Natural resources in South Africa

Q: “What are natural resources in South Africa?”

A:”South Africa has a lot of vegetation and a lot of animals”.

The answer above, found on the internet, is true on both counts.


In terms of biological diversity, South Africa ranks third in the world. The country has 68 vegetation types classified into 7 biomes, from semi desert areas to and alpine forests. Two internationally recognised biodiversity "hot-spots" are located in South Africa: the Cape Floristic Kingdom and the Succulent Karoo. South African coast has over 10,000 species of plants and animals. This is almost 15 percent of global coastal species; 12 percent of them are endemic, which means that they occur nowhere else. South Africa is home to an estimated 5,8 percent of the global total of mammal species, 8 percent of bird species, 4.6 percent of reptile species, 16 percent of marine fish species and 5.5 percent of the world's known insect species.

Minerals and ores

South Africa has all that, and more in terms of natural resources. As a matter of fact, whenever the South Africa's wealth of natural resources is mentioned, people automatically think of the minerals and ores hidden below the surface of the earth. Originally, the whole economy was built on mining.

The country is a leading supplier of a variety of minerals and mineral products that are exported to 87 countries. Each year, approximately 55 different minerals are produced from more than 700 mines, with gold, platinum, coal and diamonds dominating exports and revenue earnings. There are also important deposits of iron and copper. South Africa does not have tanzanite, which is almost exclusively found in the fellow Southern African country of Tanzania.


Mpumalanga, the Midlands and KwaZulu-Natal have vast plantations of timber that are the basis for a multi-billion dollar industry. The timber industry, born out of need to build the mines, is almost exclusively based on planted trees, allowing the country to maintain its native trees.


Only about 13 percent of South African soil is suitable for cultivation, of which 22 percent can be classified as high-potential land. Some 1,3 million hectares are under irrigation.  Still, the country is not only self-sufficient in almost all major agricultural products, but in a normal year it is also a net food exporter, thanks to well-developed commercial farming. Exports include raw sugar, fresh grapes, citrus, nectarines, wine, avocados, plums, maize, black tea, groundnuts, meat, pineapples, tobacco, wool and cotton. Maize is the largest locally produced field crop and most important source of carbohydrates for human and animal consumption.

Limitations and challenges

Energy: The most immediate challenge to utilising South Africa’s natural resources and consequently to the country’s economy as a whole is the lack of energy. The main local source of energy is coal. Other local sources include biomass (such as wood and dung), natural gas, hydropower, nuclear power, solar power and wind power. South Africa has very little oil reserves and most of its crude oil is imported. Renewable energy sources, other than biomass, have not yet been exploited to the full.

The country’s economy is energy intensive and more energy is used than is produced. The 2008 electricity shortages and cuts had detrimental effects on the economy, especially mining. Since then, the parastatal electricity supplier, Eskom, raised prices and the supply stabilised. However, energy remains one of South Africa’s weak spots.

Water: South Africa's available freshwater resources are already almost fully utilised. It is believed that water will increasingly become the limiting natural resource. South Africa is looking towards other southern African countries for its water, but the risks of international dependency on such a priority resource are high. Other possible sources, such as desalinisation of seawater and water from icebergs, may be viable options in future; today they are too expensive to exploit.

Agriculture: The government intends to redistribute 30 percent of agricultural land (24.6 million hectares) to black South Africans by 2014 in order to address the racial imbalances in the ownership. By June 2009 only 6.7 percent (5.5 million hectares) had been transferred. The Western Cape's Institute for Poverty, Land and Agrarian Studies (PLAAS) experts recently noted that the level of support [by government] for new, small and cash-strapped farmers who have been settled on re-distributed land is extremely poor. This constellation circumstances could have adverse effects on South African agricultural output.

Dependence on natural resources: This is today seen as a cause for concern. Many economists call for greater diversification, because one day mineral resources will be depleted and the country will have to depend on other economic activities. South Africa was once a global leader in gold mining and gold constituted well over fifty percent of South African exports, but the country has been overtaken by China as the world's number one gold producer.  Today, it is a misnomer to call Johannesburg the city of gold: there is no more gold mining in the city other than the reprocessing of mine dumps.

Image: Sasol. Image source:

Also see:

About South Africa

Mining in South Africa

South Africa’s mineral production and sales

Historical diamond production (South Africa)

South Africa – Agriculture