Northern Cape Province of South Africa

northern cape vast open spaces

Desert Landscape of the Northern Cape


The Northern Cape “We go to a better life”, is the largest and most sparsely populated province of South Africa. It was created in 1994 when the Cape Province was split up. Its capital is Kimberley.

Vast expanses of space and silence, drought and blazing summer sunshine. Across the arid landscape, the Orange River flows, at places in a sluggish tide, at others in a powerful explosion of sound and fury. Were it not for the river, much of the region may well have remained bleak and populated only by nomadic bands of Bushmen. Instead, prosperous towns and villages have risen from its banks, and large stretches of once-barren land have been transformed into fields of cotton, Lucerne, dates and grapes.

History of the Northern Cape

A History of the Northern Cape, properly speaking, would cover this recent period only. The different regional histories of the area now known as the Northern Cape nevertheless have certain common themes. It is, in the title of an important study by historian Nigel Penn, The Forgotten Frontier in South African history. Part of the history in question is also a pivotal one that heralded the modern era in the subcontinent, revolving on mineral wealth (pre-eminently on the Diamond Fields), industrialisation, migrant labour and the compound/hostel system, urbanisation and systematic segregation. This combination of processes and phenomena has been referred to by historians as the mineral revolution in South Africa

It has been said: “The South African central plateau is unique in the world…in that it supported large numbers of non-farming people who were also prolific makers of stone tools until very recent times. A brief comparison of surveys conducted elsewhere in the world reveals promptly and unambiguously that South Africa is richer in Stone Age remains than any other place on earth.”

There was little general appreciation of this as a result of apartheid education: “To look at the history of South Africa [as it has been taught in our schools],” remarked Prof N.J. van der Merwe, Professor of Archaeology at the University of Cape Town, “is to look at human events through the wrong end of a telescope.”

Major sites that have relevance include Wonderwerk Cave near Kuruman, Canteen Kopje near Barkly West, a cluster of archaeological sites at Kathu, the Wildebeest Kuil Rock Art Centre on the road from Kimberley to Barkly West, sites in the Xam and Khomani heartland, particularly rock art sites in the Karoo, and the stone walled ruins at Dithakong north east of Kuruman.

In the 1980s the Northern Cape contributed in a relatively limited way to the struggle for a democratic dispensation in South Africa, it has been suggested. One study attributes this primarily to geographic and demographic factors: the province (as defined in 1994) covers some 30 percent of the country but has the smallest population, which stood at 840 000 people in 1994, representing just 2,1 percent of South Africa’s total population. With a density of 2.3 persons per square kilometre, political mobilization was constrained except in the major centres of this vast tract of the country. That Afrikaans was first language to two thirds of the people (the dominant group, at 52 percent, were ‘Coloureds’) could have been a significant further factor. Leaders who arose at this time in Kimberley included two future Premiers of the Northern Cape, Manne Dipico and Elizabeth Dipuo Peters.


Southward, the immense, spacious plain of the Great Karoo, covered with grass and acacia trees, forms the backdrop for far-flung towns and villages, old battlefields and epic adventures. This is not a soft, gentle landscape. The wide-open spaces and distant horizons are characterised by crisp dry air, clear skies, flamboyant sunsets, brilliant starry nights, and enormous sheep farms. To serve the needs of the farmers, typical South African towns, each dominated by an imposing Dutch Reformed Church, are inhabited by genuine, hospitable people with wisdom that comes from respecting Nature’s rules.

Semi Desert

The semi-desert wilderness area of the Kalahari supports sweet grasses and water-storing plants, which in turn sustain enormous herds of wildlife, mainly in reserves. The dunes and dry river courses of the Kalahari are also the last refuge of a few nomadic Bushmen (San), living their hunter-gatherer lives in harmony with the natural world.

Green Agricultural Belt

The green agricultural belt which flanks the Orange River as it nears the Atlantic Ocean provides a lush contrast to the ruggedness of the Richtersveld. Nestled between the river and the ocean, the saw-toothed mountain peaks, winds sculpted boulders and colourful indigenous flora of the Richtersveld have a unique beauty found nowhere on earth.


Along the coastline, small fishing villages have been established to harvest the shoals of fish in the cold Benguela Current sweeping north from the Antarctica. Some boats put to sea with nets; others carry divers and suction pipes to exploit the diamonds that lie on the bed of the sea. The promise of riches brought a tide of humanity to the lonely north-west corner of South Africa.

The Namaqualand copper rush of the 1850s was the catalyst for the evolution of these once undeveloped wastelands. Although the boom years are long over, mining is still carried out in the region. For much of the year, the undulating semi-desert of Namaqualand harbours an unseen treasure house of dormant floral glory. After the right amount of winter rainfall, the landscape in spring is transformed into a carpet of brilliant blooms form one horizon to another.

The Orange River

The major river system is the Orange (or Gariep) River Basin, draining the interior of South Africa westwards into the Atlantic Ocean. (The political philosopher Neville Alexander has used the idea of the ‘Garieb’ as a metaphor for nationhood in South Africa, a flowing together, in preference to the rainbow metaphor where the diverse colours remain distinct). The principal tributary of the Orange is the Vaal River, which flows through part of the Northern Cape from the vicinity of Warrenton. The Vaal, in turn, has tributaries within the province: The Harts River and the Riet River, which has its own major tributary, the Modder River.

