South Africa is located at the southern tip of Africa. It is bordered by Namibia, Botswana, Zimbabwe, Mozambique, Swaziland and Lesotho (which is completely surrounded by South Africa). It is a vast country with widely varying landscapes and with 11 official languages, an equally diverse people. South Africa is renowned for its wines and is the world's largest producer of gold. South Africa has a strong economy and is an influential player in African politics.
If you want to travel in Southern Africa then South Africa is a good place to start. While you can fly into any country in southern Africa, most flights will route through South Africa anyway. South Africa is also a good place to get used to travelling in the region (though some would argue that Namibia is better for that). Of course South Africa is not only a jumping off point, it is itself a superb destination rich in culture, fauna & flora and history.
Outsider views of South Africa are colored by the same stereotypes as the rest of Africa. Contrary to popular belief, South Africa is not devastatingly poor with an unstable government that is rapidly going to hell. South Africa is among the most economically stratified nations in the world, and poverty in the townships is appalling. Progress is being made, though it is necessarily slow after 60+ years of apartheid. South Africa boasts a well-developed infrastructure and has all the modern amenities and technologies. The government is stable, although corruption is high. The government and the primary political parties all have a high level of respect for democratic institutions and human rights.
Most nationalities get up to 3 months entry on arrival. Check with your travel agent if you need to pre-arrange a visa.
Make sure you have 2 blank pages back to back in your passport or they will send you back. This rule is new, issued 9/03. Make sure you have a return ticket available or they will send you back. If you need to pick up a ticket at the airport have the flight number and details handy and speak with the customs guy, they should check your story out and let you in (be firm). Be wary of arriving with a damaged passport as new security measures might trip up your entry.
South Africa's two major international airports are at Cape Town and Johannesburg. Regular flights arrive from major centers throughout sub-Saharan Africa including: Windhoek, Luanda, Gaborone, Dar es Salaam, Harare, Lusaka, Kinshasa and Maputo. Direct flights also arrive from major European centers, including: London, Paris and Frankfurt. There are also direct flights to Dubai, New York, Bombay, Hong Kong and Perth. As you can see, the list of connections is exhaustive.
The roads between South Africa and its immediate neighbors are very good.
There is scheduled bus service between either Cape Town or Johannesburg and the major centers of neighboring countries (as well as points in between). Intercape Mainliner services some of these routes; there are other companies for the rest.
South Africa has 11 official languages. Most people speak English, although not many as a first language. Afrikaans is more widely-spoken than English and has roots in Dutch, so it can be understood by Dutch speakers, and deciphered by German speakers. Other widely spoken languages are Zulu (mainly in Kwazulu-Natal) and Xhosa (mainly in the Western Cape and Eastern Cape).
The currency is the Rand (ZAR). Rough conversion rates are: 7:1 (USD), 9:1 (EUR) and 13:1 (GBP). It is recommended you carry one of the above currencies, as conversion between any of them and the Rand can be done at any bank without trouble. The Rand is also used in Namibia, Lesotho and Swaziland.
Automated teller machines are available throughout the country. It is best to use only teller machines that are inside a mall or other building. Always be careful to make sure no one is watching you enter your PIN, and be vigilant about typical scams (e.g. machines that seem to eat your card and won't give it back after you enter the PIN).
Prices in shops are fixed, but prices in open markets or from street vendors are open to barter.
South Africa has every kind of accommodation you can think of ranging from budget hostels right up to luxury resorts. The country is well outfitted to handle tourists.
South Africa has a relatively high crime rate. However, warnings about crime should be taken in context. The threat is not as serious as it might sound. If you are alert and take some common-sense precautions then you will have no problems. As you spend more time in the country, you will get a better understanding of how things are.
Visiting the townships is possible, though don't do it alone unless you really know where you're going. Some townships are safe while others can be extremely dangerous. Heed the warnings of your country's foreign ministry in this regard. Some tour companies offer guided visits to the townships, and this is perfectly safe.
South Africa has a modern medical system and world-class medical know-how.
The HIV infection rate is about 25%. Do not have unprotected sex.
Kruger Park and surrounding areas in the eastern part of the country are in a seasonal malaria zone. Consult a physician regarding appropriate precautions given the time of year you will be travelling. The most important defenses against malaria are: using mosquito repellent with DEET concentration greater than 50%; covering your skin, especially around dusk; and using mosquito nets while sleeping.
Water is safe to drink throughout the country unless otherwise posted.
South Africa's country code is 27. Each region or city has an area code which is prefixed with a '0' when dialing long distance within South Africa. Johannesburg: 011. Cape Town: 021. Durban: 031.
South Africa has an extensive GSM network, working on the same frequency as the rest of Africa and Europe. There are three cell phone providers in South Africa: Vodacom, MTN, and Cell-C.
There are plenty of Internet cafes and access rates are cheap.