Culture in Southern Africa is a fascinating collection of interwoven issues, from the central elements of local life and identity (religion, ethnic group and economic issues) to the region's vibrant artistic endeavours. These include a dynamic music scene, surprising architectural variety, local food in all its infinite manifestations as well as literature, dance and a stirring artistic heritage.
Peoples of Southern Africa
Southern Africa’s population consists of Bantu-speaking people (the majority) who migrated from the north and west of the African continent down through the centuries; later-arriving Europeans (including Dutch, British, Portuguese and Germans); Indians (who arrived with the British, brought over to the Cape Colony as labourers); and pockets of the Khoe-San (an ancient Stone Age people who survive in small numbers) in Botswana, Namibia and South Africa.
Multicultural Southern Africa?
Broadly speaking, two societies and cultures (Western and African) run in parallel, and they rarely cross. As you might expect, in a Western situation social customs are similar to those in Europe, although often a touch more formal – but at the same time more friendly – than in other parts of the Western world. For example, Afrikaners will often shake hands and say their name, even if you’re only meeting them briefly. While you’ll meet locals of European origin and ‘Europeanised’ black Africans all over the region, especially in urban areas, the societies and cultures are predominantly African.
Southern Africa is very multicultural and surprisingly peaceful given the extraordinary number of ethnic groups. However, integrating European and African populations has been a source of tension for many years in the region, exacerbated by colonial rule, apartheid governments and, in Zimbabwe, a policy of reclaiming white-owned farms in recent years. Disharmony stretches much further back, however, with the destruction and dispersal of the difaqane (forced migration), which led to tribal affiliations being disrupted among various Bantu groups in the region. This was exacerbated in South Africa by the Great Trek and the Voortrekkers, who settled into areas they believed were ‘vacant’.
Migration from the poorer countries to the wealthier countries in the region has also brought about tensions and hostility. South Africa for example has far more job opportunities than other countries in the region, and this has led to a great number of migrant workers (many illegal) drifting there. Africans who look different or don’t speak the local language are often harassed by officialdom and the police. Locals are often suspicious of migrants, too, as there is a perception that they take jobs away from locals and are responsible for crime. Such suspicions spilled over into xenophobic violence targeting immigrants and other foreigners in the South African city of Durban in 2015.
A migrant’s money makes a big difference to the local economy back home – Lesotho is a good example, with many travelling to South Africa until the late 1990s to work in mines and sending money back home to their families. It is widely agreed, however, that this type of migration and inter-African mobility has also contributed to the spread of HIV/AIDS.
Southern Africans tend to be conservative, God-fearing peoples whose daily lives revolve around family and other tightly knit social networks. These pillars of society tend to become a little shaky in urban areas, where traditional networks are often less important than economic and other factors. The catastrophe that has been HIV/AIDS has similarly undermined traditional bastions of belonging. Across the region, education is seen as essential to advancement, but many (especially women) still struggle to enjoy the benefits of growing economies.
Distribution of Wealth
Southern Africa covers an enormous geographical area with an incredibly diverse population, and there is stark wealth differentiation between and within the countries of the region. Therefore, giving a precise impression of daily life for Southern Africans is virtually impossible. Nevertheless, there are some generalisations able to be made that represent very real trends in the region.
Life varies considerably between the ‘haves’ and the ‘have-nots’. Middle-class and wealthy families live in homes reflecting that wealth, and many leafy, wealthy neighbourhoods look just like anywhere else in the Western world. Leisure time is often defined by time spent at upmarket (and in the case of South Africa, heavily guarded) shopping centres, which provide outdoor dining, plenty of retail therapy and a place ‘to be seen’.
For the millions of Southern Africans (in fact, the vast majority of the population) who still live in great poverty, however, life is about survival. Simple huts or enclosures house large extended families, and obtaining and preparing food is the focus of daily life.
Famine & Flood
Food shortages and hunger remain critically serious problems in Southern Africa. The region suffers from a seemingly endless cycle of food insecurity.
The simple reason for the food shortage is prolonged dry spells, which lead to crop failure. The reasons behind the region’s continued problems in feeding itself, however, are more complex and deeply rooted. There is a multitude of causes including inadequate agricultural policies, the ripping away of a generation of workers through the HIV/AIDS epidemic, few employment opportunities, bad governance and environmental degradation.
In addition to these problems, floods also wreak havoc, especially in western Zambia, northern Namibia, northern Botswana, Mozambique and (in 2016, for example) South Africa.
The largest problem facing the people of Southern Africa is HIV/AIDS. The sub-Saharan region is the worst-affected region in Africa and, while the statistics are simply dreadful, the socioeconomic effects are overwhelming. In 2013 an estimated 24.7 million people in sub-Saharan Africa were living with HIV – this represents more than two-thirds of the world HIV population. South Africa has the world’s largest HIV-positive population (seven million people), and national adult HIV prevalence is above 19% in that country and around the same level in Botswana, Lesotho, Namibia, Zambia and Zimbabwe. Swaziland has a HIV prevalence rate of nearly 29% – the highest ever documented in a country anywhere in the world. It should be noted that both Botswana and Zimbabwe have made progress in recording drops in HIV infection rates, proving that through education change is possible.
Unlike diseases that attack the weak, HIV/AIDS predominantly hits the productive members of a household – young adults. It’s particularly rife among those who are highly educated, and have relatively high earnings and mobility. This has an enormous impact on household incomes, with the region facing the loss of a large proportion of a generation in the prime of its life. This has also meant a sharp increase in the number of orphans, of grandparents being pressured into assuming parenting roles of young children, and of children pulled out of school to care for the sick, grow food or earn money. There’s still a lot of stigma attached to HIV/AIDS, too, and many locals won’t admit to the cause of a loved one’s death.
HIV/AIDS has led to a sharp decrease in life expectancy in Southern Africa. Recent projections have put life expectancy at around 50 years across the region – between 1990 and 1995 it peaked at just over 60 years. This fall has hopefully now bottomed out, with new treatments bringing a slight rise in recent years.
Attitudes to Sexuality
All the countries in Southern Africa are conservative in their attitudes towards gay men and lesbians. In traditional African societies, gay sexual relationships are a cultural taboo. In practice, rights for gay citizens contrast strongly between countries. South Africa’s progressive constitution, for example, outlaws discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation, and gay couples have won many rights, while Mozambique decriminalised homosexuality in 2015. On the other hand, Namibia and Zimbabwe have strongly condemned homosexuality, with President Mugabe describing homosexuals as ‘worse than pigs and dogs’ in a 1995 public speech.
South Africa has one of the highest incidences of rape in the world and, as many are too afraid to report the crime, the true extent of the problem is likely much worse than official figures would suggest. Another tragic issue in South Africa is sexual abuse of girls in schools by their teachers; as a result, many girls are reluctant to attend school.
Religion plays a pivotal role in local life and a person's religion is very often seen as being every bit as important as their ethnic group or nationality. Christianity has the largest number of followers in every country of the region, but there are also significant populations of Muslims, Hindus and others, with traditional African religions still important across the region.
Most people in Southern Africa follow Christianity or traditional religion, often combining aspects of both. South Africa, Malawi, Botswana and Namibia have very high Christian populations (between 70% and 80% of the general population), while Mozambique has the lowest (around 56%). All the Western-style Christian churches are represented (Catholic, Protestant, Baptist, Adventist etc), most of which were introduced in colonial times by European missionaries. Their spread across the region reflects their colonial roots – the dominant Christian sect in Namibia is German Lutheranism, while Malawi is dominated by Protestant churches, founded by British missionaries. Mozambique’s Portuguese heritage means Roman Catholicism is favoured among that country’s Christians.
The influence of missionaries has been beneficial in education, campaigning against the slave trade, and in trying to raise the standard of living in Southern Africa; however, benefits have been tempered by the search for ideological control and disruption to traditional cultures. Missionaries were certainly influential in Malawi, where the country’s history and existence was shaped by figures such as Dr Livingstone. He was a famous missionary and explorer whose intrepid travels on foot through the continent opened up much of Southern Africa to the traders and settlers that followed in his footsteps.
Although Christian denominations in Southern Africa are generally conservative, many churches actively participate in the fight against HIV/AIDS. Organisations such as Churches United Against HIV/AIDS (CUAHA) work with local churches to support families, care for those afflicted by the disease and reduce the stigma associated with HIV/AIDS.
Many indigenous Christian faiths have also been established, ranging from a small congregation meeting in a simple hut to vast organisations with millions of followers, such as the Zion and Apostolic churches in Zimbabwe and South Africa. In South Africa alone the Zion Church claims four million followers (the largest in the country).
Islam, Hinduism & Judaism
Islam is also followed in some areas, predominantly in the north of Malawi and along its lakeshore, and in the northern provinces of Mozambique, where around 20% of the population attest to the Islamic faith, the highest percentage in Southern Africa. There are also Hindus across the region and Jews, particularly in South Africa, but numbers for both communities are small.
There are many traditional religions in Southern Africa, but no great temples or written scriptures. For outsiders, beliefs can be complex, as can the rituals and ceremonies that surround them. Most traditional religions are animist – based on the attribution of life or consciousness to natural objects or phenomena – and many accept the existence of a Supreme Being, with whom communication is possible through the intercession of ancestors. Thus, ancestors play a particularly strong role. Their principal function is to protect the tribe or family, and they may on occasion show their pleasure (such as through a good harvest) or displeasure (through a member of the family becoming sick, for example).
The countries and indigenous peoples of Southern Africa all have their own artistic traditions, often interwoven with culture and beliefs. The story began with the rock art created by the San people since time immemorial and broadens out into local literary, architectural, performance and artistic pursuits. The region's music scene is itself a fascinating story, while the region's culinary delights are also well worth exploring.
Southern Africa has a strong tradition of oral literature among the various Bantu groups. Traditions and stories were preserved and passed on from generation to generation. In many parts of the region, written language was introduced only by Christian missionaries and assumed more importance in the 20th century. Common forms of literature that have developed include short stories, novels and poetry.
