gold, diamonds, metals and minerals, cars, machinery
- GNI per capita: US $5,770 (World Bank, 2009)
- Internet domain: .za
- International dialling code: +27
President: Jacob Zuma
The leader of the ANC, Jacob Zuma, was officially chosen as the country's president by the newly-elected parliament in May 2009.
Born to a Zulu family in 1942, Mr Zuma has spent his entire adult life since 1959 in the service of the ANC. He joined its armed wing Umkhonto we Sizwe in 1962 and was arrested the following year. He spent ten years in prison for conspiracy to overthrow the apartheid-era government.
After his release he left South Africa and was a leading figure in the ANC abroad until he returned home in 1990 to take part in the talks that brought apartheid to an end.
Mr Zuma was prominent in promoting the ANC among Zulus who had voted for the Inkatha Freedom Party in the first free elections in 1994, and was consistently elected to senior ANC posts. In 1999, he became the deputy president of South Africa under President Thabo Mbeki.
Mr Zuma's standing in the country fell rapidly after he was named in an arms-smuggling case, and President Mbeki dismissed him from the deputy presidency in 2005. Prosecutors then brought corruption charges against him, and shortly afterwards he was charged with rape.
He was acquitted of the rape charge the following year, and his support on the populist left of the party ensured that he was able to defeat President Mbeki in elections for the ANC leadership in December 2007.
Mr Zuma looked set to become president of South Africa after the 2009 parliamentary elections, but the corruption allegations persisted. It was not until April 2009 - weeks before the parliamentary polls - that state prosecutors finally threw out the charges on the grounds that there had been political interference.
The opposition said this was a technicality and that Mr Zuma ought to answer the charges in court. Nonetheless, he led the ANC to a convincing election victory and was duly inaugurated on 9 May.
South Africa is the continent's major media player, and its many broadcasters and publications reflect the diversity of the population.
Established state-run and commercial TV networks broadcast nationally, and hundreds of thousands of viewers subscribe to satellite and cable pay-TV services.
Deregulation in 1996 led to a proliferation of radio stations. Listeners in Johannesburg alone can choose from among some 40 radio services, from the national broadcasts of the state-owned South African Broadcasting Corporation (SABC) to community stations targeting local neighbourhoods or ethnic groups.
The constitution provides for freedom of the press, and this is generally respected. Laws, regulation and political control of media content are considered to be moderate and there is little evidence of repressive measures against journalists.
Newspapers and magazines publish reports and comment critical of the government, and the state-owned SABC is far more independent now than during the apartheid era. However, in 2009 the SABC was plagued by a string of scandals and a series of high-level resignations. The broadcaster had become mired in a financial crisis.
There were 5.3 million internet users by 2009, comprising around 10% of the population (World Wide Worx study, 2010). Analysts say prohibitive access costs have hampered mass take-up.
- The Star - Johannesburg-based daily, city's oldest newspaper
- The Sowetan - Johannesburg-based tabloid
- Daily Sun - mass-circulation tabloid
- Beeld - largest Afrikaans daily
- Mail & Guardian - weekly, operates Mail & Guardian online
- Business Day - daily
- Financial Mail - business weekly
- Sunday Times/The Times - South Africa's oldest Sunday newspaper; publishes subscription-only daily
- SABC - state broadcaster, operates three national TV networks, two pay-TV channels
- e.tv - free-to-air commercial network
- M-Net - pay-TV, pan-African audience
- SABC - state broadcaster with 20 regional and national services in 11 languages, including: national English-language network SAfm; contemporary music station 5 FM; national Afrikaans station Radio Sonder Grense; national Zulu station Ukhozi FM; Sesotho station Lesedi FM
- Channel Africa - SABC's external radio service, targeted at the African continent
- YFM - popular Johannesburg commercial R&B, soul and hip-hop station
- 702 Talk Radio - Johannesburg commercial news and talk station
A chronology of key events:
4th century - Migrants from the north settle, joining the indigenous San and Khoikhoi people.
1480s - Portuguese navigator Bartholomeu Dias is the first European to travel round the southern tip of Africa.
1497 - Portuguese explorer Vasco da Gama lands on Natal coast.
