The region of the African continent south of the Congo and Tanzania is named Southern Africa. The physical location is the large part of Africa to the south of the extensive Congo River basin. Southern Africa is home to a number of river systems; the Zambezi River is the most prominent.
The Zambezi flows from the northwest corner of Zambia and western Angola all the way to the Indian Ocean on the coast of Mozambique. Along the way, the Zambezi River flows over the mighty Victoria Falls on the border between Zambia and Zimbabwe. Victoria Falls is the largest waterfall in the world based on selected criteria and is a major tourist attraction for the region.
The Tropic of Capricorn runs straight through the middle of the region, indicating that the southern portion is outside the tropics. The Kalahari Desert, which lies mainly in Botswana, is an extensive desert region with an arid mixture of grasslands and sand.
When there is adequate rainfall, the grasslands provide excellent grazing for wildlife. Precipitation varies from three to ten inches per year. The Kalahari is home to game reserves and national parks.
Large areas of dry salt pans stretch over ancient lake beds. The salt pans fill with water after heavy rainfall but are dry the remainder of the year.
The Namib Desert, found along the west coast of Namibia, receives little rainfall. Moderate type C climates are found south of the Kalahari Desert in South Africa, where conditions are suitable for a variety of agricultural activities, including fruit orchards and an expanding wine industry.
Madagascar is located to the east of the continent, in the Indian Ocean.
Madagascar is the world’s fourth-largest island and is similar in area to France. Surrounding Madagascar are the independent island states of the Seychelles, Comoros, and Mauritius. Madagascar is included in this lesson on Southern Africa but does not share its cultural geography or biodiversity. Madagascar has its own environmental conditions and cultural heritage. The early human inhabitants of Madagascar can trace their ancestry to the regions of Malaysia and Indonesia in Southeast Asia. It’s believed these people arrived on outrigger canoes. People from the African mainland also joined the population. The whole island later came under the colonial domination of France but won its independence in 1960.
Madagascar’s unique physical environment is home to many plants and animals found nowhere else in the world. At least thirty-three varieties of lemurs and many tropical bird species and other animals are found only on Madagascar. 90% of its wildlife is found nowhere else on Earth. It is an area of high biodiversity and is home to about 5 percent of all the animals and plants in the world. Tropical rain forests can be found on the eastern edge on the windward side of the island. The western side of the island experiences a rain shadow effect because of the height of the central highlands, which reach as high as 9,435 feet. The western side of the island has a smaller population and receives less precipitation.
Since 1990, the eastern tropical rain forest has experienced a sharp decline because of extensive logging, slash-and-burn agriculture, mining operations, and drought.
Population growth has placed a heavier demand on the environment, which in turn puts stress on the habitats of many of the unusual organisms that are unique to the island. Typical of many African nations, agriculture is Madagascar’s main economic activity. About 80 percent of the twenty million people who live on the island earn their living off the land. Deforestation is occurring on all parts of the island and is more severe in areas where human habitation leads to a high demand for firewood used in cooking. In other parts of Africa, important environmental areas have been protected or transformed into national parks and wildlife preserves. Though protected areas do exist on Madagascar, efforts to protect the environment and the wildlife have been hampered by the lack of available funding and the population’s high demand for natural resources.
The countries on the Southern African mainland share many of the demographic qualities of the rest of Africa: large family size, agrarian economies, multiple ethnic groups, rural populations, political instability, and a high rate of rural-to-urban shift. Southern Africa is set apart from other Subsaharan African regions because of its mineral resources, including copper, diamonds, gold, zinc, chromium, platinum, manganese, iron ore, and coal. Countries in Southern Africa are quite large in physical area, except three smaller landlocked states: Lesotho, Swaziland, and Malawi. The larger countries—South Africa, Botswana, Mozambique, Zimbabwe, Zambia, Namibia, and Angola—all have extensive mineral deposits.
The vast mineral resources make this one of the wealthiest regions of Africa with the greatest potential for economic growth. A physical band of mineral resources in Southern Africa stretches from the rich oil fields off the northwest coast of Angola, east through the diamond-mining region, and into the northern Copper Belt of Zambia.
A region of rich mineral deposits continues from the unique geological formation called the Great Dyke in central Zimbabwe through the Bushveld basin (also called the Bushveld Igneous Complex) into South Africa.
From here, it extends southwest through the central gold- and diamond-mining regions of South Africa toward the southern coast.
