Most of South Africa's landscape is made up of high, flat areas called plateaus. These lands are covered with rolling grasslands, called highveld, and tree-dotted plains called bushveld.
To the east, south, and west of the plateau lands is a mountainous region called the Great Escarpment. The eastern range, called the Drakensberg, or Dragon's Mountain, is filled with jagged peaks, some more than 11,400 feet (3,475 meters) high.
Interestingly, South Africa has another country within its borders. Nestled in the Drakensberg is the mountainous kingdom of Lesotho. Much of South Africa's water comes from the snowcapped peaks of this tiny, landlocked nation.
Map created by National Geographic Maps
PEOPLE & CULTURE
Many different peoples make up South Africa, each with their own language and history. The country has 11 official languages and many more unofficial ones. This colorful mix of cultures gives South Africa its nickname "rainbow nation."
South Africans are passionate about music, often using song and dance to express social and political ideas. They're also known worldwide for their skill in sports, including rugby, cricket, golf, and soccer. In 2010, South Africa became the first African nation to host the World Cup.
From aardvarks to zebras, South Africa is full of wildlife. The country takes up only about one percent of Earth's land surface, but is home to almost 10 percent of the world's known bird, fish, and plant species and about 6 percent of its mammal and reptile species.
The seas around South Africa are also crowded with wildlife. About 2,000 marine species visit South African waters at some point during the year. There's also a world-famous sardine run off the east coast each June that draws thousands of hungry sharks, dolphins, and birds.
South Africa works to preserve its wildlife with dozens of protected land and marine areas, including the famous Kruger National Park in the north, as well as nearly 9,000 privately-owned game reserves throughout the country.
Nevertheless, many of South Africa's animals are hurt by illegal hunting and loss of habitat, and dozens of species are in danger of extinction, including the black rhinoceros, the cheetah, and the African wild dog.
GOVERNMENT & ECONOMY
South Africa has been a democratic republic since holding its first truly open election on April 27, 1994. Natural resources, agriculture, tourism, and manufacturing have made South Africa the largest economy on the continent. But problems with unemployment, poverty, and AIDS present huge challenges for the government.
In northern South Africa near Johannesburg, there is a cave formation called the Sterkfontein. Within these caves, archaeologists have uncovered some of the earliest human fossils ever found. Some are more than two million years old. The find earned the region the nickname "Cradle of Humankind."
About 24,000 years ago, tribes of hunter-gatherers known as the San, or Bushmen, began moving into South Africa. Many San still live, much as their ancestors did, around the Kalahari Desert in the northwest.
In the 1400s, European ships heading to the Far East began stopping on the South African coast for supplies. In 1652, the Netherlands established the southern city of Cape Town, and Dutch farmers, called Boers, began settling in the areas around the city.
In 1806, wars in Europe left the British in control of the Cape Town colony. In 1910, the British united four colonies in the region and created South Africa. They established laws that separated whites from black South Africans, a practice of segregation called apartheid, which led to decades of conflict.
In 1963, Nelson Mandela, head of the anti-apartheid African National Congress, was given a life sentence in jail for "terrorist" activities. In 1990, after 27 years behind bars, he was freed by President F.W. de Klerk. In 1994, Mandela was elected president of South Africa and served until 1999.