8 Interesting Facts About South Africa

The South African flag.

South Africa is a country that’s hard to forget once you’ve visited. It’s a place of breathtaking beauty: miles of coastline, glittering sand dunes, towering mountains, and rich biodiversity make it a draw for tourists from all over the world. The political and cultural history adds additional nuance, making a destination that’s immensely explorable. 

Although this is not my first trip to South Africa, now that I’m headed back to this astoundingly diverse and culturally unique destination, it’s the right time for the next installment of 8 Facts You Might Not Have Known: South Africa facts edition.

1. The world’s first successful heart transplant was performed in Cape Town.

The Groote Schuur Hospital in Cape Town holds this prestigious title and the transplant was performed in 1967 by Dr. Christiaan Barnard. In addition to having performed the first heart transplant, he also performed the first successful heart/lung transplant. The donor of the first heart transplant was a white girl who also had her kidneys donated to a black recipient, which was extremely controversial at the time.

2. South Africa is by far the largest producer of strategic minerals.

South Africa produces a staggering 90% of the world’s platinum, 80% of manganese, 73% of the chrome, 45% of the vanadium, and 41% of the gold. As you would expect, mining is big business here and mining generates a staggering 18% of South Africa’s $588 billion USD GDP.

Drakensberg Mountains or Cathedral Peak in South Africa
Drakensberg Mountains or Cathedral Peak in South Africa.

3. The two biggest man made holes in the world were excavated in South Africa.

The Big Hole in Kimberly and the Jagersfontein Mine are both gigantic, open pit diamond mines. Both mines were designed to extract diamonds from underground Kimberlite Pipes which come from the mantle of the Earth. Like mineral mining, diamonds are big business! Although diamonds can be found in about 35 countries around the world, South Africa ranks #7 among the top diamond producers, responsible for about 8.4 million carats worth of diamonds every year. This is a great book if you’re keen on learning more about the country’s conflicted history around diamonds.

Bonus Fact: Botswana actually produces the most valuable diamonds in the world. Although it produces fewer diamonds than Russia—20.9 million in Botswana versus 40 million from Russia—the diamonds in Botswana are generally larger and of higher quality. 

Leopard in a tree in Kruger National Park
Leopard in a tree in Kruger National Park.

4. South Africa has many of the world’s most interesting animal extremes. 

Located on the southern tip of the African continent, South Africa is home to the world’s:

  • largest bird (ostrich)
  • largest mammal (bull elephant)
  • smallest mammal (dwarf shrew)
  • largest reptile (leatherback sea turtle: 1500 pounds)
  • largest earthworm (African Giant Earthworm)
  • fastest animal (cheetah)
  • tallest animal (giraffe)
  • largest fish (whale shark).

5. The country boasts the world’s second highest waterfall.

Located in the truly beautiful Drakensberg Mountains, Tugela Falls checks in at 948 meters—a mere 31 meters less than Angel Falls in Venezuela (and some contend that both waterfalls have been mis-measured, and that Tulega tops Angel Falls).  

6. The best example of a living fossil was found in South Africa in 1938. 

The Coelacanth fish was thought to be extinct since the Devonian period and is considered the linked between fish and tetrapods. These are the only fossils in South Africa though—the Fossil Hominid Sites of South Africa are one of the country’s nine UNESCO World Heritage Sites and were the site of a 2.3-million-year-old fossil excavated from the Sterkfontein Caves.

7. The largest defeat of an army with gunpowder to an army without guns occurred in South Africa.

In 1879, 1,400 British troops were defeated by 30,000 Zulu warriors armed primarily with spears and shields. Over 1,000 British were killed (71%) versus 3,000 Zulus (10%).

Row of colorful wooden houses near a beach in Cape Town
Row of colorful wooden houses near a beach in Cape Town.

8. South Africa has 11 official languages.

You’d be forgiven for being surprised, as most people only think of two languages in relation to the country. But, in fact, the country has a diverse language pool, and most South Africans natively speak more than one language (the average South African speaks 2.84 languages). The full list looks like this:

  • Afrikaans
  • English
  • Ndebele
  • Pedi
  • Sotho
  • Swazi
  • Tsonga
  • Tswana
  • Venda
  • Xhosa
  • Zulu

At least 98% of the country speaks one of these languages, but there are other dialects and lingos present across the country (at least 35!). Zulu and Xhosa are the most commonly used, followed by Afrikaans and English.

