The Republic of South Africa was at the head of the queue when they handed out geographical treats. The Rainbow Nation covers 470,693 miles of stunning natural beauty from the Atlantic to the Indian Oceans, from top-drawer safari parks to lofty mountain ranges and from the coast - all 1800 miles of it - to the veld, the high plains that cover much of the interior. Mixed into this vast area, roughly the size of France and Spain combined, are city and country properties, most built to ensure that owners can enjoy South Africa's healthy, outdoor lifestyle.
These are undoubtedly times of change in South Africa. The country that has the most advanced economy in Africa and has one of the biggest disparities in wealth in the world but it's important to remember how much the country has changed since the end of Apartheid in 1991.
After years when the country was an international pariah, visitor numbers over the past 10 years have grown dramatically and made South Africa an undisputed star of worldwide tourism. In 2006 7.39m tourists visited South Africa.
Property buyers followed, enticed by the rugged natural landscape, the climate and also pleasantly surprised by just how far their money would stretch. For British buyers, the South African property market is a mix of the familiar and the unknown. As with all international markets, knowledge is power so here are some facts to help would-be buyers.
South Africa has an impressive infrastructure, easily the best in Africa, and travelling on the main tourist routes, both by internal flights and by road, is generally straightforward. It is when you want to go off the beaten path relying on public transport that you can have problems.
British visitors to South Africa have a range of airlines to choose from and this choice has helped to keep prices fairly competitive. However flying regularly to South Africa is definitely not a cheap option. British Airways, Virgin Atlantic and South African Airways (SAA) all fly from Heathrow to Cape Town and to Johannesburg non-stop. Alternatives include flying via a European city, for example transiting through Paris on Air France, or getting a seat on a charter flight. Flights tend to get very booked up at Christmas time - South Africa's summer - and getting a bargain fare then will be much tougher than in the low-season periods of October to November and April to June.
Most flights from the UK operate overnight. There is only ever a maximum of two hours difference between the time in the UK and in South Africa - a fact that may help to make the 12-hour flight more bearable.
South Africa has three international airports at Johannesburg, Cape Town and Durban and a further six state airports at Bloemfontein, East London, Kimberley, Port Elizabeth, George and Upington. There are several smaller airports around the country. Eight major domestic airlines operate in the country.
South Africa's semi-privatised Airports Company South Africa (ACSA) is currently undertaking a number of ambitious projects to improve its airports ready for 2010 when the country is set to host the FIFA football World Cup. Up to 3m tourists are expected for this event and a total of R5.2 billion has been promised to infrastructure improvements at Johannesburg, Durban and Cape Town airports by 2009.
South Africa is surrounded on three sides by water with seven commercial ports serving the major shipping lanes that run between South America and Asia. They are Cape Town, Durban (Africa's busiest port), East London, Mossel Bay, Port Elizabeth, Richards Bay and Saldanha. In 2006 Ngqura opened, 13 miles north-east of Port Elizabeth.
Roads and buses
The main roads in South Africa are well maintained and are the best way to get around this vast country.
National Roads are marked with an N and Regional roads with an R. There are 1,300 miles of toll roads. South Africans drive on the left, distances are measured in kilometres and it is compulsory to wear a seat belt. Speed limits vary from 60 km per hour (35 mph) in built up areas to 120 km per hour (75 mph) on national highways. A valid British driving licence - with photo - is all drivers require to drive in South Africa for six months.
Intercape, Translux and Greyhound run long distance bus routes to most major towns and cities and Compassline offers an up-market service in Mercedes mini buses. And if you hear puzzling references to the robots on the road, remember that they are talking about the traffic lights.
The South African railway system has links to Botswana, Lesotho, Namibia, Swaziland and Zimbabwe. Spoornet operates most intercity trains and although the service is clean and reasonably priced, it is very, very slow. So Cape Town to Durban can take up to 36 hours and Johannesburg to Cape Town takes 29 hours. The service is not much better in most cities with Cape Town having probably the only commuter trains that most tourists would be happy to use.
Luxury trains aimed at tourists include The Blue Train that runs from Cape Town to Pretoria and Port Elizabeth, an African equivalent of The Orient Express, with guests dressing up to the nines (and paying heavily for the privilege). There is also Rovos Rail offering services to Victoria Falls in Zimbabwe from Pretoria, sometimes drawn by steam engines.
One of the most attractive qualities of South Africa for British buyers and tourists is its location in the Southern Hemisphere. While we Brits are heading deeper and deeper into the grey skies of winter, South Africa is enjoying long summers, basking in blue skies and warm days. Midwinter is in June and July while December and January are midsummer.