Although writers have focused on themes usually concerning their own country, there are common threads. Nationalism, white minority rule, the struggle for independence and life after colonialism are all themes explored by Southern African writers. In Malawi, oppression and abuse of power were common themes through the Banda years, after independence; Samson Kambalu is a contemporary author who writes about growing up in 1970s and '80s Malawi. Guerrilla poets such as Marcelino dos Santos from Mozambique make fascinating reading. In many countries the growth of literature has paralleled the struggle for independence and freedom.
Works by authors such as Bessie Head from Botswana address African village life and landscape, and Zimbabwean writers include precolonial traditions, myths and folk tales in their writings.
From Malawi, William Kamkwamba (The Boy Who Harnessed The Wind; 2009) and Samson Kambalu (The Jive Talker: or, How to Get a British Passport; 2008) have written two of Southern Africa's most compelling works of nonfiction.
Stephen Gill has written several historical books on Lesotho and, thanks to him, archives were established and much local history saved.
White South African writers have had considerable overseas success, with literary giants such as Nadine Gordimer and JM Coetzee both awarded Nobel Prizes for Literature. If you want to get a sense of where South Africa has come from and where it’s going, delving into its literary roots is a good place to start. Local literature takes you back into the days of apartheid (from both a black and a white perspective) and the realities of building the rainbow nation.
The greatest indigenous architectural legacy is in the past – in Zimbabwe the ruins of great stone cities such as Great Zimbabwe and Khami are rare examples of medieval African architecture in the region. Mapungubwe in South Africa also contains excellent examples of ancient historical roots from a forgotten kingdom.
Architecturally, the colonial legacy in Southern Africa is dominated by European designs, with South Africa and Namibia containing by far the best examples. Pretoria’s stately Union Building has won much acclaim, while art deco design sprang up in Durban and Cape Town after building booms in the early 20th century. Unique Cape Dutch buildings, especially town houses, can be seen throughout Cape Town.
In Namibia, Germany has left a colonial legacy of late-19th-century-designed places, including art nouveau design. The most beautiful examples are in Lüderitz, Swakopmund and Windhoek.
Examples of 19th- and 20th-century English architecture (especially Victorian) can be seen in many parts of the region, and at times in the most unlikely of places (such as Livingstonia in Malawi and Shiwa Ng'andu in Zambia). Mozambique Island is an architectural treasure trove and includes the oldest European building in the southern hemisphere.
Safari lodges, such as those in Zimbabwe and Botswana, can be a mix of an English sensibility with African design pieces and environment.
Dance, along with music, in Southern Africa is often closely linked with, and plays an important role in, social function rather than being mere entertainment. Movement is regarded as an important type of communication in traditional African societies, and dance can be associated with contact between spirits and the living; traditional healers often performed curative dances to rid patients of sickness. Symbolic gestures, mime, props, masks, costumes and body painting can all play a part. If you have the chance to see traditional song and dance while you’re in Southern Africa, try not to miss out.
Dance also helps to define culture, and in Swaziland, for example, the Umhlanga (reed) dance plays a very important role in society, drawing the nation together and reinforcing Swazi culture. Mozambicans are on the whole excellent dancers, and Arabic influence is evident in their slow, swaying rhythms – check out the Mozambique National Company of Song & Dance.
Painting & Sculpture
When travelling around the region, the more popular artworks you'll encounter double as handicrafts. They include: San crafts (particularly in Namibia and Botswana) such as jewellery and leatherwork, bows and arrows, and ostrich shell beads; mohair products such as tapestries and ponchos, especially in Lesotho and South Africa; exquisite palm-woven and African-themed baskets, particularly renowned in Botswana and Zambia; pottery, often highly decorative and of course very practical; Shona sculpture (Zimbabwean), renowned worldwide, with recurring themes such as the metamorphosis of man into beast, and Makonde sculpture (Mozambican); glassware and candles (Swazi) in the shape of regional wildlife, and in the case of the former often made from recyclable material. You'll also find wooden carvings, particularly in places where tourists are likely to wander – wildlife carvings such as huge giraffes are popular, and you’ll even find earthmovers, aeroplanes and helicopters.
Township art is found throughout the region, and has developed sober themes in an expressive, colourful and usually light-hearted manner. Ranging from complex wire-work toys to prints and paintings, deceptively naive images in township art can embody messages that are far from simple.
In South Africa, the woodcarvers of Limpopo’s Venda region have gained international recognition.
Galleries display works from Southern African artists, and include more traditional sculpture and paintings. Painters often interpret the landscape, wildlife and the diverse peoples of the region – Namibia, South Africa, Mozambique and Zambia in particular have galleries that display work from local artists.
Music in Southern Africa
Long before there were borders, there was music. Thousands of years ago, right across the handful of countries we now loosely term Southern Africa, a host of cultures were singing, dancing and creating rhythms to accompany their lives. Arguably it is music, more than any other aspect of culture, that has best survived the onslaught of Western influences. Not always untarnished, though: while some traditions persist, others have merged, shape-shifted and formed new genres. South Africa alone has the greatest range of musical styles on the African continent, helped along by its gargantuan recording industry. Some of these styles have spilled over into neighbouring countries, all of which have styles of their own.
Music still marks the important stages of a Southern African person’s life. It still enlightens, heals, invokes spirits. It still makes people dance, sing, holler. It does all this regardless of the instrument – whose form can change according to ethnicity, geography, gender of the player and, sometimes, whatever objects are lying around. Expressing oneself through music isn’t always easy: think of long-suffering, government-censored Zimbabwe; or Namibia, whose music industry lacks distribution networks and major record labels and is only now slowly addressing the fact; or Mozambique, where most artists don’t receive royalties, and promoters frequently don’t pay. Regardless, music still pulses in the region like a heartbeat. So remember: just because you can’t buy it – or even see or hear it – doesn’t mean that it isn’t there.
A Potted History
It’s better, initially, to think ethnicity rather than country. Southern Africa is one of the world’s oldest inhabited regions, after all, and many of its musical traditions long predate modern African nation-states. The region is so old, in fact, that its earliest music can be traced back some 4000 years to the Stone Age, when groups of hunter-gatherer San played basic flutes and rattles and sang in their click language. Today’s San still sound wonderfully ethereal, their singing, clapping trance-dance the stuff of ritual, tourist haunts and left-field record labels. But it’s the glorious vocal polyphony of the Bantu-speaking people – the Zulu, Xhosa and Sotho of the present day – that has come to characterise the region; this is the music that attracted Paul Simon before he recorded his seminal 1988 album Graceland.
Long before the Christian missionaries and colonialists arrived in the 19th century, there were kingdoms. In Zambia, each king had his own royal musician, just as each kingdom had its own music. Singing often accompanied instrumental music played on horns, percussion, drums and the stringed babatone – the inspiration for the contemporary Zambian-style kalindula. Elsewhere, herders used flutes and other instruments to help control the movement of cattle. (Oh, and the first major style of South African popular music? None other than penny-whistle jive, later known as kwela.) The Bantu of Namibia played gourds, horn trumpets and marimbas, while the various ethnic groups of Malawi travelled widely, spreading musical influences from the Zulu of South Africa and the Islamic Yao people of Tanzania.
Colonial rule altered everything. The folk forms of Mozambique, a former Portuguese colony, bear hallmarks of colonial rule – though its main style, marrabenta, flourished after independence. Mozambican bands began to play a roots style similar to that heard in Tanzania and Zambia, while musicians in the heart of the country played a style like that of Zimbabwe. The music of southern Mozambique was altered by the influx of workers returning from the South African mines (revolutionary lyrics were delivered over regional melodies), just as the workers who have migrated from Lesotho to the mines and cities of neighbouring South Africa have developed a rich genre of sung oral poetry – or word music – that focuses on the experiences of migrant life. African folk music also became popular in Zambia, as troubadours entertained exhausted miners. In South Africa, Dutch farmers brought a European folk music that became what is known today as boeremusiek.
It’s no wonder, then, that the banjo, violin, concertina and electric guitar have all had a profound influence on Southern African music. Malawian banjo-and-guitar duos were huge in the 1950s and '60s, after which South African kwela took over. The influence of guitar-based rumba from Zaïre (now the Democratic Republic of Congo, DRC) was felt right across the region (political upheaval saw many Congolese musicians relocate to Southern Africa); its upstart cousin, soukous, has made its presence felt in everything from Zambian kalindula to Malawian kwasa kwasa. The gospel mega-genre has evolved from the teachings of 19th-century Christian missionaries, which were customised accordingly. Reckon those chord sequences in South African songs are familiar? Blame the Church.
A Political Voice
Numerous musical styles have been born out of oppression, too. Ladysmith Black Mambazo’s ‘tiptoe’ isicathimiya music, with its high-kicking, soft-stepping dance, has its origins in the all-male miners’ hostels in South Africa’s Natal Province (now KwaZulu-Natal) in the 1930s, when workers were at pains not to wake their bosses. Kwela music, like most modern South African styles, came out of the townships; kwela, meaning ‘jump up’, was the instruction given to those about to be thrown into police vans during raids. Thomas Mapfumo’s chimurenga is once again the music of resistance in Zimbabwe, even if – for the majority of Zimbabwean musicians – outspokenness is just not the Zimbabwean way. Even the prolific Oliver ‘Tuku’ Mtukudzi (whose infectious dance pop, informed by the country’s jit-jive and tsava rhythms, is known simply as ‘Tuku music’) has never done more than express his great disappointment. Relatively new kids on the block Mokoomba – six Tonga musicians from Victoria Falls – are looking forward with energy and dynamism, their multilingual lyrics rooted in home reality.
In Malawi the intentionally controversial songs of politician and reggae giant Lucius ‘Soldier of the Poor Man’ Banda has spawned a slew of similarly antsy reggae outfits; there is also a softer reggae led by Black Missionaries and other Malawian Rastafarians. In postapartheid South Africa, freedom of expression is pretty much expected: rap, hip hop and their indigenous sibling kwaito are as socially concerned as they are lacking political correctness, depending on who you’re listening to. South African jazz remains some of the best in the world; the international success of the likes of Afro-soul/jazz chanteuse Thandiswa and Afro-fusion outfit Freshlyground has new audiences in new countries taking notice.
