Last updated: 11:26 AM ET, Tue November 01 2022
Cape Town and the 12 Apostels from above in South Africa (photo via Ben1183 / iStock / Getty Images Plus)

South Africa

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Safari, game drive at Addo Elephant National Park, South Africa
Safari, game drive at Addo Elephant National Park, South Africa

South Africa, the country on the southern tip of the world’s second-largest continent, offers a rich menu for the American traveler. It was the home of the first permanent European settlement in Africa when the Dutch settled Cape Town in 1653 as a way station for sailing vessels en route from Europe to the Far East. The establishment of Cape Town was part of the explosion in exploration of the 1500s and the wave of expansion of world trade it set off. And it marked the beginning of the mad rush of European empires to establish colonies in Africa. Cape Town was Europe’s first foot in Africa, and was two centuries ahead of the scramble for Africa in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, when most of Africa’s territory fell under the dominion of European colonial powers.

The multicultural mixing of South Africa has been going on now for nearly four centuries, and it is a large part of what makes the country so exciting as a tourist destination. American tourists have traditionally seen Africa as a safari destination. But its European influences date back nearly as far as they do in North America. All of the waves of world history that affected the U.S. since the 1600s have also affected South Africa. But South Africa has responded to them and adapted to them in its own ways.

What awaits for Americans is a country as rich in multicultural blending as their own, but with very different flavors and accents. South Africa’s food, wine, city life, music, art, national parks, wildlife, indigenous people and immigrant populations all have their own unique richness to impart to visiting tourists, who all congregate there today as tourists in the country Nelson Mandela dubbed “The Rainbow Nation.”

South Africa’s discoveries of diamonds and gold made it the richest country in Africa, which led to the building of a first world infrastructure. But the mid-20th century efforts of the white minority population to prevent the inevitable advancement of native people led to policies that were so extreme that it alienated South Africa from the world. When the stalemate between the white minority and the black majority broke and the beloved Nelson Mandela became its first democratically elected president, the gates opened South Africa to the world. What had been behind the curtain was suddenly revealed: the mountains, the beaches, the winelands, the cosmopolitan cities, the nature reserves and the wildlife. And the world loved it and came rushing in.

South Africa is a modern, industrialized country, though its wilderness reserves are largely protected from industrial influences. Its main language is English, along with Afrikaans, a derivative of Dutch, and many native African languages. Driving is on the left, as in Britain. The legacy of the British control is strong, but there are also strong influences of nearly every other nationality, as a result of people flooded in from around the world during the gold rush days. The cuisine is a rich blend, with elements brought in as slaves in the 1600s and the natives, who make up a large component of the country’s population.

The 2010 FIFA World Cup, the most popular event in the world, opened the lens on South Africa much wider for first World Cup ever in Africa. It undoubtedly raised the profile of South Africa to those who have not yet caught on.