Much of South Africa has a sunny, settled climate - average daily sunshine hours reach eight hours year round - but the weather of such a vast country is never going to be uniform and there are distinct differences between the regions. The weather is most temperate on the coast where sea breezes blow in cooler air. The Cape has average year-round highs of 17ºC and 26ºC while Durban, on the east coast, has higher humidity and marginally lower average summer temperatures. Johannesburg sits on a high plateau in the north of the country and has hot but wetter summers and cold, dry winters.
The east coast is semi-tropical while Cape Town has a more Mediterranean climate. The country is relatively dry with only 464mm of rain every year but the rainy season, such as it is, runs from June to September. Rainfall decreases the further west you head.
In the low-lying north near the border with Zimbabwe and Mozambique, the climate is tropical. Average temperatures in this area, which includes Kruger National Park, hit 31ºC in January.
Sea temperatures also vary. The eastern coast is warmed by the Agulhas current, flowing down from the tropics while the Benguela current, flowing icily up from Antarctica, cools the western coast, making the Atlantic Ocean too cold for many swimmers.
There are eleven official languages in South Africa, all of which have equal weight under the law. In reality though, English and Afrikaans are the most widely spoken. Afrikaans is a dialect derived from Dutch and despite becoming a symbol to some South Africans of the loathed Apartheid regime, its popularity among black and white South Africans remains strong. It is spoken mainly in The Free State and in western coastal regions but road signs are often given in Afrikaans as well as English.
English-speaking visitors will have no problem being understood in South Africa as 65% of the population speaks English - another reason why so many British visitors feel comfortable here. (The strong, guttural vowel sounds used by many South Africans may take some getting used to but remember that they may well have the same problem with your accent.) English is the official language of business, politics and outside of The Free State is also the usual language of the media. Throughout South Africa, you should have no problems finding a lawyer and an estate agent who speak good English.
The other nine official languages all have African roots and include Xhosa, Sotho and Zulu. They are concentrated in various parts around South Africa so for example, Zulu, spoken by over 12m people, dominates the south-east while Xhosa, spoken by half that number, is mainly heard in the Eastern region of the Cape.
South Africa's healthcare system has a rapidly growing private sector and British visitors should ensure they have adequate insurance. The public health system is over stretched with lengthy queues at state hospitals. The state system serves some 80% of the population with users paying an income-assessed contribution to their treatment.
There are two main private healthcare operators: Netcare who run 43 hospitals and employ 2,900 medical staff and Mediclinic who operate 35 hospitals.
Most of South Africa is malaria free but from June to September in rural or low altitude regions such as Limpopo province or Kruger National Park, there is some risk. Specialist medial advice is essential.
European Union nationals do not need a visa to enter South Africa: on entry they will get a temporary visitors visa allowing them to stay for three months at any one time. Visa extensions can be obtained from main offices of the Department of Home Affairs but must be applied for at least 30 days before the current visa expires. You will be asked why you plan to stay and may have to demonstrate that you can support yourself financially and afford a return ticket.
If you plan to stay for longer periods you must apply for permanent residency. This costs about £1,200 (2007). Recent changes to the procedure for retiring to South Africa mean that you will generally need to prove you have funds of R12m or a monthly income of R20,000 or more.
Property ownership and the buying process
There are no restrictions for legal non-residents on buying property in South Africa or on renting it out but there are various procedural requirements that must be fulfilled so employing a reputable lawyer is strongly recommended. Most property is owned freehold through individual title.
Most property is bought through an estate agent - check that they are registered with the government's Estates Agents Board and have a current fidelity fund certificate. South Africa has one of the most secure and accurate deeds registration systems in the world, a reassuring thought for would-be buyers there.
Offers to buy property or land must be made in writing. The same lawyer - conveyancer - acts for both parties. The vendor chooses the lawyer and the buyer pays the fees (these are pre set based on purchase price and average 1% to 2%). Once a price is agreed, the lawyer draws up the Agreement of Sale (also known as the offer to purchase) both parties sign it and a deposit of around 10% may be asked for. It becomes a legally binding document and is lodged at the Deeds Registry.
The Agreement of Sale should include the buyer, seller and conveyancer's name and address, a description of the property, the selling price and form of payment, details of financing, completion date, confirmation of all the costs and fees that a buyer will pay and certificates for inspections on the property (for example for pest control and electrical).
The lawyer will ensure that there are no pre-emptive rights over the property or plans to build new structures in the area. They will check that ownership is clear and valid, that all building was done with proper authorisation and that there are no outstanding debts on the property. Surveys are not standard in South Africa but should be carried out.
After careful examination, if everything is in order, the conveyancer will register the property in the name of the new buyer.
Fees and Taxes
The main charges when buying property in South Africa in 2007 are:
Transfer Duty, which is calculated on a rate between 5% and 8% depending on the purchase price. There is no transfer tax on the first R500,000 of the property value. New, favourable rates were introduced in 2006.