The popular music of Southern Africa has created itself by mingling local ideas and forms with those from outside the region. And while every country has its own distinctive and constantly evolving array of styles supported by local audiences, that doesn’t mean you won’t be in one place and hear something from somewhere else.
As with most traditional African instruments, the membranophones (drums), chordophones (stringed instruments), aerophones (wind instruments) and idiophones (percussion) of Southern Africa tend to be found in rural areas. Local materials and found objects are often used to musical effect. In Namibia and Zimbabwe dry cocoons are tied together and strapped to dancers’ ankles and waists; in Swaziland and South Africa, ankles rattle with dried fruit. Right across the region, everything from seeds, sticks and stalks to horsehair, oryx horns and goat skins are being shaken and blown, plucked and beaten. Some people in Namibia customise their drums by carving human faces into them.
The MaNyungwe people of northeastern Zimbabwe and northwestern Mozambique play nyanga music on panpipes, using different interlocking parts and quick bursts of singing in a sort of highly melodic musical round called hocketting. The Tonga people of Zambia do a similar thing with animal horns known as nyele. Variations on musical themes abound. The people of Sesfontein, Namibia, play reed pipes made from papaya stems. Basotho herding boys fashion their lekolulo flutes from sticks, cords and reeds. Everywhere, too, there is men’s music and women’s music, just as there are men’s dances and women’s dances. In Lesotho men use their mouths to play the stringed setolo-tolo. Namibian women play the scraped mouth-resonated bow.
Oh, and then there’s the voice. Be they roaring Zulu choirs or clicking San, four-part Nama harmonies or ululating Zambian church-goers, the people of Southern Africa really do sing up some glorious polyphonic storms. Keep an ear out.
There is a huge variety of drums (ngoma is the general term in the Bantu language). Stick-struck and hand-struck. Square, round and goblet-shaped. Small cowhide-covered ones for Zulu children. Khetebu ‘bush-tom’ drums beloved by the South African Tsonga. Namalwa ‘lion-drums’ of Zambia, played by inserting a stick through the drum head and rubbing. High-pitched talking drums (which are more commonly found in West Africa), held tight under the armpit and beaten with hook-shaped sticks; the Chewa people of Zambia call theirs the vimbuza. Drum families – mother, father, son, played in sets of three – like the conical drums of the northeast of Namibia. Drums to accompany reed ensembles, a cappella groups and, more often than not, ankle-rattling dances.
If drums are the region’s collective heartbeat, then the bow is its lonely soul. Southern Africa has several kinds of musical bow, many resembling the Brazilian berimbau; braced, mouth and/or gourd-resonated bows. There are large hunting bows used as mouth bows; two-stringed bows, played while simultaneously singing and resonating; multiple bows with multiple strings; mouth bows that use palm leaves instead of strings. String instruments abound: the lute (both strummed and bowed) is present in several forms. The Setswana of Botswana sing and strum the violin-like segaba (which is a single string attached to a tin). The dance of the Nama of Namibia uses flutes, drums and strings to emulate animal sounds.
The xylophone is also prevalent, and the xylophone music of southern Malawi has influenced contemporary music in both East and Southern Africa. Mallet instruments with wooden keys are the main instrument of the Lozi and Nkoya of western Zambia, who place slats of wood over a long platform and gourds in descending size; up to four people play simultaneously. The marimbas of South Africa feed into the mbaqanga (township jive) style. It’s an entirely different sound from that of the mbila (plural timbila) played by the Chopi people of coastal Mozambique, which features resonators made from gourds and a buzzing tone created via a sheet of plastic (formerly an animal skin) over a hole in the ground. The master of timbila was the great Venancio Mbande.
But perhaps no instrument is as distinctively Southern African as the mbira, a hand-held instrument with small metal keys attached to an amplifying wooden box or calabash; attached shells and/or bottle tops distort and fuzz its sound. There are many traditions of these ‘thumb pianos’, each with a different name according to its size and origin – for instance, they're called kankobela by the Tonga of Zambia. But it is Zimbabwe with which the mbira is generally identified: central to the Shona people’s marathon religious trance ceremonies known as bira, interlocking mbira patterns are considered both healing and spiritual. Since independence the mbira has been adapted to modern styles, such as the chimurenga guitar bands.
A rich network of musical styles has developed in Southern Africa. And although those of South Africa are probably the best known, the entire region is humming with musical traditions, expressions and textures. In most countries there are polyphonic, repetitive patterns and call-and-response singing. There are styles that reflect ethnic diversity and geography. Cities are dominated by pop, rock, jazz and urban music, much of which combines core African principles with Western influences. Electric guitars fuel genres such as afroma in Malawi, jit-jive in South Africa and Zam-rock in Zambia. Local sounds keep migrating, metamorphosing. New genres keep forming. The following is a by-no-means definitive round-up of what is being listened to.
In Zimbabwe in the late 1970s the musician Thomas Mapfumo and the Blacks Unlimited transferred traditional Shona mbira patterns to the electric guitar. They sang songs of resistance, using bright, harmonised vocals, against the white-controlled Rhodesian government. Chimurenga, meaning ‘struggle’, became a tool of social activism and, with lyrics in Shona, a secret means of communication. Banned by Zimbabwean state radio then, much of today’s chimurenga bubbles away underground, and no wonder: high-profile artist and prominent government critic Raymond Majongwe has said in the past that he fears for his life and his work rarely gets an airing inside a country with such tightly controlled media. Apolitical, good-time sungura guitar music (the current industry’s favoured genre) and bland Shona impersonations of hip hop and ragga (a dance-oriented style of reggae) abound.
Gospel music is huge everywhere. In Malawi spiritual songs are sung in church, at school assemblies and political functions, and during everyday tasks. Many of Zambia’s Christian churches boast US-style gospel synthesisers and guitars. The effects of popular influences on church music can be heard in top-sellers Adonai Pentecostal Singers and Ephraim Sekeleti Mutalange. In Botswana, traditional music is present in church singing. Zimbabwe’s lucrative gospel market is dominated by Pastor Charles Charamba and his sungura-based songs (gospel singers in Zimbabwe are as big as the biggest popular music stars). South Africa is the really commercial holy roller: a megaselling amalgam of European, American, Zulu and other African traditions, neatly divided into traditional and modern styles. Look out for Rebecca Malope, South African Gospel Singers and the 2010 Grammy-winning Soweto Gospel Choir.
What Malawi calls ‘jazz’ began in the late 1960s when, inspired by South African kwela music, bands such as Chimvu Jazz featured semirural musicians on acoustic instruments – a tradition that continues today. In Botswana most popular music tends to be labelled ‘jazz’, but it is probably gumba-gumba (‘party-party’) music – modernised Zulu and Setswana music mixed with traditional jazz – that comes closest to it. Zambia’s Zam-rock has its jazzy elements. But if you’re after jazz that is structurally, harmonically and melodically distinctive – and is, unequivocally, jazz – then head to South Africa. What was famously an expatriate music representing the suffering of a people is now a thriving, progressive force. The likes of Lira, Thandiswa and the legendary Hugh Masekela are at the vanguard.
The urban dance style known as kalindula has its roots in the Bemba traditions of northern Zambia’s Luapula Province – where a stringed instrument called the babatone swings like a double bass. Inspired (like many Southern African genres) by Congolese rumba, kalindula took hold in the mid-1970s in the wake of the presidential decree that 95% of broadcast music should be Zambian. Most kalindula bands broke up following the country’s economic collapse in the 1990s. Artists such as the Glorious Band tried to revive kalindula with moderate success; Kabukulu Mwamba Chimo, whose kalindula includes traces of rumba, sinjonjo (an upbeat song and type of dance popular in copper-belt mining areas in Zambia and Zimbabwe) and traditional Lamba music, is popular.
Post-1994, kwaito (kway-to, meaning hot or angry) exploded onto South Africa’s dance floors. A rowdy mix of bubblegum, hip hop, R&B, ragga, mbaqanga, traditional, jazz, and British and American house music, kwaito remains a lifestyle even if its bubble has arguably burst. Chanted or sung in township slang (usually over programmed beats), kwaito’s lyrics range from the anodyne to the fiercely political. Given an international lease of life as the soundtrack for the feature film Tsotsi (which bagged the 2006 Oscar for Best Foreign Film, and saw kwaito star Zola playing a gangster), kwaito remains huge across the Southern African region. It’s still Lesotho’s favourite music style. If you’re in Namibia, look out for EES, The Dogg and Gazza. In Zambia, try the kwaito-house of Ma Africa. If you’re in South Africa, take your pick.
Beginning in Zaïre (now DRC) in the mid-1980s and spreading quickly to surrounding areas, kwasa kwasa (from the French street slang, quoi ca? – 'what’s this?') took its cue from Congolese rumba and soukous. Characterised by an all-important lead guitar and lighter background drumming, kwasa kwasa songs typically let guitar and drums set the pace before the vocals enter, with an intricate guitar solo somewhere in the middle. Arguments rage over whether kwasa kwasa is actually just rumba; for others it’s simply a dance style. Everyone from politicians to street vendors knows how to do the kwasa kwasa: booties wildly gyrating – à la American hip hop – while legs and torsos are kept still.
Sounding a little like salsa or merengue, marrabenta is the best-known urban dance music in Mozambique, and one created from a fusion of imported European music played on improvised materials: oil cans, wooden stakes and fishing lines. Taking its name from the Portuguese word ‘to break’ (hard-playing musos frequently snap their guitar strings), marrabenta’s local-language songs of love and social criticism were banned by Portuguese colonialists – ensuring its popularity post-independence. Stalwart marrabenta band Ghorwane uses horns, guitars, percussion and strong vocal harmonies; marrabenta-meets-dance-music diva Neyma is a megacelebrity.
Rap & Hip Hop
The genre that was born in New York more than three decades ago now has another home in (or has come back to) Africa. In Namibia, writer and skateboarder Ruusa Namupala is mixing township sounds with hip hop. In Botswana, Game 'Zeus' Bantsi is flying the flag for homegrown rap. Young Swaziland rap groups – and indeed, rap groups across Southern Africa – are using the medium to educate listeners about HIV/AIDS. South Africa’s rappers are exploring uncharted territory: look out for emerging genres such as Afro-Futurism and township house, and sonic explorers Simphiwe Dana and Spoek Mathambo.