1652 - Jan van Riebeeck, representing the Dutch East India Company, founds the Cape Colony at Table Bay.
1795 - British forces seize Cape Colony from the Netherlands. Territory is returned to the Dutch in 1803; ceded to the British in 1806.
1816-1826 - Shaka Zulu founds and expands the Zulu empire, creates a formidable fighting force.
1835-1840 - Boers leave Cape Colony in the 'Great Trek' and found the Orange Free State and the Transvaal.
1852 - British grant limited self-government to the Transvaal.
1856 - Natal separates from the Cape Colony.
Late 1850s - Boers proclaim the Transvaal a republic.
1867 - Diamonds discovered at Kimberley.
1877 - Britain annexes the Transvaal.
1879 - British defeat the Zulus in Natal.
1880-81 - Boers rebel against the British, sparking the first Anglo-Boer War. Conflict ends with a negotiated peace. Transvaal is restored as a republic.
Mid 1880s - Gold is discovered in the Transvaal, triggering the gold rush.
1899 - British troops gather on the Transvaal border and ignore an ultimatum to disperse. The second Anglo-Boer War begins.
1902 - Treaty of Vereeniging ends the second Anglo-Boer War. The Transvaal and Orange Free State are made self-governing colonies of the British Empire.
1910 - Formation of Union of South Africa by former British colonies of the Cape and Natal, and the Boer republics of Transvaal, and Orange Free State.
1912 - Native National Congress founded, later renamed the African National Congress (ANC).
1913 - Land Act introduced to prevent blacks, except those living in Cape Province, from buying land outside reserves.
1914 - National Party founded.
1918 - Secret Broederbond (brotherhood) established to advance the Afrikaner cause.
1919 - South West Africa (Namibia) comes under South African administration.
Apartheid set in law
1948 - Policy of apartheid (separateness) adopted when National Party (NP) takes power.
1950 - Population classified by race. Group Areas Act passed to segregate blacks and whites. Communist Party banned. ANC responds with campaign of civil disobedience, led by Nelson Mandela.
1960 - Seventy black demonstrators killed at Sharpeville. ANC banned.
1961 - South Africa declared a republic, leaves the Commonwealth. Mandela heads ANC's new military wing, which launches sabotage campaign.
1960s - International pressure against government begins, South Africa excluded from Olympic Games.
1964 - ANC leader Nelson Mandela sentenced to life imprisonment.
1966 September - Prime Minister Hendrik Verwoerd assassinated.
1970s - More than 3 million people forcibly resettled in black 'homelands'.
1976 - More than 600 killed in clashes between black protesters and security forces during uprising which starts in Soweto.
1984-89 - Township revolt, state of emergency.
1989 - FW de Klerk replaces PW Botha as president, meets Mandela. Public facilities desegregated. Many ANC activists freed.
1990 - ANC unbanned, Mandela released after 27 years in prison. Namibia becomes independent.
1991 - Start of multi-party talks. De Klerk repeals remaining apartheid laws, international sanctions lifted. Major fighting between ANC and Zulu Inkatha movement.
1993 - Agreement on interim constitution.
1994 April - ANC wins first non-racial elections. Mandela become president, Government of National Unity formed, Commonwealth membership restored, remaining sanctions lifted. South Africa takes seat in UN General Assembly after 20-year absence.
1996 - Truth and Reconciliation Commission chaired by Archbishop Desmond Tutu begins hearings on human rights crimes committed by former government and liberation movements during apartheid era.
1996 - Parliament adopts new constitution. National Party withdraws from coalition, saying it is being ignored.
1998 - Truth and Reconciliation Commission report brands apartheid a crime against humanity and finds the ANC accountable for human rights abuses.
1999 - ANC wins general elections, Thabo Mbeki takes over as president.
2000 December - ANC prevails in local elections. Recently-formed Democratic Alliance captures nearly a quarter of the votes. The Inkatha Freedom Party wins 9%.