The lawyer's fees average 1% to 2% of the purchase price. Estate agents fees can be up to 7.5% with Vat on top. Mortgage costs, including valuation fees, average 1%.
Buyers should also look out for the Voetstoets clause. This is standard throughout South Africa and means that property is sold subject to the condition that it is in at the time of completion. This means that between signing the Agreement of Sale and the final transfer of ownership - a period generally of at least two months - you have to accept any changes to the property. Most buyers will arrange a visit immediately before the final transfer to check the property.
South Africa was recently ranked as the country with the 23rd most developed telecoms system in the world. The vastness of the country means that it has a large transmission infrastructure, almost all of it is digital. There are 4.92m telephones installed and 4.3m exchange lines - that's a remarkable 33% of all the total lines in Africa.
Telkom, the main national operator, was the sole provider of lines until its monopoly expired but it retains market dominance and is South Africa's largest integrated communications company. There are phone boxes in all towns and cities. The international dialling code for South Africa is + 27.
In 2006 there were 19m mobile users in South Africa. With a growth rate of up to 50% per annum, it's little wonder that South Africa is the fourth fastest growing GSM (Global Systems for Mobile Communications) in the world. Mobile network operators are Vodacom, MTN and Cell C.
Connecting to the internet has traditionally been expensive in South Africa and helped to keep user numbers in check. However there has been a rise of 112% between 2000 and 2007 in internet use, with current numbers up to 5.1m people or 10.3% of the population.
Broadband coverage is also relatively low with only 266,000 people with access in 2006. Still, that number has almost doubled in one year and with the arrival of new broadband providers such as WBS, Sentech and iBurst, connection prices have fallen by 15%.
South Africa's internet domain is .za
Serving a large country with 11 official languages is always going to be challenging. South African television comprises of SABC 1,2 and 3 showing game shows, local soap operas and foreign comedy programmes. Subscribers to the MNet satellite service can get a wider range including sport and news.
Radio is popular in South Africa with a range of regional stations broadcasting and providing programmes in all 11 languages. The English-language station run by the SABC - Safm - has a good reputation.
The currency in South Africa is the rand, divided into 100 cents, and often known as the buck.
The South African banking system is sophisticated and modern and compares favourably with many western European countries. Transferring money to a registered bank there is a secure process. Opening a bank account is straightforward but you do have to appear in person.
The central banking authority is the South Africa Reserve Bank which says that there are 15 locally controlled banks, six foreign-controlled banks and a further 50 registered foreign bank branches and offices. The main four banks are Absa, FirstRand Bank, Nedcor and Standard Bank with nearly 16m customers between them.
All funds brought into South Africa must go through the South African Reserve Bank via a registered banker. There are currently (2007) no restrictions on bringing funds into South Africa to buy property but in case you wish to take the money back to the UK when you eventually sell the house, you should ensure that the bank keeps full and accurate records of all money transactions. There are no restrictions on non-residents repatriating their initial investment as long as they have fulfilled their tax liabilities (see below). Residents have to obey Exchange Control restrictions limiting the money they can take out of South Africa.
Branches are easy to find in all well-populated areas of the country. Banking hours are from 9am until 3.30pm from Monday to Friday and from 9am until 11am on Saturdays.
Mortgages, also known as bonds, cost around 1% of the purchase price to set up. Non-residents without a valid South African work permit may only borrow up to a maximum of 50% of the purchase price. The other half has to be brought into the country from abroad. Normal mortgage terms are 20 to 25 years. Residents can get 100% loans.
Non-residents are liable for tax on any income earned in South Africa, for example rental income, and also for Capital Gains Tax (since 2001) on the profits of owning property there. CGT rates are 25% on the profits for individuals and non-residents should file a tax return when they come to sell any property in South Africa. Residents do not pay any CGT on the first R1.5m of profit on their primary residence.
Non-residents are also liable for Estate Duty at 20% on their South African assets but are exempt if the property is bequeathed to their spouse. The UK and South Africa have a double taxation treaty. Stamp Duty was abolished in the 2004 budget.
You will be deemed to be resident in South Africa if you stay there for more than 183 days in any tax year and you will be taxed on your worldwide income. Income tax rates vary from 18% to 40% and the tax year runs from 1 March.
South Africa's Public Holidays were updated and renamed in 1994 to reflect the country's new multiparty democracy. There are now 12 days holiday every year and if one falls on a Sunday then the following Monday is given as a public holiday.
South Africans traditionally start their long summer holiday around 16 December until immediately after New Year's Day. Schools break up around the beginning of December. Remember to make arrangements well in advance if you will be travelling during this busy period.
Cathy Hawker is a freelance property writer who contributes regularly to The Evening Standard and BBC Good Homes Magazine.
The content provided in the Primelocation.com guides is for information only. In all cases, independent and professional advice should be sought before buying, selling, letting or renting property, or buying financial services products.