In Malawi in particular, you'll hear reggae by the Black Missionaries everywhere; The Very Best, a World Music collaboration between Mzuzu-born Esau Mwamwaya and London production duo Radioclit, has had some success internationally.
Sidebar: Lake of Stars
Featuring big-name UK and African live acts and DJs, the award-winning three-day Lake of Stars Music Festival is held on the palm-fringed shores of Lake Malawi each October. It attracts around 1500 locals and travellers; proceeds go to charity.
Sidebar: Revolutionary Films
Featuring music and interviews by Abdullah Ibrahim, Hugh Masekela and Miriam Makeba among others, Lee Hirsch’s documentary Amandla!! A Revolution in Four Part Harmony (2002) explores the role of music in the fight against apartheid. Made over nine years, this is a deeply affecting film.
Sidebar: National Music Eisteddfod
Held each July in Selebi-Phikwe, between Gaborone and Francistown, Botswana’s National Music Eisteddfod showcases traditional dances and music from around the country, courtesy of its schools, colleges and choirs.
Sidebar: Youth Stations
Yfm (www.yfm.co.za) is South Africa’s most popular youth radio station, with an emphasis on live podcasting and blogging and a 50% self-imposed local music quota.
Sidebar: Cry of Love
Cry of Love (2012) is a musical film starring legendary South African songbird Yvonne Chaka Chaka and award-winning actress Leleti Khumalo. Set in cosmopolitan Johannesburg, it follows the lives of young teens in a performing arts school. Part Fame, part Ubuntu.
Sidebar: By Namibians, For Namibians
Set in the eponymous colourful township, Katutura is a film made by Namibians for Namibians. Released in 2016, it underlines the importance of respecting women, children and elders as it celebrates the country’s vibrant heritage. Including, of course, its music.
Sidebar: Music of South Africa
Focus: Music of South Africa (Routledge, 2008), by Carol Ann Muller, is an impressive, scholarly and highly readable tome that takes an in-depth look at the full spectrum of South African music from the past to 2008.
Film-maker and musician Kenny Gilmore’s 55-minute documentary Deep Roots Malawi showcases the country’s musical traditions and takes the viewer into the heart of Malawian music culture; his band Sangalala fuses pop, reggae, jazz and blues with Malawian rhythms. For more, see www.myspace.com/sangalala.
Sidebar: Promoting Namibian Musicians
With winners announced each May, the Namibian Music Awards (www.nama.com.na) is an annual gong-fest run by the Namibian Broadcasting Corporation, intended to highlight and promote Namibian musicians and music producers.
Sidebar: Jazz on the Lake
Taking place annually on the first Sunday in September, Jazz on the Lake is a free daytime concert and a Jo’burg institution (www.joburg.org.za).
Sidebar: Music & Censorship
For information on music and censorship in Zimbabwe, go to www.freemuse.org and www.musicfreedomday.org.
Sidebar: Music Festivals
- Cape Town International Jazz Festival (South Africa)
- National Arts Festival (South Africa)
- Kirstenbosch Summer Sunset Concerts (South Africa)
- Joy of Jazz Festival (South Africa)
- /Ae//Gams Arts Festival (Namibia)
- Lake of Stars Music Festival (Malawi)
- Harare International Festival of Art (Zimbabwe)
Food & Drink
The business of eating tends to be all about survival for most of the population, and much of the day’s activity is associated with the preparation of meals. In a region racked by famine, with many countries not able to consistently produce enough food to feed their own population, food is about functionality, not creativity. That said, the variety and quality of food for visitors and well-to-do locals is improving all the time.
An urban setting will usually mean more variety for visitors, and the colonial legacy in some countries does mean some intriguing culinary combinations.
South Africa is the best place to eat and certainly has the most variety, an inheritance of its varied African, European and Asian population. Mozambique, too, blends a variety of influences (African, Indian and Portuguese) into its seafood offerings. In Malawi, eating chambo (fried fish) by the lake is a highlight.
A favourite for many visitors to Southern Africa is the fruit, and depending on the season you’ll find bananas, pineapples, pawpaws (papayas), mangoes and avocados in plentiful supply.
Staples & Specialities
In parts of Southern Africa, especially in South Africa, Namibia and Botswana, meat features as a staple, and anything that can be grilled is grilled – including ostrich, crocodile, warthog and kudu. Meat also features in local celebrations. The braai (barbecue) is a regional obsession.
Takeaway snack food found on the street may include bits of grilled meat, deep-fried potato or cassava chips, roasted corn cobs, boiled eggs, peanuts (called ground nuts locally), biscuits, cakes, fried dough balls (which approximate doughnuts) and miniature green bananas. Prices are always dirt cheap (unfortunately, often with the emphasis on dirt).
For something more substantial, but still inexpensive, the most common meal is the regional staple, boiled maize meal, which is called mealie pap in South Africa and Namibia, sadza in Zimbabwe, and nshima or nsima in countries further north. In Botswana, the staple is known as bogobe, in which sorghum replaces the maize. When fresh and well cooked, all varieties are both tasty and filling, and are usually eaten with a relish (sauce or stew), which is either very simple (eg boiled vegetable leaves) or something more substantial, such as a stew of beef, fish, beans or chicken.
The main meal is at noon, so most cheap eateries are closed in the evening. In the morning you can buy coffee or tea (with or without milk – the latter is cheaper) and bread, sometimes with margarine, or maybe a slightly sweetened breadlike cake.
Up a notch, and popular with tourists, are traditional meals of mielies (cobs of maize) and relish, or Western dishes, such as beef or chicken served with rice or chips (fries). More elaborate options, such as steaks, pies, fish dishes, pasta and something that resembles curry over rice are worth trying for a change.
Most cities also have speciality restaurants serving genuine (or at least pretty close to it) Indian, Thai, Chinese, Lebanese, Mexican or ethnic African (such as Ethiopian or West African) cuisine.
You can buy tea and coffee in many places, from top-end hotels and restaurants to humble local eating houses.
In bars, hotels and bottle stores you can buy beer and spirits, either imported international brands or locally brewed drinks. South African and Namibian beers (Windhoek brand is excellent) are available throughout the region, and in many areas they dominate local markets. Wonderful South African wines are widely available, as is a growing range of extremely popular spirit coolers.
Traditional beer of the region is made from maize, brewed in the villages and drunk from communal pots with great ceremony on special occasions, and with less ado in everyday situations. This product, known as Chibuku (or shake-shake), is commercially brewed in many countries and sold in large blue paper cartons, or by the bucketful. It’s definitely an acquired taste, and it does pack a punch.
Vegetarians & Vegans
Vegetarianism isn’t widely understood in Africa, and many locals think a meal is incomplete unless at least half of it once lived and breathed. That said, nearly all safari lodges can provide vegetarian options with a little advance notice. Elsewhere, if you’re not worried about variety or taste, finding inexpensive vegetarian options isn’t that difficult. In the cheapest places, you may have to stick to the mielies and greens. A step above that would be eggs and chips (which may be fried in animal fat) with whatever vegetables may be available. Those who eat fish should have even more luck, but note that many places will even serve chicken as a vegetarian dish, on the notion that it’s not really meat. Nearly all midrange and upmarket restaurants offer some sort of genuine vegetarian dish, even if it’s just a vegetable omelette or pasta and sauce. In larger cities and towns, a growing number of places specialise in light vegetarian cuisine – especially at lunchtime – and of course, Lebanese, Indian and Italian restaurants usually offer various interesting meat-free choices.
Feature: Travel Your Tastebuds
If you’re not squeamish about watching wildlife during the day and then sampling it in the evening, meat lovers can try some (nonendangered) local produce: dishes such as warthog stew, buffalo steak and impala sausages go down a treat. They can be hard to find, but wildlife lodges and upmarket restaurants are usually the best bet. In Namibia, kudu or gemsbok or even zebra steaks are much easier to find.
Bunny chow is a South African favourite, also popular in Swaziland. It’s basically curry inside a hollowed-out loaf, messy to eat but quite delicious.
African bush tucker varies across the region among Southern Africa’s indigenous groups – for example, the San still eat many desert creatures including caterpillar-like mopane worms, prepared in many different ways, such as deep-fried, or just eaten raw. These fat suckers are pulled off mopane trees and fried into little delicacies – they’re tasty and a good source of protein; Botswana is a good place to find them.
Feature: Food Etiquette
Most travellers will have the opportunity to share an African meal sometime during their stay, and will normally be given royal treatment and a seat of honour. Although concessions are sometimes made for foreigners, to avoid offence be aware that table manners are probably different to those you’re accustomed to. The African staple, maize or sorghum meal, is the centre of nearly every meal. It is normally taken with the right hand from a communal pot, rolled into balls, dipped in some sort of relish – meat, beans or vegetables – and eaten. As in most societies, it is considered impolite to scoff food, or to hoard it or be stingy with it. If you do, your host may feel that he or she hasn’t provided enough. Similarly, if you can’t finish your food, don’t worry; the host will be pleased that you have been satisfied. Often, containers of water or home-brew beer may be passed around from person to person. It is not customary to share coffee, tea or bottled soft drinks.
Within many traditional African religions, there is a belief in spells and magic (usually called witchcraft or, in some places, mutu). In brief simplistic terms it goes like this: physical or mental illnesses are often ascribed to a spell or curse having been put on the sufferer. Often, a relative or villager is suspected of being the ‘witch’ who placed the curse, often for reasons of spite or jealousy. A traditional doctor, also called a diviner or witchdoctor, is then required to hunt out the witch and cure the victim. This is done in different ways in various parts of the region, and may involve the use of herbs, divining implements, prayers, chanting, dance or placing the spell in a bottle and casting it into a remote spot (if you find such a bottle in the bush, don’t touch it).
Services do not come free of charge, however, and many witchdoctors demand high payments – up to US$20, in countries where an average month’s earnings may be little more than this. The ‘witches’ who are unearthed are frequently those who cannot defend themselves – the sick, the old or the very poorest members of society. There are even reports of witchdoctors accusing very young children of harbouring evil spirits.