Mining activity exists on both sides of the belt of mineral resources. Diamond mining is found in parts of Botswana and along the coast of Namibia. Coal can be found in central Mozambique. The counties that are able to conduct the necessary extractive processes are creating national wealth and increasing the standard of living for their people.
Zimbabwe is a land-locked country that is home to the beautiful Victoria Falls. The southern areas of Zimbabwe are known for their heat. The country has been faced with recurring droughts. One that occurred in 2019 killed at least 55 elephants.
The country is mostly savanna, although there are moist and mountainous highlands in the east. Sadly, an estimated 60% of Zimbabwe’s wildlife has died since 2000 due to poaching and deforestation.
There is no better way to understand Zimbabwe than to become familiar with the history and heritage of the people who live there. The Great Zimbabwe Kingdom flourished from about 1250 to 1450, when it was eclipsed by succeeding kingdoms. Ruins from the extensive stone architecture of that era remain and are a major tourist attraction.
These kingdoms were major trading centers for the region but later clashed with the colonial powers that desired to dominate regional trade for themselves. The Bantu civilization of Southern Africa established a number of kingdoms that existed in Zimbabwe up to the colonial era.
Zimbabwe experienced similar colonial activity to that which befell Zambia, its neighbor to the north. Britain arrived in the late 1800s, and by 1923 they called their newly controlled colony Southern Rhodesia, after Cecil Rhodes, who headed the British South Africa Company, a mercantile company that broke new ground in the region. The British were able to quell any resistance to their activity.
After Zambia become independent, Southern Rhodesia was renamed Rhodesia. In 1965, the white-dominated leadership of the Rhodesian government unilaterally declared its independence, but Britain did not recognize this action. The UN issued sanctions against the white leadership; the response was an internal guerilla uprising to fight for free elections that would include black Africans. Independence was finally granted in 1980, and the country’s name was officially changed from Rhodesia to Zimbabwe.
In 1980, Robert Mugabe came to power as the first president and extended his authoritarian rule over the next three decades. During this time, the country experienced more than its fair share of civil unrest and political turmoil. Mugabe has been accused of corruption, election rigging, and pillaging of public funds for personal gain. Under his leadership, there were accusations of government mismanagement, human rights abuses, and hyperinflation of the country’s currency. In 2008, inflation led to the serious devaluation of the currency. The Reserve Bank of Zimbabwe printed banknotes in the denomination of one hundred trillion dollars that were only worth a few US dollars in the international exchange. The people continue to work through these difficult economic conditions.
Mugabe initiated a land reform policy that would take land owned by people of white European ancestry and redistribute it to people of black African ancestry. During the colonial era, white Europeans, who only made up a small percentage of the population, moved in and took control of most of the agricultural lands. Land reform was a progressive policy and was meant to provide a greater level of equality within the country. However, the disorganized methods used to carry out the plan resulted in violence and the confiscation of farmland with little regard for the rule of law.
Thousands of white farmers and their families left the country. Some were killed when their farms were taken over by force. Mugabe was accused of corruption in making sure his cronies benefited from the land reform without being concerned about the general population. The disruption in the agricultural sector resulted in a drastic reduction in agricultural output. The country shifted from a once sustainable, prosperous agricultural sector with extensive exports to an agricultural system that was in disarray. The result was food shortages and the loss of enormous agricultural export profits. Mugabe resigned in 2017 after a coup.
A coup is a violent and sudden seizure or overthrow of power that removes an existing government.
Shaping a stable post-Mugabe government has been a challenge for Zimbabwe. Solving the problems resulting from the transition from exploitive colonial rule to personal authoritarian rule will be a difficult undertaking. The country has serious economic problems that have lowered the number of opportunities and advantages for its people.
The people of Zimbabwe are composed of various ethnic groups. There is a small group of white Zimbabweans of British origin, but most emigrated to the United Kingdom when Mugabe was in charge of the country. English is the main language of the education and judiciary systems, but Shona and Ndebele are the principal indigenous languages. English is spoken primarily in the cities, but less so in rural areas.
Women in Zimbabwean society and culture are often seen as inferior, and boys are often valued more than girls. A common expression used in court, “vakadzi ngavanyarare“, translates to “women should keep quiet” and as a result, women are not consulted in decision-making; they must implement the men’s wishes. There is also the cultural norm of child marriage. Many women and girls in the country experience domestic violence, but it’s expected that men will discipline a spouse, often violently. There is an ingrained cultural norm that violence can be a show of power and love which makes ending domestic abuse in Zimbabwe difficult.
