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South Africa factfile

A look at South Africa, the African continent’s economic and political giant, which holds a general election on May 7:

– GEOGRAPHY: South Africa occupies the southern extremity of the African mainland. Its coastline touches the Atlantic Ocean in the west and the Indian Ocean to the east. The surface area is 1,224,297 square kilometres (472,713 square miles).

– POPULATION: 53 million inhabitants of whom about 80 percent are black, 9.5 percent white.

– CAPITAL: Pretoria is the administrative capital, Cape Town is the legislative capital, Johannesburg is the business and industrial capital and Bloemfontein is the judicial capital. Johannesburg is the most populated city.

– LANGUAGE: Eleven official languages (Afrikaans, English, Ndebele, Northern Sotho, Sotho, Swazi, Tswana, Tsonga, Venda, Xhosa and Zulu)

– RELIGION: Christian (76 percent).

– HISTORY: The southern tip of South Africa became a Dutch trading post from 1652 and the territory was colonised by the British from 1795. In 1910 four British dependencies were merged to form the Union of South Africa, which was granted independence within the Commonwealth in 1931. In 1961 the government declared a republic and left the Commonwealth.

The conservative National Party which came to power in 1948 institutionalised the system of apartheid.

After Nelson Mandela was released from 27 years imprisonment in February 1990, and his African National Congress (ANC) unbanned with other anti-apartheid groups, official talks began in May between the government of President Frederik de Klerk, the ANC and other parties.

White-minority rule ended on April 27, 1994 when the ANC won the first ever multi-racial legislative elections by a large majority. Mandela was inaugurated on May 10. Mandela’s death on December 5, 2013 led to a wave of public emotion and the world paid homage.

In 1999 Thabo Mbeki was elected president, and re-elected in 2004, but was forced to resign by the ANC in 2008.

Jacob Zuma was elected president in April 2009.

– POLITICAL INSTITUTIONS: From 1994 it has been a presidential republic with a multi-racial bicameral parliament. A new constitution adopted on May 8, 1996 and which came into force on February 4, 1997, is considered one of the most liberal in the world.

– ECONOMY AND RESOURCES: Very rich in mineral resources including gold, platinum, diamonds, coal and uranium.

Industry, particularly the mining and automobile sectors, drives the economy. Due to an obsolete infrastructure, the country suffers from an energy crisis.

A black elite has grown richer thanks to sustained growth over the past few years, but nearly half of the population lives below the poverty line.

Unemployment officially stands at more than 24 percent of the population, but approaches 40 percent when discouraged job seekers are included.

In 2012, more than 80 percent of farm land was held by whites, despite an agricultural reform which is underway.

From August to November, 2012, violent social unrest in the mines left dozens dead.

– GNP: $7,612 per capita in 2012 (World Bank).

– DEFENCE: 62,100 troops (the International Institute of Strategic Studies, 2014).

– HIV/AIDS: 12.2 percent of the population is HIV positive.