Sidebar: Support for Women
Working to end violence against women and supporting victims of rape, Rape Crisis is based in Cape Town, South Africa. Click onto www.rapecrisis.org.za if you’d like to learn more about its work.
Sidebar: Language Diversity
Many countries within Southern Africa are incredibly ethnically diverse. This is exemplified in South Africa, which has 11 official languages.
Sidebar: Christianity in Southern Africa
Christianity in Southern Africa is known for its conservatism. Roman Catholic bishops in the region have controversially condemned the use of condoms in the fight against HIV/AIDS.
Sidebar: Let Us Pray
South Africa’s Archbishop Desmond Tutu said, ‘When the missionaries came to Africa, they had the Bible and we had the land. They said, “Let us pray.” We closed our eyes. When we opened them, we had the Bible and they had the land.’
Sidebar: Images of Power
Images of Power, by D Lewis-Williams and T Dowson, is a fascinating study of the art of the San people, utilising modern scientific techniques and rediscovered records of discussions between the San and early European settlers.
Sidebar: Literary Traditions
The Penguin Book of Southern African Stories, edited by Stephen Gray, features stories (some thousands of years old) from the region, showing similarities and common threads in various literary traditions.
Sidebar: Benefits of the 'Hoodia'
The San eat hoodia, a prickly, cucumber-like plant, to suppress their appetite on long hunting treks – in the West hoodia is used in one of the most popular weight-loss drugs on the market.
Sidebar: Cooking up a Feast
Cooking the Southern African Way, by Kari Cornell, includes authentic ethnic foods (even vegetarian ones) from across the region, including a section on holiday and festival food.
Sidebar: Per Capita Incomes (US$)
- Botswana: 16,400
- South Africa: 13,200
- Namibia: 11,400
- Swaziland: 8500
- Zambia: 3900
- Lesotho: 3000
- Zimbabwe: 2100
- Mozambique: 1200
- Malawi: 1100
Sidebar: Urban Population as Percentage of Total (%)
- South Africa: 64.8
- Botswana: 57.4
- Namibia: 46.7
- Zambia: 40.9
- Zimbabwe: 32.4
- Mozambique: 32.2
- Lesotho: 27.3
- Swaziland: 21.3
- Malawi: 16.3
Sidebar: Life Expectancy at Birth (Years)
- Namibia: 63.6
- South Africa: 63.1
- Malawi: 61.2
- Zimbabwe: 58
- Botswana: 54.5
- Mozambique: 53.3
- Lesotho: 53
- Zambia: 52.5
- Swaziland: 51.6
Feature: Top Ten Southern African Reads
- Cry the Beloved Country by Alan Paton
- Don't Let's Go to the Dogs Tonight by Alexandra Fuller
- The Jive Talker: or, How to Get a British Passport by Samson Kambalu
- Disgrace by JM Coetzee
- July's People by Nadine Gordimer
- Sometimes There is a Void by Zakes Mda
- Far and Beyon’ by Unity Dow
- When a Crocodile Eats the Sun by Peter Godwin
- Harvest of Thorns by Shimmer Chinodya
- The Stone Virgins by Yvonne Vera
Sidebar: Sustainable Seafood
Be aware of the source of your seafood: overfishing and inappropriate fishing methods mean that many species are overexploited, and some stocks are running dangerously low. For lists on what to avoid, check out www.wwfsassi.co.za.
Sidebar: Gift Etiquette
If you’re offered a gift, don’t feel guilty about accepting it. To receive it, accept with both hands and bow slightly.
Southern Africa’s environment is as fragile as elsewhere on the continent, with exploitation and mismanagement the cause of many long-term problems. And the region is where you'll find some of the more complicated issues in wildlife conservation, among them poaching and commercial or trophy hunting. But it's not all bad news – Southern Africa's environment has a wonderful backdrop of stunning landscapes and some of the best wildlife on the planet.
Southern Africa consists of a plateau rising from 1000m to 2000m, with escarpments on either side. Below the escarpments lies a coastal plain, which is narrowest in Namibia and widest in southern Mozambique.
Southern Africa hosts two of Africa's most important deserts: the Kalahari and the Namib.
Beyond that, much of western South Africa sees so little rain that shrubs and hardy grasses are the dominant vegetation. Known locally as the Karoo, this area merges with true desert in Namibia. Lack of water keeps larger animals such as zebras and antelopes close to waterholes, but when it rains this habitat explodes with plant and animal life. During the dry season many plants shed their leaves to conserve water.
The Kalahari Desert
Around 100 million years ago the supercontinent Gondwanaland dramatically broke up. As the land mass ripped apart, the edges of the African continent rose up, forming the mountain ranges of Southern and Central Africa. Over the millennia, water and wind weathered these highlands, carrying the fine dust inland to the Kalahari Basin. At 2.5 million sq km, it’s the earth’s largest unbroken tract of sand, stretching from northern South Africa to eastern Namibia and Angola, and to Zambia and Zimbabwe in the west.
The Kalahari covers up to 85% of Botswana's territory, with the dominant landforms large salt pans and sand hills covered by scrub. In the northeast are the great salty deserts of the Makgadikgadi Pans; in ancient times part of a vast super-lake, they’re now the largest complex of salt pans in the world. The shifting sand dunes that compose a traditional desert are found only in the far southwest, in the Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park. Other classic Kalahari parks and reserves in Botswana include Central Kalahari Game Reserve, Makgadikgadi and Nxai Pans National Park and Khutse Game Reserve.
The Namib is the oldest desert on the planet. It is a scorched earth of burned and blackened-red basalt that spilled from beneath the earth 130 million years ago. Precious little can grow or thrive in this merciless environment. That anything survives out here owes everything to the sheer ingenuity of the natural world and the resilience of its human population. The Namib includes the sand dunes of Sossusvlei, one of the loveliest and most accessible sand seas on earth.
The Namib Desert extends along the country’s entire Atlantic coast, known as the Skeleton Coast, a formidable desert coastline engulfed by icy breakers. As one moves inland, the sinister fogs give way to the wondrous desert wilderness of Damaraland and the Kaokoveld.
The coastline is scored by a number of rivers, which rise in the central plateau, but often run dry. Some, like the ephemeral Tsauchab, once reached the sea, but now end in calcrete pans. Others flow only during the summer rainy season, but at some former stage carried huge volumes of water and carved out dramatic canyons such as Fish River and Kuiseb. Much of the surface between Walvis Bay and Lüderitz is covered by enormous linear dunes, which roll back from the sea towards the inland gravel plains that are occasionally interrupted by isolated mountain ranges.
Remarkably, the dunes are slowly reclaiming land from the Atlantic, as evidenced by the shipwrecks that now lie marooned a kilometre or more inland from the current shoreline.
Great Rift Valley & Its Lakes
The most prominent break in the Southern African plateau is the Great Rift Valley – a 6500km-long fissure where tectonic forces have attempted to rip the continent of Africa in two. This enormous fault in the earth’s crust runs from the Jordan Valley (between Israel and Jordan) in the north, southward through the Red Sea, where it enters Ethiopia’s Danakil Depression. At this point it heads south across Kenya, Tanzania and Malawi, dividing in two at one stage, to form the great lakes of East Africa. Lake Malawi is the third-largest lake in Africa and lies in a trough formed by the valley. This feature has created unique fish life. The lake has more fish species than any inland body of water in the world – there are more than 500, and 350 of these are endemic to the lake. This spreading zone ends at the present site of Lake Kariba, between Zimbabwe and Zambia.
The highest part of the region is Lesotho (often called the Kingdom in the Sky) and the neighbouring Drakensberg area, where many peaks rise above 3000m, including Thabana-Ntlenyana (3482m), which is the highest point in Southern Africa. In fact, Lesotho has the fifth-highest average elevation of any country on the planet and is the only independent state in the world whose territory rises entirely above 1000m (3281 ft) in elevation. Its lowest point (1400m, 4593 ft) is also the highest lowest point of any country. And just to prove a point about the region's topographical variety, Botswana is one of the lowest non-island nation states on earth.
Other highland areas include the Nyika Plateau (in northern Malawi and northeastern Zambia), Mt Mulanje (in southern Malawi), the Eastern Highlands (between Zimbabwe and Mozambique) and the Khomas Hochland (Central Namibia).
These highlands provide jaw-dropping scenery, as well as some of the best-preserved and most distinctive plants, wildlife and ancient rock art in the region. Hiking, climbing and mountain biking are just some of the myriad activities on offer in these often wonderfully preserved patches of African wilderness.
Lower and more isolated hills include the characteristic inselbergs of Namibia and South Africa’s Karoo, and the lush Zomba Plateau in central Malawi.
Several iconic African rivers cut through Southern Africa, none more so than the mighty Zambezi, Africa's fourth-longest river (2693km, 1673 miles). Some 80% of its length passes through Southern African countries (the remainder traverses Angola and a small sliver of Tanzania), with more than 41% of its length within Zambia.
The Zambezi is actually not the longest river to pass through the region – the Chambeshi (or Chambezi) River rises in northeastern Zambia and is considered by some to be the source of the Congo River; it is the most remote headstream of the Congo, although some consider the Lualaba River to be the true source by virtue of its greater water volume.
Other important African rivers:
- Orange River (2092km, 1300 miles): South Africa, Namibia, Botswana and Lesotho
- Limpopo (1800km, 1118 miles): Mozambique, Zimbabwe, South Africa and Botswana
- Okavango (1600km, 994 miles): Angola, Namibia and Botswana
- Shire (1200km, 746 miles): Mozambique and Malawi
It's not just the rivers themselves, but rather what they produce, that is so impressive. It is, of course, the waters of the Zambezi that produce one of Africa's greatest natural wonders, Victoria Falls, on the border between Zambia and Zimbabwe. And the Okavango River is what feeds the extraordinary natural spectacle that is the Okavango Delta, one of the world's largest inland river deltas.
