Extreme temperatures in South Africa

The highest temperature ever recorded in South Africa is 50°C. It was at Dunbrody, about 80km inland from Gqeberha in the Eastern Cape, on 3 November 1918. 

It’s a few degrees short of the hottest temperature in the world, which was 56.7°C, logged at Furnace Creek, California, five years earlier on 10 July 1913.

It’s been 104 years since the Dunbrody record was set. The closest temperature recorded since then is 48.8°C at Vioolsdrif near the border with Namibia in 1993. 

Research published in the journal Atmosphere in 2020 shows that warm temperature extremes have increased in South Africa in line with global trends. 

Read more: Cape Town had more rain in 6 months than whole of 2017 – but it’s still getting drier

Earlier this year Europe experienced heatwaves and record-breaking temperatures, bringing with them extreme drought, sparking wildfires and killing hundreds of people. 

These extreme weather events were exceptional, but not unexpected, said the European Union’s Copernicus earth observation programme. They are in line with the increased frequency and intensity of heatwaves that scientists expect as the global climate warms.

In July, temperatures in the UK reached 40°C for the first time. The British record of 40.3°C was set on 19 July. The highest in Europe was a scorching 47.0°C in Portugal on 14 July.

How does South Africa compare?

In South Africa most of the hottest temperatures ever recorded were in the 30 years since 1992 and 70% of them were in the north-west of the country, in the Northern Cape. 

Eleven of the top-20 hottest temperatures ever recorded have been at the same place, Vioolsdrif. The hottest was 48.8°C on 2 January 1993, but temperatures have tipped over 48°C there five times in total. And Augrabies Falls, about 400km to the east, recorded 48.6°C in 2016.

Two other places have reported temperatures of 48°C or more, Vredendal in the Western Cape and Shingwedzi, a rest camp in the Kruger National Park near the border with Mozambique. 
Incidentally, Letaba, another camp in the Kruger Park, is considered to be the hottest place in South Africa because its average annual maximum temperature is 35.0 ºC.

South African scientists have observed that heat waves are also increasing in frequency and are expected to last longer and become more intense. 

The SA Weather Service declares a heat wave if for at least three consecutive days the maximum temperature at a particular place meets or exceeds 5°C above the average maximum temperature of the hottest month for that particular place for three days or more. 

Meteorologists compiled a heat wave threshold map that shows the maximum temperature that needs to be met or exceeded for a heat wave to occur. Threshold temperatures are not the same throughout the country. 

In the northwestern parts of the Northern Cape, where most of the extremely high temperatures have been recorded, the heatwave threshold temperatures are above 40°C, whereas in Gauteng and the eastern parts of South Africa the threshold temperatures are closer to 32°C. 

Source: Atmosphere 2020, 11, 712; doi:10.3390/atmos11070712

The highest temperature recorded in Johannesburg is 35.6°C; Pretoria’s is 7°C higher at 42.7°C. Both of these temperatures were recorded on 7 January 2016.

TownHottest temperatureYear
Johannesburg35.6°C7 January 2016
Cape Town42.3°C3 March 2015
Gqeberha40.7°C11 March 1965
East London43.9°C13 March 2021
Durban39.9°C12 October 1995
Pretoria42.7°C7 January 2016
Bloemfontein42°C6 January 2016

Many of the hottest days were in 2015 and 2016, when there was an El Nino-induced drought that coincided with many heatwaves, according to the SA Weather Service.

Correction, 2022-11-13: Some of the dates in the table above have been corrected because the months and days were mixed up.