Like in many African countries, the majority of Zimbabweans depend on a few staple foods. “Mealie meal”, also known as cornmeal, is used to prepare sadza (cornmeal cooked in boiling water or milk until it becomes dough-like or stiff), as well as porridge.
Graduations, weddings, and any other family gatherings will usually be celebrated with the killing of a goat or cow, which will be barbecued or roasted by the family. A local favorite is rice cooked with peanut butter.
The country of Botswana is relatively flat, and the Kalahari Desert covers as much as 70 percent of its land area.
Botswana also has a large salt pan in the north. One of the salt flats is as large as the country of Portugal!
By the time it established independence from Britain in 1966, the lack of agricultural lands had reduced the country’s economic level to the lowest in the world. At that time, the country was called Bechuanaland.
Botswana has transitioned more smoothly than other African countries into a stable political system with a fast-growing economy. It has an emerging service sector, extensive diamond mining, and expanding industrial ambitions. Personal incomes are rising, and the standard of living is reaching upward to the second highest in the region after South Africa.
Botswana is fortunate to have had uninterrupted civilian political leadership for the decades following independence. This stable government has implemented progressive social policies and attracted significant capital investments to create one of the most dynamic economies in Africa. Diamond mining has been the principal extraction activity dominating the country’s export income. The stability of the country has enhanced the tourism market and created a growing ecotourism industry. The vast Kalahari Desert and the well-protected game reserves provide attractive tourist destinations. Chobe National Park has the world’s largest concentration of African elephants.
Far from the fast-growing urban development of the big cities in Botswana, there exists a dispute between the government of Botswana and the indigenous San people who live in the middle of the Central Kalahari Game Reserve.
The government has established programs to forcibly move the San from the reserve to other locations where they would become less nomadic and settle into a more agrarian lifestyle. To make them relocate, they were denied access to water on their land and faced arrest if they hunted, which was their primary source of food. According to the government position, this is to keep the natural habitat and wildlife from being affected by human activity, thereby promoting tourism.
Critics of the government program claim the real reason for the move is to clear the land of human habitation so the area can be developed for mining purposes since their land lies in the middle of the world’s richest diamond field. Estimates indicate that fewer than one hundred thousand San presently live in Southern Africa; about fifty-five thousand San live in Botswana. Less than 10,000 San still live their traditional hunter-gatherer way of life.
Other ethnic groups in Botswana include the Tswana, and BaKalanga. In the northern part of Botswana, Tswana women in the villages of Etsha and Gumare are noted for their skill at crafting baskets from Mokola Palm and local dyes.
Tswana women wear a cotton fabric with various patterns that is often used for weddings or other celebrations.
The cuisine of Botswana is unique and mostly includes meat as Botswana is a cattle country, the national dish is seswaa, pounded meat made from goat meat or beef.
Mopane worms are also eaten (they are a type of caterpillar).
Many vegetables are seasonal and are often dried or salted for preservation. Dried bean leaves are a popular food and some fruits are available locally like watermelons, marula fruit (which is often fermented to make a traditional alcoholic beverage), and some wild melons which are an important water source for people living in the desert areas.
Anchoring Subsaharan Africa to the south is the dominant country of South Africa. Its large land area and vast mineral resources support a population of about fifty million people. The Cape of Good Hope on the southern tip of the continent is a transition point from the Atlantic Ocean to the Indian Ocean.
Its strategic location was important for the control of shipping during the early colonial era before the Suez Canal provided a shortcut between Europe and Asia, bypassing most of Africa. The European colonial era first brought Dutch explorers to the Cape of Good Hope, where they established the city of Cape Town as a stopover and resupply outpost on their way to the rest of Asia.
South Africa is home to many indigenous ethnic groups and is demonstrative of the diverse pattern of human geography. The country has a history of both ethnic diversity and ethnic division. Two of the largest African groups are the Xhosa and the Zulu.
South Africa has 11 official languages and additional unofficial languages.
The three most common languages spoken are Zulu, Xhosa, and Afrikaans. English is the fourth ranked language.
South Africa is home to an estimated five million illegal immigrants, including some three million Zimbabweans.