Southern Africa contains some of the most accessible and varied wildlife found anywhere on the continent, and it’s the major attraction of the area. Countries all over the region provide opportunities for wildlife watching, and each has its highlights. Even the smaller countries such as Swaziland have magnificent wildlife viewing, which can offer great alternatives to better-known parks, but for sheer variety and numbers South Africa and Botswana top the list.
The best times of day for wildlife viewing are early in the morning and in the late afternoon or evening, when many animals are looking for their next meal. Planting yourself at a water hole at these times can be very rewarding. Night safaris provide wonderful wildlife-viewing opportunities, especially to see many nocturnal animals such as genets and bush babies (look in the trees, not just on the ground).
Happily, Southern African parks are some of the best managed in Africa, and the development of the massive transfrontier parks in the region, which link national parks and wildlife migration routes in different countries, should open up even more opportunities for wildlife viewing.
Nowhere else on the planet is there such a variety and quantity of large mammal species. Southern Africa boasts the world’s largest land mammal (the African elephant), as well as the second largest (white rhino) and the third largest (hippopotamus). It’s also home to the tallest (giraffe), fastest (cheetah) and smallest (pygmy shrew). You stand a great chance of seeing the Big Five – black rhino, Cape buffalo, elephant, leopard and lion – but the region also supports a wonderful array of birds, reptiles, amphibians and even insects (often in less-welcome quantities).
As a result of years of poaching, the black rhino is the highest-profile entry on Southern Africa’s endangered species list, considered to be critically endangered. Other high-profile species considered 'at risk' include elephants, lions, giraffes and African wild dogs.
The riverine rabbit is one of Southern Africa’s most endangered mammals, and the mountain zebra and hippopotamus are thought to be vulnerable in the wider region. Turtles don’t fare well, either, with both the loggerhead and green turtle listed as endangered, while the hawksbill turtle is considered critically endangered.
According to the results of the Great Elephant Census (www.greatelephantcensus.com), published in 2016 and the most comprehensive survey of the continent's elephants ever undertaken, 352,271 African savannah elephants survive in 18 countries. These figures represent a 30% fall in Africa's elephant population over the preceding seven years.
The figures confirmed the worst fears of elephant researchers. Every year since 2010, fuelled by a resurgence in demand for ivory products in Asia, poachers have killed an estimated 35,000 elephants across Africa. That’s around 7% of Africa’s elephant population every year. That’s 673 elephants being killed a week, 96 a day. That’s four elephants being killed for their tusks every hour.
Most worrying of all, a 2014 study found that Africa’s elephants had crossed a critical threshold: poachers now kill more African elephants each year than there are elephants being born.
Good places to see elephants include: Chobe National Park (Botswana), Hwange National Park (Zimbabwe), Kruger National Park (South Africa), Nkhotakota Wildlife Reserve (Malawi), Damaraland, Addo Elephant National Park (South Africa) and Gorongosa National Park (Mozambique).
For more information on the battle to save Africa's elephants, contact Save the Elephants (www.savetheelephants.org).
Three Southern African countries were not surveyed as part of the Great Elephant Census: Namibia, Lesotho and Swaziland.
Sadly, Namibia elected not to participate in the landmark 2016 Great Elephant Census (www.greatelephantcensus.com). Government estimates put the country's elephant population at 22,711 elephants, including 13,136 in the country's northeast. Namibia's government also continues to advocate for permission to trade in ivory, claiming that its elephant population is stable and growing.
Namibia is also notable for its population of desert elephants, one of only two such populations in Africa (the other is in Mali). For more information, check out Desert Elephant Conservation (www.desertelephantconservation.org). Estimates range between 100 and 600 surviving desert elephants in the country.
Elsewhere in Southern Africa, the Great Elephant Census found the following:
|Elephant Population Estimate||Trend|
|Botswana||130,451||15% fall since 2010|
|Mozambique||9605||53% fall in five years|
|Zambia||21,758||Substantial declines along Zambezi River; stable elsewhere|
|Zimbabwe||82,304||6% fall in population but situation varied across country|
In 2016, Africa's white rhino population estimates stood at between 19,682 and 21,077. With approximately 18,000 white rhinos, South Africa is home to an estimated 90% of the world's population. White rhinos are also present in much smaller populations in Namibia, Botswana, Zimbabwe and Swaziland.
The black rhino is present in Southern Africa in Botswana, Malawi, Mozambique, Namibia, South Africa, Swaziland, Zambia and Zimbabwe, but it very nearly didn't make it. Poaching nearly wiped out the species, reducing the population from 65,000 in 1970, to barely 2300 in 1993. As of 2016, Africa's black rhino population had recovered to between 5042 and 5455 animals.
But these figures only tell half the story. In 2003, 22 rhinos were poached in South Africa; in 2015, a staggering 1175 rhinos were poached in South Africa, among 1338 across Africa. Elsewhere in Southern Africa, the numbers are smaller but the trends no less worrying: Namibia lost 80 rhinos in 2015 (a threefold increase from the year before) while poachers killed at least 50 rhinos in Zimbabwe, which was twice the figure from 2014.
The epicentre of the crisis is Kruger National Park in South Africa: in 2014, 827 rhinos were poached from the park. Kruger is officially part of the Great Limpopo Transfrontier Park, which combines Kruger with Limpopo in Mozambique. Many poachers come from Mozambique through the long, porous border between the two parks. In Mozambique, Limpopo’s under-resourced and under-capacity antipoaching unit does battle with poaching syndicates that have unlimited resources.
Overwhelmed by the challenge of monitoring the park’s huge and largely unattended border with Mozambique, the South African government is embarking upon a massive relocation program. It has moved at least 500 rhinos to safer areas within Kruger and other parks in South Africa and neighbouring countries.
For more information on the ongoing battle to save the African rhino from extinction, check out www.savetherhino.org and www.stoprhinopoaching.com.
Scientists such as the peak cat conservation body Panthera (www.panthera.org) estimate that fewer than 20,000 lions remain in Africa (there is a tiny, highly inbred population of Asian lions in the Gir Forest in Gujarat state in India). While that may seem like a lot, the IUCN classifies the lion as Vulnerable, not least because many lions live in small, fragmented and isolated populations that may not be sustainable beyond the short term.
Only six lion populations in Africa – Botswana's Okavango Delta and the broader ecosystem to which it belongs in Namibia, Zambia and Zimbabwe is one of these – are sufficiently protected to hold at least 1000 lions, the conservation gold standard that Panthera applies for guaranteeing the long-term survival of the species.
Like lions elsewhere, lions in Southern Africa are facing threats from poisoning, either in retaliation for killing livestock or encroaching onto farming lands, bushmeat poaching and habitat loss.
Namibia is home to the desert lion along the Skeleton Coast and hinterland; estimates stand at between 180 and 200. They were stars of the show in the recent National Geographic film Vanishing Kings: Lions of the Namib. The Desert Lion Conservation Foundation (www.desertlion.org) is the place to go for more information.
The best places to see lions are: Chobe National Park (Botswana), Moremi Game Reserve (Botswana), Etosha National Park (Namibia), Kruger National Park (South Africa), Central Kalahari Game Reserve (Botswana), Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park (Botswana), Kafue National Park (Zambia) and Hwange National Park (Zimbabwe).
African Wild Dogs
The beautiful African wild dog (also known as the Cape hunting dog) is listed as Endangered by the IUCN. Where once half a million wild dogs are thought to have ranged throughout 39 African countries, today only an estimated 6600 remain in the wild in just 14 countries.
Southern Africa is considered the last stronghold of the species, with populations thought to survive in northern Botswana, western Zimbabwe, eastern and northeastern Namibia, western Zambia, and possibly northern Mozambique, South Africa and Malawi.
African wild dogs live in packs of up to 28 animals, which may account for the fact that they have one of the highest hunting success rates (as high as 70%) of all carnivores – that and their maximum speed of 66km/h. Their preferred prey includes impala, red lechwe, wildebeest, steenbok and warthog.
One of the most worrying developments in recent years has been the downgrading of the giraffe's protection status by the IUCN from Least Concern in 2010 to Vulnerable in 2016. The world's tallest land mammal remains widespread across Southern and East Africa, but a precipitous 40% decline (from an estimated 151,702 to 163,452 individuals in 1985, to 97,562 in 2015) has brought the species' fate into sharp focus.
The main threats to the giraffe are illegal hunting, habitat loss, increasing human-wildlife conflict, civil conflict and encroaching human settlements.
You'll see giraffes across the region – Lesotho is the only country in Southern Africa without giraffes.
At the end of 2016, a scientific study confirmed what many conservationists in the field had long feared – the cheetah is in trouble. The latest estimates suggest that just 7100 cheetahs remain in the wild, all of which live in Africa save for an isolated population of around 50 in the deserts and mountains of central Iran.
Between two-thirds and half of Africa's surviving cheetahs live in Southern Africa, which effectively remains the cheetah's last stronghold. Namibia has the world's largest population, but even there cheetahs live at low densities, and shrinking habitats and human encroachment on former wilderness areas have resulted in increasing conflict between cheetahs and farmers; more than three-quarters of Africa's wild cheetahs live outside protected areas.
Elsewhere in the region, in Zimbabwe, the cheetah population has crashed from 1200 to just 170 animals in just 16 years.
Other problems include the smuggling of cheetah cubs out of the continent for sale as pets – baby cheetahs sell for as much as US$10,000 on the black market – with more than 1200 trafficked off the continent over the past decade, 85% of which died in transit.
Organisations such as the Cheetah Conservation Fund (CCF; www.cheetah.org) and AfriCat (www.africat.org) are at the forefront of efforts to mitigate this conflict and are worth contacting to find out more.
Southern Africa is a fabulous destination for birders, and for sheer abundance and variety, few parts of the world offer as much for the birdwatcher, whether expert or beginner.
Southern Africa is host to nearly 10% of the world’s bird species – more than 900 species have been recorded in the region. More than 130 are endemic to Southern Africa or are near-endemic, being found also only in adjoining territories to the north.
