The best and worst South African towns and cities for air quality

 ·31 Mar 2024

While air quality in South Africa as a whole has improved since 2022, data from the recently released 2023 World Air Quality Report by IQAir shows that numerous cities and towns across the country remain exposed to dangerous levels of air pollution – with a town in Gauteng ranking as the worst in Africa.

According to the report, South Africa ranks 47th among 134 countries and regions globally for recorded air pollution levels, with nearly four times higher than the World Health Organization (WHO) recommended limits.

On average, South Africa ranks 16th in Africa (worst air quality recorded in Burkina Faso.) However, the report notes that assessing air quality across Africa is difficult because 34% of the population are in areas without public air quality data. Thus, comparisons are only from data in 24 countries and 80 cities.

Globally, the highest concentrations of air pollution were recorded in (in order):

  • Bangladesh;
  • Pakistan;
  • India;
  • Tajikistan;
  • Burkina Faso.


For the report, the Swiss company uses data from more than 30,000 air quality monitoring stations across 7,812 locations in 134 countries, territories, and regions.

From this, IQAir’s air quality scientists look at the concentrations of fine pollutant particles in air (PM2.5) reported in units of micrograms per cubic meter (µg/m3).

This is then analysed and incorporated against the latest WHO annual PM2.5 guidelines and interim targets, which sits at 5µg/m3.

“PM2.5, or particulate matter with a diameter of 2.5 micrometers or smaller, is a key component
of air pollution [and] exposure to PM2.5 air pollution leads to and exacerbates numerous health conditions, including but not limited to asthma, cancer, stroke, and lung disease,” said IQAir.

Graphic: IQAir

South Africa

“The air quality in South Africa as a whole has improved significantly from 2022,” said the report. “The country’s annual PM2.5 concentration showed a 14.8% decrease going from 23.4 µg/m3 in 2022 to 19.9 µg/m3 in 2023,” it added.

While the PM2.5 concentration levels rose in 18 cities and fell in 17 cities, indicating a near-equal distribution of air quality trends, significant improvements were observed in major cities nationwide.

Decreases in annual average PM2.5 concentrations were recorded in:

  • Cape Town;
  • eMbalenhle;
  • Harbeespoort;
  • Johannesburg;
  • Pretoria.

“Pretoria continues its longterm trend of air pollution reduction through a 17.2% overall decrease from the data reported in 2019,” said IQAir.

The best annual air quality was recorded in Nieuwoudtville in the Northern Cape, while the the worst was found in Benoni, Gauteng.

Range of 2023 average PM2.5 (µg/m³) across regional cities. Graphic: IQAir

Heavily polluted

According to the data, Pretoria is the world’s 39th most polluted capital city, with its PM2.5 air pollution at 21.1µg/m3.

Looking at cities/regions, Benoni in Gauteng recorded the worst air quality in Africa, with an average PM2.5 concentration of 54.9 µg/m3.

Africa air quality rankings. Screenshot: IQAir 2023 World Air Quality Report

This is closely followed by Bloemfontein in the Free State, which sported an average air quality of 49.4 µg/m3. This is over three times more than the city recorded in 2022 (16.2 µg/m3).

“Two of the biggest contributors to air pollution in South Africa are coal-powered and industrial plants, especially in the Mpumalanga province near Johannesburg,” said the report.

“Fossil fuels fulfill 90% of the country’s energy demand, leading to South Africa being the continent’s largest emitter of sulfur dioxide; As a major carbon dioxide emitter, the country is the 12th biggest greenhouse gas polluter in the world,” it added.

Other air pollution sources in South Africa include vehicle exhaust, coal mines, metal smelters, and petrochemical facilities.

Good air quality

Overall, there has been an improvement of the national average, with annual average concentration of air pollution in South Africa falling by 14.8% since 2022.

Two regional cities in South Africa were the only ones on the continent to have met the WHO’s annual PM2.5 guideline of 5 µg/m3 – namely Nieuwoudtville in the Northern Cape (2.1 µg/m3) and Bot River in the Western Cape (2.8 µg/m3).

These cities “met these requirements for four months but reported an annual average concentration of 5.9 µg/m3 for the entire year,” said IQAir.

South African cities made up all of the top 10 spots in the least polluted regional cities ranking.

Africa air quality rankings. Screenshot: IQAir 2023 World Air Quality Report

Read: South Africa is home to the most polluted place on earth – with health risks for millions

Show comments
Subscribe to our daily newsletter