25 July 2012

South Africa Facts & Figures

OK, some basic information about South Africa, now that I've been here a few weeks...

The Republic of South Africa is the southernmost country on the African continent, and borders 6 different countries, as well as both the Atlantic and Indian oceans.  It is twice the size of Texas, and has about 50 million people.  The country is about 80% black African, 9% White, 9% Coloured (mixed race term used here in South Africa), and 3% Asian.  I live in Pretoria, which is one of 3 capital cities that South Africa has. Pretoria is the executive capital, where the president's office is, and where many countries have their embassies.  Cape Town is the legislative capital, and Bloemfontein is the judicial capital.

The country is divided into 9 provinces, and Pretoria and Johannesburg are the two main cities of the province called Gauteng, which is by far the smallest province in size, but largest in population.  It has over 11 million people in a space just smaller than the state of New Jersey.  Pretoria itself has between 1 and 1.5 million people (results from the 2011 Census are still being tabulated) and it has the largest concentration of white people on the African continent.  In 2001, Pretoria was about 2/3 white, but that has been decreasing. Afrikaans is the predominant language here, but English is the de facto language of commerce and business.

Pretoria is in a valley between a high plateau to the south and a mountain range to the north, so it is a few degrees warmer than Johannesburg, even though they are only 50km apart.  June is the coldest month, and July is the driest, averaging just a tenth of an inch of rain each year.  Total annual rain is about 26 inches, a bit less than central North Carolina, but snow is very rare.  There was a light dusting in a few suburbs 5 years ago, but it had been 39 years since a snowflake was seen here.

Pretoria is very much a government town, with many South African government offices, as well as 125+ different embassies and diplomatic missions; the US government has a large presence, with a few hundred government employees working for the embassy, USAID, Peace Corps, CDC and other agencies that have large regional operations here.

Because of the nice weather, sports are very popular here.  Because of their British history, rugby and cricket are popular, as is soccer.  I haven't seen many golf courses, but a South African just won the British Open, and 125 South Africans are expected to compete in 17 sports at the Olympics over the next few weeks in London.  South African Oscar Pistorius is a double amputee who has artificial fiber limbs, and is expected to compete in two events, although there is some debate whether he has an advantage over able-bodied athletes.

The South African economy is ranked as the 28th largest in the world, between Argentina and Thailand.  The country ends up in the middle of the pack on per capita income, but it has the widest income disparity of any country in the world.  The top 10% here average over $80K a year, but the bottom 10% average just over $400 a year.

Health is another major concern here.  The burden of HIV has taken a heavy toll here, and the South African government was slow to address the epidemic; the crude death rate (not taking age of the population into consideration) is the highest on the planet, double that of the US.  This means that the average life expectancy here is less than 50 years; only 2 other countries have a lower life expectancy.

Where South Africa goes from here is anyone's guess.  It has a lot going for it, but still has a lot of challenges to overcome; in my short time here, there have been national news reports about a town that hasn't had drinking water in months, and another province with a corruption scandal that has prevented many schoolchildren from having textbooks even though the school year is half over.  Not exactly signs of progress...