Highlights in the region include the world’s largest bird (the ostrich) and heaviest flying bird (the kori bustard). Also in abundance are weavers, which share their huge city-like nests (often attached to telephone poles) with pygmy falcons, the world’s smallest raptors. Also keep an eye out for majestic birds of prey such as the African fish eagle, bateleur (a serpent eagle), martial eagle, red-necked falcon and chanting goshawk, as well as secretary birds, rollers, vividly coloured bee-eaters, sunbirds and rainbow-flecked kingfishers.
Where to Go Birding
All the region's national parks and reserves are home to a great range of birdlife, but there are some areas that birders prize above all others. Mozambique, for example, has more than half of all bird species identified in southern Africa.
- Botswana: Okavango Panhandle, Chobe Riverfront, Nata Bird Sanctuary, Central Kalahari Game Reserve
- Lesotho: Ts'ehlanyane National Park
- Malawi: Liwonde National Park, Nyika National Park, Vwaza Marsh Wildlife Reserve
- Mozambique: Bazaruto Archipelago, Gorongosa National Park, Lake Niassa, Maputo Special Reserve
- Namibia: Nkasa Rupara National Park, Bwabwata National Park, Walvis Bay, Etosha National Park
- South Africa: Kruger National Park, Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park, Hluhluwe-iMfolozi Park, Madikwe Game Reserve
- Swaziland: Mkhaya Game Reserve, Hlane Royal National Park, Mbuluzi Game Reserve
- Zambia: Kafue National Park, South Luangwa National Park, Bangweulu Wetlands, Kasanka National Park
- Zimbabwe: Mana Pools National Park, Hwange National Park
When to Go Birding
Birdwatching is excellent year-round across the region, but November is when migratory species begin arriving and they usually remain until March or April. The only problem with this is that these months coincide with the rainy season in many areas, which can make getting around difficult.
Birding Field Guides
- Sasol Birds of Southern Africa (Ian Sinclair et al; 4th ed, 2011) Many birders' pick as the best field guide to the region’s birds.
- Newman's Birds of Southern Africa (Kenneth Newman, 2011) Another excellent birding guide with a devoted following among birders.
Southern Africa’s most notable reptile is the Nile crocodile. Once abundant in lakes and rivers across the region, its numbers have been greatly reduced by hunting and habitat destruction. Female crocs lay up to 80 eggs at a time, depositing them in sandy areas above the high-water line. After three months’ incubation in the hot sand, the young emerge. Many live up to 70 years.
Southern Africa has a complement of both venomous and harmless snakes, but most of them fear humans and you’ll be lucky to even see one. The largest snake – generally harmless to humans – is the python, which grows to more than 5m in length. The puff adder is one of the deadliest and most widespread snakes on the African continent. It inhabits mainly mountain and desert areas, and grows to about 1m long. It's very slow but highly aggressive. Stepping on one, resulting in being bitten, would potentially mean death. The bite of a puff adder is usually a long, slow breakdown of the body if you have no medical attention and is hard to reverse.
Seriously dangerous snakes include the fat and lazy gaboon viper; the black mamba; the boomslang, which lives in trees; the spitting cobra, which needs no introduction; and the zebra snake, which is one of the world’s most aggressive serpentine sorts. If you’re tramping in snake country, be sure to watch your step.
Lizards are ubiquitous from the hot and dusty Kaokoveld in Namibia to the cool highlands of the Nyika Plateau in Malawi, and from the bathroom ceiling to the kitchen sink. The largest of these is the water monitor, a docile creature that reaches more than 2m in length and is often seen lying around water holes, perhaps dreaming of being a crocodile. Two others frequently seen are chameleons and geckos – the latter often in hotel rooms; they are quite harmless and help to control the bug population.
Reptile Field Guides
- Field Guide to the Snakes and Other Reptiles of Southern Africa (Bill Branch; 1998) The original guide to Southern Africa's reptiles, if a little dated.
- A Complete Guide to Snakes of Southern Africa (Johan Marais; 2005) An excellent guide to the region's snakes.
The following rundown of major vegetation zones (arranged roughly south to north, and from the coasts to the inland areas) is greatly simplified, but provides a useful overview.
Southern Africa’s distinctive fynbos (literally ‘fine bush’; primarily proteas, heaths and ericas) zone occurs around the Cape Peninsula and along the south coast of South Africa, interspersed with pockets of temperate forest, where you’ll find trees such as the large yellowwood, with its characteristic ‘peeling’ bark.
The west coast of Southern Africa consists largely of desert, which receives less than 100mm of precipitation per year. Vegetation consists of tough grasses, shrubs and euphorbias, plus local specialities, including the bizarre welwitschia (a miniature conifer) and kokerboom (a type of aloe).
Along the east coast of Southern Africa, the natural vegetation is coastal bush, a mixture of light woodland and dune forest; high rainfall has also created pockets of subtropical forest.
In South Africa’s Karoo, typical vegetation includes grasses, bushes and succulents that bloom colourfully after the rains. Much original Karoo vegetation has been destroyed since the introduction of grazing animals and alien plants.
To the east lie the temperate grasslands of the high-veld and to the north, a vast arid savannah, characterised by acacia scrub, which takes in most of central Namibia, much of Botswana and the northern parts of South Africa.
To the north and east is the woodland savannah, consisting of mainly broadleaf deciduous trees. Dry woodland, dominated by mopane trees, covers northern Namibia, northern Botswana, the Zimbabwean low-veld and the Zambezi Valley. In wetter areas – central Zimbabwe, northern Mozambique and most of Zambia and Malawi – the dominant vegetation is moist woodland, or miombo. A mix of the two, which occurs in northeastern South Africa and central Mozambique, is known as mixed woodland, or 'bush-veld'.
Small pockets of high ground all over the region have a vegetation zone termed afro-montane, which occurs in highland areas where open grasslands are interspersed with heathland and isolated forests.
Southern Africa’s incredible floral and faunal diversity has inspired a large number of field guides for visitors and wildlife enthusiasts. In the UK, an excellent source for wildlife and nature titles is Subbuteo Natural History Books Ltd (www.wildlifebooks.com), while in Australia, check out Andrew Isles Natural History Books (www.andrewisles.com); both accept international mail orders.
Field guides, apart from being damned interesting to read, can be invaluable tools for identifying animals while on safari. Our favourites:
- A Field Guide to the Carnivores of the World (Luke Hunter, 2011) Wonderfully illustrated and filled with fascinating detail.
- The Kingdon Field Guide to African Mammals (Jonathan Kingdon, 2nd ed, 2015) The latest edition of the classic field guide covering over 1150 species.
- The Behavior Guide to African Mammals (Richard Despard Estes, 1991) Classic study of the behaviour of mammal species. Estes' follow-up The Safari Companion: A Guide to Watching African Mammals (1993) is an excellent, slightly more accessible alternative.
- Field Guide to the Mammals of Southern Africa (Chris and Mathilde Stuart, 2015) One of the better mammal field guides. Pick up also its companion Field Guide to Tracks and Signs of Southern, Central and East African Wildlife (2015).
- Sasol Birds of Southern Africa (Ian Sinclair et al, 4th ed, 2011) Many birders' pick as the best field guide to the region’s birds.
- Newman's Birds of Southern Africa (Kenneth Newman, 2011) Another excellent birding guide with a devoted following among birders.
- A Complete Guide to Snakes of Southern Africa (Johan Marais, 2005) An excellent guide to the region's snakes.
The environmental issues facing Southern Africa are legion, not least among them the risk of desertification, poaching and the rights and wrongs of commercial or trophy hunting. It is not that Southern Africa is uniquely affected by these issues – they are issues for governments and peoples across the continent. Rather, it is here, in a region where wildlife and wilderness areas survive in numbers rarely seen elsewhere, that there may just be a whole lot more to lose.
Desertification is caused in part by overgrazing in a region where cattle very often outnumber people. It can result in soil erosion, declining groundwater reserves, reduced soil fertility and deforestation. The related issue of water scarcity is another massive concern, both in terms of the region's agricultural output and in the provision of drinking water to a growing population.
The Hunting Debate
Commercial or trophy hunting in Africa has, until recently, largely operated beneath international attention. That all changed in 2015 when a Minnesota dentist, Walter Palmer, shot with a crossbow a much-loved male lion, Cecil, when it strayed outside Hwange National Park in Zimbabwe. The episode cast an uncomfortable spotlight on the industry and brought to the fore one of the most contentious issues in African conservation. Botswana was held up as a shining example of the way forward, thanks to its ban on commercial or trophy hunting in 2014. Namibia, Mozambique, South Africa, Zambia and Zimbabwe all have active hunting industries.
While abhorrent to many conservationists, controlled hunting can, many conservation groups recognise, play an important role in preserving species. According to this argument, tourism revenues (whether national park fees or lodge revenues) have too often failed to reach local communities, reinforcing a perception that wildlife belongs to the government, with little benefit for ordinary people forced to live with wildlife that can kill their livestock or trample their crops. Hunting on private concessions, however, generally attracts massive fees (lion licences in Southern Africa can sell for US$20,000), of which, the theory goes, a significant proportion is fed back into local community projects, thereby giving wildlife a tangible economic value for local people.
Hunting, the argument continues, also makes productive use of land that is considered unsuitable for photographic tourism, either because of its remoteness or lack of tourism infrastructure. If controlled strictly – through the use of quotas and killing only a limited number of solitary male lions who are past their prime, for example – hunting can, according to its proponents, play a part in saving species from extinction.
Opponents of hunting argue that the whole debate is premised on the failure of governments and private operators to fairly redistribute their revenues from nonlethal forms of tourism – why, they ask, should we expect that hunting be any different? They also argue that the solution lies in a fairer distribution of tourism revenues and greater community involvement in conservation rather than in killing the very animals upon which tourism depends. And finally, some critics point to the double standards of arresting and imprisoning locals who hunt wildlife (whether for commercial or subsistence reasons), while permitting rich (and usually white) hunters to shoot animals during short visits to the continent.
In early 2014 Namibia’s Ministry of Environment and Tourism caused worldwide controversy when it auctioned off a hunting license for a black rhino, a critically endangered species, with a promise that the revenues raised would be channelled back into rhino conservation and antipoaching measures. The winning bidder paid US$350,000 to hunt the animal, although the government claimed that critics of its policy caused an earlier bid of US$1 million to be withdrawn due to negative publicity, thereby costing US$650,000 that could have been used to protect black rhinos. The government also argued that the rhino in question, an older and aggressive bull male, was past breeding age and was considered a serious threat to other rhinos.
