Diversity is a key feature of South Africa, where 11 languages are recognised as official, where community leaders include rabbis, traditional chieftains and returned exiles, and where housing ranges from mud huts to palatial gated communities.
Until 1994 South Africa was ruled by a white minority government, and the Nationalist Party that came to power in 1948 enforced a separation of races with its policy called apartheid.
Women in traditional Zulu costume march in central Durban to celebrate hosting the 2010 World Cup
The government introduced grand social engineering schemes such as the forced resettlement of hundreds of thousands of people. It also killed, imprisoned and exiled its opponents and fomented instability in hostile neighbouring countries.
The apartheid government eventually negotiated itself out of power after decades of international isolation and armed opposition from the African National Congress (ANC) and other groups, and the new democratically-elected leadership encouraged reconciliation. But the years of conflict left a legacy of lawlessness and social inequality that two decades of black-majority ANC rule have failed to overcome.
South Africa has one of the continent's largest economies, although it went into recession in May 2009 following a sharp slowdown in the mining and manufacturing sectors. The construction industry, on the other hand, benefited from a huge programme of government investment ahead of the 2010 World Cup.
South Africa is, along with China, Brazil, Russia and India, a member of the BRICS club of emerging world economic powerhouses.
Many South Africans remain poor and unemployment is high. Land redistribution is an major issue, as most farmland is still white-owned despite an ANC pledges to boost black ownership. The government announced plans for new legislation in 2015.
Another problem facing South is its the number of HIV/Aids patients - the second-highest in the world. Around one in seven of its citizens is infected with HIV. Free anti-retroviral drugs are available under a state-funded scheme.