Shaped by one of the world's most turbulent histories, South Africa is a country like no other on the continent.
Home to archaeological sites dating back over three million years, South Africa's indigenous people were the Khoikhoi and San Bushmen, long since confined to the margins of history. Iron Age African herders and farmers - predecessors of today's ethnic groups such as the Zulus and Xhosas - were the first settlers to arrive, followed by the Europeans, personified by Dutchman Jan van Riebeeck's 1652 landfall. It was the subsequent arrival of the British however that precipitated 350 years of colonisation and war as settlers, missionaries and empire builders established white rule. The subsequent liberation struggle has largely defined modern South Africa which only became a true democracy in 1994.
Such is South Africa's economic power that it has the same relationship with Africa as the United States has with the world - it's the continent's powerhouse and its GDP alone is a full quarter of that of the entire African continent. A mixed economy with access to abundant resources, South Africa has well developed agricultural, mining, manufacturing, engineering, power-producing and financial industries. Some of its most important exports are gold, platinum, wine, fruit and coal.
The phrase 'Rainbow Nation' was coined by struggle icon Desmond Tutu to describe South African society, and it is a well chosen one. Few countries can match the ethnic mix of this country, perhaps best illustrated by its 11 official languages (though English is the long-established lingua franca). Nearly 80% of South Africa's 50 million people consider themselves part of a black culture with Indians, coloureds and English or Afrikaans-speaking whites making up the rest along with large Jewish and Portuguese communities. In recent years South Africa has become home to many African migrants and refugees.
Like most African countries, South Africa is a deeply religious one: 80% consider themselves Christian and every year a million people attend the country's biggest Easter celebration. Yet despite modern appearances, traditional beliefs still hold sway in much of the country - sangomas ('witch doctors') are regularly consulted by 60% of the population and the use of muti (traditional medicine ) is widespread.
A country of constant debate, challenge and adaptation, culture runs deep. Home to prehistoric rock art and Nobel Prize winners, South Africa has produced world famous statesmen, writers, athletes and musicians. Its food reflects the diversity of its people and visitors can expect a blend of European, Asian and African influences as well as award-winning wines.
Set at the bottom of the African continent and with a 2 500km coastline teeming with marine life, South Africa has astonishing natural diversity. Dominated by a flat semi-arid interior - the Karoo - South Africa's landscapes include soaring mountain ranges, sub-tropical beaches, temperate forests, high grasslands and tangled bushveld. The Western Cape is home to the striking fynbos vegetation and a stunning coastline but it's the north and east of the country where most of the large animals remain.
The Kruger National Park is the country's flagship Big 5 reserve but there are big game destinations all across the country and its coastal waters are home to whales and great white sharks, both of which can be seen close up. A conservation powerhouse, South Africa is an important stronghold for elephant, rhino, turtles and predators of all description while its long bird list makes for great bird watching.
South Africa wildlife highlights include Big 5 game viewing in the Kruger Park and its private reserves; whale watching on the Whale Coast between August and October; shark-cage diving in Gansbaai near Cape Town; malaria-free Big 5 game viewing in the Eastern Cape and Madikwe Game Reserve; and game viewing and birding in KwaZulu-Natal.
At a Glance