The European component of the ethnic mosaic was enhanced by colonial and neocolonial activities. After the arrival of the first Dutch ships, other Europeans followed and competed with the African groups for land and control. The discovery of first diamonds and then gold prompted Britain’s involvement in South Africa. The Boer Wars (1880–81 and 1899–1902) were fought between the Dutch-based Boers and Britain for control of South Africa’s mineral resources.
South Africa became a British colony dominated by a white power structure. The Boers (later known as Afrikaners) spoke Afrikaans and were prominent in the South African political system.
Segregation first developed as an informal separation of the racial groups but evolved into the legally institutionalized policy of apartheid, which separated people into black, white, and colored (mixed race) racial categories. A fourth category was developed for people from Indian or Asian backgrounds. Apartheid eventually found its way into every aspect of South African culture. In the larger scale of society, access and separation was based on race. Each racial group had its own beaches, buses, hospitals, schools, universities, and so on. The legal system divided the population according to race, with the white minority receiving every advantage. There were extensive and detailed rules for every aspect of daily activity, including which public restroom or drinking fountain could be used, which color an individual’s telephone could be, and which park bench a person could sit on. The government also sanctioned separate homelands for people from different ethnic groups. People were physically removed from their homes and transported to their respective new homelands based on their racial or ethnic background. The policy of apartheid not only divided the country at that time but set up racial barriers that will take generations to overcome.
The controversial policy of apartheid in South Africa achieved international attention. Many countries condemned it and implemented economic sanctions and trade restrictions against South Africa. Opposition grew within the country and erupted into violence and social unrest. As a result, the white-dominated government of South Africa began to dismantle the apartheid system in the 1990s. The ban on political opposition parties, such as the African National Congress, was lifted, and after twenty-seven years in prison, Nelson Mandela was released from prison, where he had held for his resistance activities. The apartheid legislation was repealed, and a new era began. Mandela was the first African to be elected president of South Africa in the new multiracial elections of 1994. His presidency, which ended in 1999, set the stage for a multiracial society. You can read about Nelson Mandela in the following books:
South Africa has large, modern cities such as Cape Town, Johannesburg, and Durban, each about the size of the US city of Chicago or larger.
The cities of Pretoria, East Rand, and Port Elizabeth are also major metropolitan areas and have more than one million people each. These urban centers all contribute to and support the extensive mining and agricultural activities that provide national wealth. As the country that exports more diamonds than any other in the world, South Africa has gained much national income from the extraction of mineral resources, which are being tapped by some of the largest mining operations on Earth.
Large parts of South Africa have a moderate climate and good soils, which combine to produce enormous quantities of agricultural products, both for domestic consumption and for export profits. The extreme southwest has a climate remarkably similar to that of the Mediterranean Sea with wet winters and hot, dry summers. This area also produces much of the wine in South Africa. This region is also particularly known for its wind, which blows intermittently almost all year. The severity of this wind made passing around the Cape of Good Hope particularly treacherous for sailors, causing many shipwrecks. Further east on the south coast, rainfall is distributed more evenly throughout the year, producing a green landscape.
The high Drakensberg mountains, which form the south-eastern escarpment of the Highveld, offer limited skiing opportunities in winter.
The Bushveld of South Africa is a sub-tropical woodland and features numerous animals such as lions, cheetahs, rhinos, wildebeest, giraffes, hyenas, hippopotamuses, and more.
Most of the population may work in the mines, in agricultural activities, or in the service sector, but they are not directly benefiting from the profits of their labor, other than earning a wage. These people find themselves in the poorer working-class majority of the population. The landowners, mining corporation executives, and social elite that control the service sector or are employed in activities such as banking or the commodity markets are receiving higher incomes and have created a wealthier upper class. Apartheid supported this class division. Millions of poor ethnic minorities find themselves in living conditions similar to their economically depressed neighbors in other parts of Africa, while the wealthier upper class has established a good standard of living similar to that of the core economic areas of the world.
South African cuisine is diverse; foods from many cultures are enjoyed by all and especially marketed to tourists who wish to sample the large variety available. South African cuisine is heavily meat-based and has spawned the distinctively South African social gathering known as the braai, a variation of the barbecue.
A typical meal in a Bantu-speaking, South African household is a stiff, fluffy porridge of maize meal (called “pap,” and very similar to American grits) with a flavorful stewed meat gravy. Traditional rural families (and many urban ones) often ferment their pap for a few days – especially if it is sorghum instead of maize – which gives it a tangy flavor. Pumpkin is often eaten and mageu is a traditional South African non-alcoholic drink made from fermented maize meal.
