South Africa country overview

The land of South Africa

Geography, People, Culture, and Economic Profile

South Africa information index

Geographic regions of South Africa

Relief of South Africa

The majority of the nation is characterized by an expansive plateau, which is the predominant feature of the landscape. This plateau is demarcated from the surrounding lower-lying regions by the prominent Great Escarpment. Composed almost exclusively of the ancient rock formations of the Karoo System, the plateau’s geological history spans from the Late Carboniferous Epoch (approximately 320 to 300 million years ago) to the Late Triassic Epoch (around 230 to 200 million years ago). The plateau’s elevation is highest in the eastern regions, where it exceeds 8,000 feet (2,400 meters) in the basaltic area of Lesotho, and gradually descends to approximately 2,000 feet (600 meters) in the western sandy expanse of the Kalahari. The central portion of the plateau, known as the Highveld, boasts elevations ranging from 4,000 to 6,000 feet (1,200 to 1,800 meters). To the south of the Orange River, one finds the expansive Great Karoo.

The Great Escarpment, also referred to as the Drakensberg, is a significant and continuous topographical landmark in South Africa, offering vistas of considerable beauty. This escarpment, which is part of the uKhahlamba/Drakensberg Park—a UNESCO World Heritage site since 2000—stretches southward from the northeastern extremities of the country, where it is commonly known as the Transvaal Drakensberg. Within the KwaZulu-Natal province, the escarpment reaches its zenith at Njesuthi, which stands at 11,181 feet (3,408 meters) and is the nation’s highest point. Continuing south, the escarpment delineates the border between KwaZulu-Natal and the Free State, and subsequently between KwaZulu-Natal and Lesotho, where it approaches elevations of nearly 11,000 feet (3,300 meters), including prominent peaks such as Mont aux Sources. The escarpment extends southwestward, separating Lesotho from the Eastern Cape province and traversing the Eastern Cape at lower elevations before becoming the Nuweveld Range and the Roggeveld Mountains, marking the boundary between the Northern Cape and Western Cape provinces. At its westernmost point, near Mount Bokkeveld and Mount Kamies, the escarpment’s definition becomes less distinct.

In the southwest of the country lies a region of venerable folded mountains with elevations ranging from 3,000 to 7,600 feet (900 to 2,300 meters). This area encompasses mountain ranges such as the Tsitsikama, Outeniqua, Groot-Swart, Lange, Ceder, Drakenstein, and Hottentots Holland, as well as the iconic Table Mountain and its associated landforms near Cape Town.

The landscape both above and below the Great Escarpment is predominantly rugged. Vast plains are infrequent, mainly found in the northwestern Free State and further west, with smaller examples like the Springbok Flats north of Pretoria. The terrain is marked by ridges, mountains, and valleys deeply carved by erosion over time. Coastal plains between the escarpment and the sea are scarce, with notable exceptions in northern KwaZulu-Natal and parts of the Western Cape. The coastline, which spans 1,836 miles (2,955 km), is generally characterized by steep slopes that rise quickly from the sea, featuring extensive beaches. Due to recent geological uplifts and falling sea levels, the coast has few natural harbors or river valleys inundated by the sea. Notable exceptions include the Knysna Lagoon in the Western Cape and the Buffalo River at East London. In KwaZulu-Natal, the process of longshore drift over many centuries has formed sand spits and bluffs, which in some areas have enclosed bays, creating both significant wildlife sanctuaries, such as the St. Lucia estuary, and, with the aid of dredging, functional harbors like those at Durban and Richards Bay.


Originating from the highlands of Lesotho, the Orange River, along with its principal tributaries—the Caledon and the Vaal—services the hydrological needs of a vast expanse, approximately 329,000 square miles (852,000 square kilometers), channeling waters to the Atlantic Ocean. To the north of the Witwatersrand ridge, the expansive plateau’s water is directed towards the Indian Ocean by the Limpopo River system, which is fed by significant tributaries such as the Krokodil, Mogalakwena, Luvuvhu, and Olifants rivers.

Below the Olifants River, within the region that lies between the escarpment and the coastline, numerous river systems, notably the Komati, Pongolo, Mfolozi, Mgeni, and Tugela, are responsible for draining a considerable portion of KwaZulu-Natal. Among these, the Tugela River is distinguished as the largest in the country by volume. Further to the south, the Mkomazi, Mzimvubu, Great Kei, Great Fish, Sundays, and Gourits rivers are instrumental in draining extensive areas, while the Breë, Berg, and Olifants rivers predominantly serve the Western Cape’s folded mountain region.

It is important to note that the flow patterns of South African rivers exhibit a marked seasonality, and their gradients and volumes are generally not conducive to navigation. Even small vessels are typically unable to traverse these rivers for any significant distance from their estuaries.

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