South Africa has three main geographic regions: a great interior plateau; an escarpment of mountain ranges that rims the plateau on the east, south, and west; and a marginal area lying between the escarpment and the sea. Most of the plateau consists of highveld, rolling grassland situated at 4,000 to 6,000 ft (1,220–1,830 m). In addition, in the northeast are the Witwatersrand (a ridge of rock where gold has been mined since 1886), the Bushveld Basin (a zone of savanna situated at 2,000–3,000 ft/610–910 m), and the Limpopo River basin.
In the north are the southern fringes of the Kalahari desert; and in the west is the semiarid Cape middleveld, which includes part of the Orange River and is situated at 2,500 to 4,000 ft (760–1,220 m). The escarpment reaches its greatest heights (10,000–11,000 ft/3,050–3,350 m) in the Drakensberg Range in the east. The marginal area varies in width between 35 and 150 mi (60–240 km) and most of it is bordered by a narrow, low-lying coastal strip. The region also includes considerable stretches of grassland in the east; mountains and the semiarid Great and Little Karroo tablelands in the south; and desert (a southern extension of the Namib desert) in the west. Kruger National Park is in NE South Africa.
South Africa is divided into nine provinces—Western Cape, Eastern Cape, Northern Cape, North West, Free State, KwaZulu-Natal, Gauteng, Limpopo, and Mpumalanga. Before 1994, there were four provinces: Cape Province, Natal (largely coextensive with KwaZulu-Natal), Orange Free State (largely coextensive with Free State), and Transvaal. In addition, during apartheid rule about 14% of the country's land area was set aside for blacks in pseudoindependent territories (originally called "bantustans"), allegedly to allow them self-government and cultural preservation. In fact, these "homelands" were used to give the white government greater control and to exclude blacks from the political process. Gazankulu, Kangwane, KwaNdebele, KwaZulu, Lebowa, and QwaQwa were Bantu national homelands that existed under South African sovereignty. Transkei, the first homeland (1963), Bophuthatswana, Ciskei, and Venda were all granted "independence" by the early 1980s and existed as nominal republics, although none were recognized internationally. With the end of white minority rule in 1994, the black homelands were abolished.
The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright © 2012, Columbia University Press. All rights reserved.