The region, extending up from the Atlantic to the Indian Ocean and from the stormy Cape up to the Zambezi River, embraces seven different countries, each with its own, distinctive culture and physical character. Together, though, they form a coherent community of nations, linked to each other by history, by a shared infrastructure and by a common economic purpose.
Giant among these states is South Africa, a regional superpower sprawling over more than a million square kilometres of the southern subcontinent, home to 41 million people and administered from Pretoria. Other major South African centres include Johannesburg, the region's financial and industrial hub; scenic Cape Town, its central area hugged by the slopes of Table Mountain; the seaport cities of Durban and Port Elizabeth; Bloemfontein on the largely featureless grasslands of the interior and, not too far away, the diamond city of Kimberley. Enclosed within the country are two small kingdoms: Swaziland, a varied and beautiful territory, its citizens steeped in the traditions of their proud forebears; and Lesotho, set high on the 'roof of Africa' - the massive rampart of mountains fringing the eastern coastal belt.
Much of the western subcontinent is occupied by Namibia, a vast and mostly desolate land of bone-dry countryside (the Namib is the world's most ancient desert) and rugged uplands, harsh in its climate and terrain, haunting in its stark emptiness. Major towns are few and far between; the biggest is Windhoek, the nation's capital, which is located in the centre of the country. Diamonds and the prospect of offshore oil underpins the Namibian economy.
Flanking Namibia's eastern parts is Botswana, also arid, landlocked, its flat plains mantled to the far horizons by the sun-scorched sands of the Kalahari. Not all of this country, though, is desert: the Okavango River flows into its north-western corner to create an enormous inland delta that brings colour, lushness and life to the land. Botswana, also rich in diamonds, is one of Africa's most prosperous countries. Its capital is Gaberone, close to the south-eastern border.
Among the most attractive (in physical terms) of the subcontinent's six components is Zimbabwe, which shares borders with both Botswana and, along the Limpopo River, with South Africa. This is a potentially wealthy country, fertile in its soils, much of it generous in its rains, economically advanced by African standards. Zimbabwe is blessed, too, with a remarkably prolific and accessible wildlife heritage, and with scenic splendour, a quality most strikingly evident at the famed Victoria Falls and in the Eastern Highlands. Zimbabwe's population is around 12 million; the national capital is Harare, on the north-central highveld; Bulawayo, in the south-east, is the country's second largest city.
To the east lies Mozambique, seventh of southern Africa's member states and a comparative late-comer to the tourism stakes: the tragedies of civil war are a still a recent memory. But its government has launched an impressive reconstruction programme and its economy, though devastated by the floods of 2000, now ranks as one of the world's fastest-growing. The country's most inviting holiday areas at present are the seaside capital, Maputo, the nearby Inhaca Island and, farther up the tropical coast, the sun-kissed, coral-fringed Bazaruto archepelago.
Facts South Africa/RSA
South Africa is in fact one of the world's drier countries, and there are huge regional variations: overall, it receives an average 460 millimetres of rain a year as against the global mean of 857 millimetres. The eastern regions are much wetter than the western, where some places record less than 50 millimetres a year. Average annual temperatures are more constant, though temperature inversions vary, sometimes dramatically, from place to place. They are least at the coast and greatest on the interior plateau, where winter nights are bitterly cold and the days pleasantly sunny.
During an average year the country as a whole receives between 7.5 and 9.4 hours of sunshine a day compared with London's 3.8 and Rome's 6.4.
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