Above the Orange-Vaal confluence, the Seekoei River drains part of the northeastern Karoo into the Orange River above the Van der Kloof Dam. Next downstream from the Orange-Vaal confluence is the Brak River, which flows non-perennially from the south and is in turn fed by the Ongers River, rising in the vicinities of Hanover and Richmond respectively. Along the Orange River near the town of Kakamas, the Hartebeest River drains the central Karoo. Above Kenhardt the Hartebeest is known as the Sak River, which has its source on the northern side of the escarpment, southeast of Williston. Further downstream from Kakamas, below the Augrabies Falls, and seldom actually flowing into the Orange River, is the Molopo River, which comes down from the Kalahari in the north. With its tributary, the Nossob River, it defines part of the international boundary between South Africa and Botswana. Further tributaries of the Molopo River include the Kuruman River, fed by the Moshaweng River and Kgokgole River, and the Matlhwaring River. Flowing west into the Atlantic, in Namaqualand, is the Buffels River and, further south, the Groen River.


Mostly arid to semi-arid, few areas in the province receive more than 400 mm (16 in) of rainfall per annum and the average annual rainfall over the province is 202 mm (8.0 in). Rainfall generally increases from west to east from a minimum average of 20 mm (0.79 in) to a maximum of 540 mm (21 in) per year. The west experiences most rainfall in winter, while the east receives most of its moisture from late summer thunderstorms. Many areas experience extreme heat, with the hottest temperatures in South Africa measured along the Namibian border. Summers maximums are generally 30 °C (86 °F) or higher, sometimes higher than 40 °C (104 °F). Winters are usually frosty and clear, with southern areas sometimes becoming bitterly cold, such as Sutherland, which often receives snow and temperatures occasionally drop below the −10 °C (14 °F) mark.


As reported by the Northern Cape Provincial Government, unemployment still remains a big issue in the province. Unemployment was reported to be at 24.9% during Q4, 2013. Unemployment also declined from 119,000 in Q4, 2012 to 109,000 in Q4, 2013.[10]

The Northern Cape is also home to the much-acclaimed SKA (Square Kilometre Array) which is located 75 km North-West of Carnarvon.

The economy of the Northern Cape relies heavily on two sectors, namely Mining and Agriculture, which employs 57% (Tertiary Sector) of all employees in the province.

See also: Northern Cape wine

Most famous for the diamond mines around Kimberley, the Northern Cape also has a substantial agricultural area around the Orange River, including most of South Africa’s sultana vineyards. Some Wine of Origin areas have been demarcated. The Orange River also attracts visitors who enjoy rafting tours around Vioolsdrif. Extensive sheep raising is the basis of the economy in the southern Karoo areas of the province.


The Northern Cape boasts a colourful history and a variety of cultural tourist attractions and is particularly well known for its incredible annual floral display that takes place in Namaqualand. An utterly beautiful coastline and a number of unique national parks offer the tourist a very different experience of South Africa.

Mining has always defined the history in this part of South Africa and, when diamonds were discovered in Kimberley, unprecedented growth took place in the province. The last remaining true San (Bushman) people live in the Kalahari area of the Northern Cape.

The whole area, especially along the Orange and Vaal Rivers, is rich in San rock engravings. The province is also rich in fossils. The Northern Cape is divided into five distinct regions and offers many ‘must-see’ attractions.

The vast and arid Northern Cape is by far the largest province, slightly bigger than Germany and taking up nearly a third of South Africa’s land area. Yet it has the country’s smallest population, around 1-million people.

The Northern Cape is a land of many diverse cultures, of frontier history and brave missionaries. The San (Bushmen) were the original inhabitants of South Africa, but are now mainly confined to a small area of the Northern Cape – the Kalahari.

Historical Sites in the Northern Cape

Anglo Boer War Route – Kimberley

In 899 Kimberley was besieged. The details of the siege can be relived at the Magersfontein and McGregor Museums. Included among these are the Battles from Orange River Station, including Modder River, Magersfontein, Belmont, Graspan and the eventual Relief by General French and his cavalry.


The Kimberley area has produced a number of personalities who became legends in their time. The major battles of the Western Campaign of the Anglo Boer War took place within 120 kilometres of Kimberley.

Moffat Mission in Kuruman

The Kuruman mission has a long and interesting history. Because of the focus upon literacy, bible translation and the presence of the printing press, education became the primary task of the Mission.


Part of a Griqua missionary and of historical importance, a geological phenomenon in the form of deep cavity was formed in the dolomite limestone.

Khoisan Rock Art

Throughout the Karoo one finds examples of engravings left by these nomadic people. Most of the images are found on low ridges of dolerite rock – the black boulder fields are ideal for engraving on. The area along the Orange and Vaal rivers is rich in San rock engravings.


Mafikeng attracted the attention of the world during the Anglo-Boer War of 1899 – 1902 as the small British garrison under the command of Colonel Baden Powell held out for 217 days against Boer forces


Examples of lives of the early European settlers as well as The Hantam House


London Missionary Society extended its mission north of the Orange River among members of a Chaguriqua tribe and local tribes like the Koranna and Tswana


Fraserburg is situated on a high plateau north of the Nuweveld Mountains and has a very rich historical heritage. Also, a palaeosurface on the farm Gansfontein outside town, of several trackways of large, four-footed, five-toed mammalian reptiles.


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