2001 April - 39 multi-national pharmaceutical companies halt a legal battle to stop South Africa importing generic Aids drugs. The decision is hailed as a victory for the world's poorest countries in their efforts to import cheaper drugs to combat the virus
2001 May - An official panel considers allegations of corruption surrounding a 1999 arms deal involving British, French, German, Italian, Swedish and South African firms. In November the panel clears the government of unlawful conduct.
2001 September - Durban hosts UN race conference.
2001 December - High Court rules that pregnant women must be given Aids drugs to help prevent transmission of the virus to their babies.
2002 April - Court acquits Dr Wouter Basson - dubbed "Dr Death" - who ran apartheid-era germ warfare programme. Basson had faced charges of murder and conspiracy. ANC condemns verdict.
2002 July - Constitutional court orders government to provide key anti-Aids drug at all public hospitals. Government had argued drug was too costly.
2002 October - Bomb explosions in Soweto and a blast near Pretoria are thought to be the work of right-wing extremists. Separately, police charge 17 right-wingers with plotting against the state.
2003 May - Walter Sisulu, a key figure in the anti-apartheid struggle, dies aged 91. Thousands gather to pay their last respects.
2003 November - Government approves major programme to treat and tackle HIV/Aids. It envisages network of drug-distributon centres and preventative programmes. Cabinet had previously refused to provide anti-Aids medicine via public health system.
2004 April - Ruling ANC wins landslide election victory, gaining nearly 70% of votes. Thabo Mbeki begins a second term as president. Inkatha Freedom Party leader Mangosuthu Buthelezi is dropped from the cabinet.
2005 March - Investigators exhume the first bodies in a Truth and Reconciliation Commission investigation into the fates of hundreds of people who disappeared in the apartheid era.
2005 May - Geographical names committee recommends that the culture minister should approve a name change for the capital from Pretoria to Tshwane.
2005 June - President Mbeki sacks his deputy, Jacob Zuma, in the aftermath of a corruption case.
2005 August - Around 100,000 gold miners strike over pay, bringing the industry to a standstill.
2006 May - Former deputy president Jacob Zuma is acquitted of rape charges by the High Court in Johannesburg. He is reinstated as deputy leader of the governing African National Congress.
2006 June - Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao visits and promises to limit clothing exports to help South Africa's ailing textile industry.
2006 September - Corruption charges against former deputy president Zuma are dismissed, boosting his bid for the presidency.
2006 December - South Africa becomes the first African country, and the fifth in the world, to allow same-sex unions.
2007 April - President Mbeki, often accused of turning a blind eye to crime, urges South Africans to join forces to bring rapists, drug dealers and corrupt officials to justice.
2007 May - Cape Town mayor Helen Zille is elected as new leader of the main opposition Democratic Alliance (DA).
2007 June - Hundreds of thousands of public-sector workers take part in the biggest strike since the end of apartheid. The strike lasts for four weeks and causes widespread disruption to schools, hospitals and public transport.
2007 December - Zuma is elected chairman of the ANC, placing him in a strong position to become the next president. Prosecutors bring new corruption charges against him.
2008 May - Wave of violence directed at foreigners hits townships across the country. Dozens of people die and thousands of Zimbabweans, Malawians and Mozambicans return home.
2008 September - A judge throws out a corruption case against ruling ANC party chief Jacob Zuma, opening the way for him to stand as the country's president in 2009.
President Mbeki resigns over allegations that he interfered in the corruption case against Mr Zuma. ANC deputy leader Kgalema Motlanthe is chosen by parliament as president.
New party launched
2008 December - A new political party is launched in Bloemfontein, in the first real challenge to the governing ANC. The Congress of the People - or Cope - is made up largely of defectors from the ANC and is headed by former defence minister Mosiuoa Lekota.
2009 January - Appeals court rules that state prosecutors can resurrect their corruption case against ANC leader Jacob Zuma, opening the way for Mr Zuma's trial to be resumed, just months before general election.
2009 April - Public prosecutors drop corruption case against Jacob Zuma.
ANC wins general election.
2009 May - Parliament elects Jacob Zuma as president.
Economy goes into recession for first time in 17 years.
2009 July - Township residents complaining about poor living conditions mount violent protests.
2010 June - South Africa hosts the World Cup football tournament.
2010 August - Civil servants stage nation-wide strike.
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