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Additional information and image credits:
Southern Africa map Updated from map courtesy of University of Texas Libraries, https://open.lib.umn.edu/worldgeography/chapter/7-6-southern-africa/
South Africa former provinces
Zimbabwe map By OCHA, CC BY 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=33728207
Zambezi River By Hel-hama – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=27623948
Kalahari By Jc86035 – File:LocationKalahari.PNG by Quadell (information, colours) (PD); File:BlankMap-World6-Equirectangular.svg by Citypeek and Kathovo (main map) (CC0); File:World map blank without borders.svg by Phirosiberia (small map) (CC-BY-SA 3.0, 2.5, 2.0 and 1.0; GFDL), CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=32146014
Kalahari farm By Olga Ernst – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=77203303
Namib Desert By Concerto – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=17661943
Madagascar By OCHA, CC BY 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=32649272
Madagascar Central Highland Plateau By C. Michael Hogan, CC BY-SA 2.5, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=6270380
Madagascar cut forest By Rod Waddington – https://www.flickr.com/photos/rod_waddington/21794304082/, CC BY-SA 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=54017881
Gemsbok By Thomas Schoch – own work at http://www.retas.de/thomas/travel/fanculo3000/index.html, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=725810
Copper belt By Taylor, C.D., Schulz, K.J., Doebrich, J.L., Orris, G.J., Denning, P.D., and Kirschbaum, M.J. – Geology and nonfuel mineral deposits of Africa and the Middle East, USGS Open-File Report 2005-1294-E, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=56451567
Zimbabwe satellite image Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=135398
Bushveld By Taylor, C.D., Schulz, K.J., Doebrich, J.L., Orris, G.J., Denning, P.D., and Kirschbaum, M.J. – Geology and nonfuel mineral deposits of Africa and the Middle East, USGS Open-File Report 2005-1294-E, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=56451561
Great Zimbabwe By Janice Bell – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=42835093
Settlers By Unknown author – British South Africa Company, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=52405133
Zimbabwe elephant By JackyR – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=1292137
Zimbabwe rainforest By ninara from Helsinki, Finland – 4Y1A1458-2, CC BY 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=34370803
Goat offal By Tamuka Hwami – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=44489310
Botswana map By OCHA, CC BY 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=31591540
Tswana bride By Ophir Mizrah – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=87165404
seswaa By Kalanga – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=17393359
Cooking seswaa By Kalanga – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=17396363
Mokgope By Aprabhala – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=15638666
South Africa map By OCHA, CC BY 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=32650153
Cape of Good Hope By Olli Salonen aka. (WT-shared) Trsqr – (WT-shared) Trsqr 10:23, 11 June 2007 (EDT), CC BY-SA 1.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=22941637
Clifton Beach By SkyPixels – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=40397200
Xhosa girl By South African Tourism from South Africa – Xhosa girl, Eastern Cape, South Africa, CC BY 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=67610511
Zulu By Ernmuhl at lb.wikipedia, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=15860062
Zulu reed By Retlaw Snellac Photography from Belgium – south africa – zulu reed dance ceremony, CC BY 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=78439276
Umkomaas Forest By Aleph500Adam – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=44071006
Drakensberg location By Oggmus – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=40624957
Drakensberg photo By Diriye Amey from Locarno, Switzerland – South Africa – Drakensberg, CC BY 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=38362928
bushveld By Altatoron – Own work, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=3668785
giraffes By D. Gordon E. Robertson – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=8696631
Wildebeest By Muhammad Mahdi Karim – Own work, GFDL 1.2, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=11396235
Languages By Htonl – Statistics South Africa’s Census 2011 is the source of the basic population data. The map results from my own processing of the data. For ward boundaries see File:South Africa electoral wards 2011 blank.svg., Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=22763956
Xhosa women By South African Tourism from South Africa – Xhosa woman, Eastern Cape, South Africa, CC BY 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=67610498
Mageu By Garble at English Wikipedia – Transferred from en.wikipedia to Commons by Moyogo using CommonsHelper., Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=10748236
bunnychow By EricEnfermero – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=23323956
Chakalaka By philipp from cape town, south africa – chakalaka, CC BY 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=1791971
Gatsby By HelenOnline – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=32221177
Koeksister By Arnold Goodway – Flickr: Koeksisters, CC BY-SA 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=15592768