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Top 12 Things You Didn’t Know About South Africa

25 June 2017
By Kimberly Enger

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1. Only in South Africa will you find a street that has been home to two Nobel Peace Prize laureates.

Both Nelson Mandela and Archbishop Desmond Tutu lived on Vilakazi Street in the Orlando West township in Soweto. Tutu was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1984 for his nonviolent opposition to apartheid. Mandela shared the Nobel Peace Prize in 1993 with F.W. de Klerk, for their role in the peaceful end of apartheid and work establishing democracy in South Africa. Mandela’s house is now a museum.

2. Archaeologists have discovered some of the oldest hominid remains in South Africa, often called the “Cradle of Humankind.”

The UNESCO Fossil Hominids Sites comprise five separate locations. Archaeological evidence traces human evolution back at least 2.5 million years. South Africa is rich in remains and artifacts of early hominids, proving they used stone tools 2 million years ago and created fire 1.8 million years ago.

3. There are more than 2,000 shipwrecks off the coast of South Africa, many over 500 years old.

South Africa has over 2,500 kilometers (1,500 miles) of coastline, much of it treacherous. Over the years, the sea has claimed thousands of vessels (many without a trace) – estimates go as high as 3,000. Shipwreck sites are now protected by South African law. 

4. South Africa has 11 official languages, each with equal status.

Due to its diversity of ethnicities and cultures, South Africa is called the “Rainbow Nation.” The Constitution of South Africa recognizes 11 official languages. The 2011 census showed that 22.7 percent of South Africans speak isiZulu as their native language, making it the most commonly spoken language. English is the most common language used in business.

5. The birth of wine production in South Africa dates back to 1659, when a Dutch settler in South Africa recorded the successful pressing of wine from French Muscadet grapes.

South Africa is now one of the world’s top ten wine producers. Many claim that Route 62, stretching for about 850 kilometers (over 500 miles), is the longest continuous wine route in the world. Whether or not that is true, it is certainly one of the most scenic.

6. South Africa is the only country in the world with three capital cities. 

Contrary to what many think, Pretoria is not the capital of South Africa. In reality, South Africa has three capitals: Pretoria (administrative), Cape Town (legislative), and Bloemfontein (judicial). The only city specified in the Constitution of South Africa is Cape Town, the seat of Parliament. Most foreign embassies are in Pretoria, but many countries also have consulates in the other cities.

7. The world’s deepest mine is the Mponeng Gold Mine, which reaches more than 4 kilometers (2.5 miles) below the Earth’s surface.

To comprehend the depth of the Mponeng Mine, try to visualize 10 Empire State Buildings stacked on top of each other. Mponeng is in the Witwatersrand Gold Belt, the source of almost half of the gold that has ever been mined. The discovery of gold in the region in 1886 triggered a gold rush that led to the establishment of Johannesburg.

8. Mark Shuttleworth, the entrepreneur behind the open source Ubuntu operating system, was the first South African to travel in space.

Shuttleworth named the operating system after the African concept of Ubuntu, which loosely translates to “human kindness” literally “I am what I am because of who we all are.” As open source software, Ubuntu is developed and enhanced collaboratively. But Ubuntu isn’t Shuttleworth’s only claim to fame he had already made a name for himself in April 2002, when he spent $20 million for a 10-day journey as a space tourist.

9. South Africa’s Vredefort Dome is Earth’s largest meteor scar – evidence of the greatest known single release of energy in Earth’s history. 

The Vredefort Dome is a part of a massive meteorite crater. The impact crater’s radius is about 300 kilometers (186 miles). Calculations indicate that the mountain-sized meteorite – between 5 and 10 kilometers (3 to 6 miles) across – was traveling at more than 36,000 kilometers per hour (22,369 miles per hour). In 2005, Vredefort Dome became a World Heritage Site.

10. On 3 December 1967, Dr. Christiaan Barnard made history when he performed the first human-to-human heart transplant at Groote Schuur Hospital in Cape Town.

South Africans are responsible for many other breakthroughs in medicine, including the yellow fever vaccine and the Computed Axial Tomography (CAT) Scan, each earning their respective inventors a Nobel Prize. Just this year, a team of South Africans identified the CDH2 gene as the cause of most heart attacks.

11. South Africa has eight UNESCO World Heritage Sites, each reflecting an important aspect of its cultural and natural landscape.

The sites include cultural treasures such as hominid fossils, the earliest indigenous kingdom of South Africa, the cave paintings of the San people, the traditional use of the land by the Nama, and a prison that housed political prisoners (including Nelson Mandela). Other sites protect the natural uniqueness of South Africa – from the Cape Floral region to the iSimangaliso Wetlands to the Vredefort Dome.

12. In 2009, the U.N. General Assembly established “Mandela International Day” to honor the legacy of Nelson Mandela.

Mandela International Day is celebrated every year on 18 July, Nelson Mandela’s birthday. To commemorate the 67 years of Mandela’s contributions to freedom and peace, people are asked to spend 67 minutes working toward positive change in the world.

In 2013, 18 July happened to fall during ICANN47 Durban. African Internet pioneer Dr. Nii Quaynor paid tribute to the legacy of Nelson Mandela. Watch his speech.  That same day, some meeting participants, headed by then ICANN President and CEO Fadi Chehadé, performed community service at a college in Durban, teaching students and helping with painting projects.


Kimberly Enger