Drakensberg Park in South Africa
Drakensberg Park in South Africa.

Recommended Resources And Readings:

If you’re traveling to South Africa, then you’ll likely want to pick up a Lonely Planet South Africa guidebook for the best advice on where to go, what to see, and where to stay. Also view our South Africa photo essay for a glimpse of what to expect from a trip there—adventures such as hot air balloon rides, swimming with great whites, and so much more. 

And if you’re keen to learn more fascinating facts about South Africa’s rich history, culture, and landscape, here are our favorite reads.

Best Books About South Africa:

18 thoughts on “8 Interesting Facts About South Africa”

  1. I visited Johannesburg and Capetown in August this year.
    Thanks for this article. I din’t know so much still.

  2. Interesting post :-)
    It is also home to the largest gorge bungee swing – Oribi Gorge in Natal. I completed the jump during my holiday there recently.

  3. British were defeated at Isandlwana but ultimately won the Zulu War. Most Zulus at Isandlwana and Rourke’s Drift, fought in JAN 1879 were killed to the man. By JULY 1879 the Zulus were soundly defeated as a people.

  4. I leave next Monday, Sept 27th for my 12th trip to SA since 1998. During each of my trips I have usually traveled before and after the conferences that I go there to speak at. I have been to each of the provinces during my various trips.

    SA is a very beautiful and unique country.

    You can find some sample photo albums at

  5. As a South African living abroad I can only say that I miss my home country everyday. It is a country that offers just about everything a traveller could wish for, from Bushveld and massive African Savannah, to 1st World Cities and infrastructure. There are mountain ranges and semi arid deserts, there is warm ocean and cold ocean, rain forests and wonderful unspoilt coastline but the best is the friendly people with their never say die attitude. A truly remarkable place. Enjoy

  6. I was in South Africa just before the elections which brought in Mandela. I’d love to come back and see the change in process…

    S.A Trivia? They use ostriches as guard, erm, dogs?, there. They are fast runners and surprisingly aggressive. And farm them for meat, too.

  7. WOW – one of the MUST DO’s left on my list – can’t wait to read your posts and virtually go on your trip with you!

  8. This is awesome. I have never been to Africa but I always have wanted to. My good friend goes to Ghana every year and has fallen in love. She loves Africa so much that she plans to work there. She is in college for international business, minoring in french and plans to help the children of South Africa. From what you said about Africa I could see how it would become such an addicting place.

  9. While we did not get to South Africa on our RTW trip we did spend 2 weeks there in 2007. It is still my favorite place I have been to (as much as you can have one). The animals are amazing and I would reco you spend as much time as you can up and around Kruger. Driving the Garden Route, especially stopping in Hermanus to see the breaching whales right from shore, is wonderful. Enjoy and be sure to post lots of pictures.

  10. Gary, you’re going to love it here. We’re in South Africa right now and have spent the last three weeks here. It’s gorgeous and the weather is simply fantastic. Where are you going to be? We’re heading to Cape Town this weekend so if you’re going to be there, maybe we can meet up?

    • I don’t think I’ll be in Cape Town right away. Lets see if we can make it happen. We can become members of the Two Continent club: people I’ve met on more than one continent.

  11. I went there last September for 9 very short days. Did three safaris at the Pilanesberg Reserve, traveled on the Blue Train, and spent four days exploring Cape Town. It was more of an appetizer trip, really, and I’ve promised myself to go back and spend at least eight weeks, if not more, exploring the diversity of offerings … from the shanty towns to the super rich beach facing condos, from the safaris to the waterfalls and beaches the whole country has a variety of stories to tell tourists. I will look forward to your perspective (through your lens and your words). I had written a post about the safari experience as well as the culinary delights I feasted on that you can read on my blog. Thanks for sharing these amazing facts and I hope you have a wonderful trip.

    • For some reason one of my hyperlinks isn’t working in the earlier comment. You can view my blog post about the South African safari here.

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