The debate continues.
Southern Africa is, like the rest of the continent, facing what may amount to a poaching holocaust.
Rhino horn has long been a sought-after commodity in some Asian countries. It is a status symbol and is believed to be a healing agent. By one estimate, rhino horn can sell on the black market in China or Vietnam for US$60,000 per kilo and has been as high as US$100,000. Ivory prices regularly rise above US$2000 per kilo. Both products are now, literally, worth more than their weight in gold.
From the 1970s various factors (especially the value of ivory) led to an increase in elephant poaching in many parts of Africa. The real money was made not by poachers – often villagers who were paid a pittance for the valuable tusks – but by dealers. The number of elephants in Africa went from 1.3 million to 625,000 between 1979 and 1989, and in East Africa and some Southern African countries – notably Zambia – elephant populations were reduced by up to 90% in about 15 years. In other Southern African countries, where parks and reserves were well managed, in particular South Africa, Botswana and Namibia, elephant populations were relatively unaffected.
In 1989, in response to the illegal trade and diminishing numbers of elephants, a world body called the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) banned the import and export of ivory internationally. It also increased funding for antipoaching measures. When the ban was established, world raw ivory prices plummeted by 90%, and the market for poaching and smuggling was radically reduced.
In 2009, everything changed and poachers again began killing elephants (and rhinos) in great numbers. Perhaps tellingly, a year earlier, in 2008, a number of Southern African countries were allowed to sell their ivory stockpiles to China and Japan, thereby reigniting demand that had shown no signs of growth in decades. Whatever the reason, the killing hasn't stopped since.
Governments and park authorities are, of course, fighting back and innovative ways of tracking down poachers are being deployed. These include Shotspotter, a technology usually rolled out in crime-ridden cities in the USA. When a shot is fired, hidden microphones in the bush pick up the sound, triangulate it and feed location information to rangers and police who can respond in real time. But for the moment, the poachers seem to be winning.
Southern Africa has some of the finest national parks in Africa, enclosing within their borders landscapes and wilderness areas of singular beauty and home to an astonishing diversity of mammals, birds, reptiles and more.
The term ‘national park’ is often used in Southern Africa as a catch-all term to include wildlife reserves, forest parks or any government conservation area; there are also several privately owned reserves.
Most parks in Southern Africa conserve habitats and wildlife species and provide recreational facilities for visitors, although park facilities, geography and wildlife-viewing opportunities vary considerably across the region. South African parks are among the best managed in the world, and most of the rest are very good, although Zimbabwean parks have declined, some of Zambia’s parks are still recovering from years of neglect, and those in Mozambique are still being developed, with parks such as Gorongosa in the forefront of developments despite many complications along the way.
In most parks and reserves harbouring large (and potentially dangerous) animals, visitors must travel in vehicles or on an organised safari, but several (notably in Zambia and Zimbabwe) do allow hiking or walking with a ranger or safari guide; in Zimbabwe's Mana Pools National Park, you're even allowed to walk without a guide or armed escort.
Nearly all parks charge an entrance fee, and in almost all cases foreigners pay substantially more than local residents or citizens. This may rankle some visitors – and some parks are seriously overpriced – but the idea is that residents and citizens pay taxes to the governments that support the parks, and therefore are entitled to discounts.
Southern Africa's Best Parks & Reserves
|Park||Country||Features||Activities||Best Time to Visit|
|Central Kalahari Game Reserve||Botswana||Kalahari landscapes, one of world's largest protected areas, desert-adapted wildlife||wildlife viewing, walking, visiting San villages||year-round|
|Chobe National Park||Botswana||grassland, woodland & river, world's largest elephant population||wildlife viewing, birdwatching, fishing||Jun-Oct|
|Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park||Botswana & South Africa||semi-arid grassland & salt pans||wildlife viewing, birdwatching||year-round|
|Makgadikgadi & Nxai Pans National Parks||Botswana||largest saltpans in the world, migratory zebra & wildebeest, flamingos||wildlife viewing, trekking with San, quad biking||Mar-Jul|
|Moremi Game Reserve||Botswana||grassland, flood plains & swamps, huge wildlife density||wildlife viewing, walking, scenic flights||Jun-Oct|
|Sehlabathebe National Park||Lesotho||high mountain country, prolific birdlife||hiking, birdwatching, horse riding||year-round|
|Liwonde National Park||Malawi||marshes, mopane (woodland), elephants, rhinos, hippos, crocodile-filled Shire River||wildlife drives, walking safaris, boat safaris, birdwatching, rhino sanctuary||Jun-Oct, Nov-Jan for birdwatching|
|Majete Wildlife Reserve||Malawi||Miombo (woodland), marshes, elephants, hippos, zebras, buffaloes, lions, rhinos, crocodiles||Wildlife drives, walking safaris, birdwatching, boat safaris||Jun-Oct|
|Nkhotakota Wildlife Reserve||Malawi||Miombo, bush, nyalas, warthogs, buffaloes, elephants, leopards, crocodiles||croc & elephant spotting, birdwatching, kayaking, fishing||Jul-Nov, Dec & Jan for birdwatching|
|Nyika National Park||Malawi||sweeping highland grasslands, antelope, zebras, leopards, hyenas, elephants||hiking, mountain biking, wildlife drives, multiday treks, birdwatching||Sep & Oct for mammals, Oct-Apr for birds|
|Gorongosa National Park||Mozambique||fascinating back story, lions, elephants, prolific birdlife||wildlife safaris, canoeing, walking safaris||Apr-Dec|
|Etosha National Park||Namibia||semi-arid savannah surrounding a saltpan, 114 mammal species||wildlife viewing, birdwatching, night drives||May-Sep|
||Ai-|Ais Richtersveld Transfrontier Park||Namibia & South Africa||Fish River Canyon (Africa’s longest), hot springs, mountainous desert, haunting beauty, klipspringers, jackals, zebras, plants, birds||hiking, 4WD adventures||Apr-Nov|
|Nkasa Rupara National Park||Namibia||mini-Okavango, 430 bird species, canoe trails through park||wildlife viewing, birdwatching, canoe trips||Sep-Apr|
|Namib-Naukluft Park||Namibia||Namibia’s largest protected area, beautiful sand-dune & mountain landscapes, rare Hartmann’s zebras||wildlife viewing, walking||year-round|
|Kruger National Park||South Africa||savannah, woodlands, thornveld, the Big Five||vehicle safaris, wildlife walks||year-round|
|Addo Elephant National Park||South Africa||dense bush, grasslands, forested kloofs, elephants, black rhinos, buffaloes||vehicle safaris, walking trails, horse riding||year-round|
|Hluhluwe-iMfolozi Park||South Africa||lush, subtropical vegetation, savannah, rhinos, giraffes, lions, elephants, birds||wilderness walks, wildlife watching||May-Oct|
|Mkhuze Game Reserve||South Africa||savannah, woodlands, swamp, rhinos & almost everything else, hundreds of bird species||guided walks, bird walks, vehicle safaris||year-round|
|Khahlamba-Drakensberg Park||South Africa||awe-inspiring Drakensberg escarpment, fantastic scenery & wilderness areas||hiking||year-round|
|Mkhaya Game Reserve||Swaziland||rhinos, elephants, birdlife||hiking, wildlife safaris, white-water rafting, caving||year-round|
|Hlane Royal National Park||Swaziland||elephants, big cats, rhinos, birdlife||bush walking, wildlife drives, mountain biking & cultural tours||year-round|
|Kafue National Park||Zambia||miombo woodland, open grasslands, Kafue River, red lechwes, leopards, cheetahs, lions||wildlife drives, birdwatching, fishing||May-Oct|
|Lower Zambezi National Park||Zambia||Zambezi River, sandy flats, mopane woodland, crocs, hippos, elephants, buffaloes, lions||canoeing, boating, birdwatching, wildlife drives||Jun-Sep|
|South Luangwa National Park||Zambia||mopane & miombo woodland, grasslands, Thornicroft’s giraffes, Cookson’s wildebeest, lions, leopards, elephants, pukus||day & night wildlife drives, walking safaris||Apr-Oct|
|Mana Pools National Park||Zimbabwe||hippos, crocs, zebras, elephants, lions, wild dogs, leopards & cheetahs||walking safaris, wildlife safaris||Jun-Oct|
|Hwange National Park||Zimbabwe||400 bird species, 107 mammal species including lions, giraffes, leopards, cheetahs, hyenas, wild dogs & 40,000 elephants||wildlife safaris||Jul-Oct|
Transfrontier Peace Parks
In addition to national parks there are several transfrontier conservation areas at various stages of completion. These mammoth ventures cross national borders and are flagship conservation projects designed to re-establish age-old migration routes.
Malawi and Zambia are setting up the first transfrontier park outside South Africa and secured funding for its establishment in 2012. The area combines the Nyika Plateau on both sides of the border, Malawi’s Vwaza Marsh Wildlife Reserve and Kasungu National Park, with Zambian forest reserves, Musalangu Game Management Area and Lukusuzi National Park.
|Ai-|Ais/Richtersveld Transfrontier Park Africa’s grand Fish River Canyon presents one of the most spectacular scenes on the continent and Namibia’s most popular hiking track.
Great Limpopo Transfrontier Park This spreads nearly 100,000 sq km (larger than Portugal) across the borders of South Africa (Kruger National Park), Mozambique (Limpopo National Park) and Zimbabwe (Gonarezhou National Park).
Greater Mapungubwe Transfrontier Conservation Area A conservation area in progress straddling the borders of South Africa, Botswana and Zimbabwe.
Kavango-Zambezi Transfrontier Conservation Area A work in progress situated around the border convergence of Angola, Botswana, Namibia, Zambia and Zimbabwe, and set to become the world’s biggest conservation area, taking in the Caprivi Strip in Namibia, Chobe National Park and the Okavango Delta in Botswana, and Victoria Falls in Zambia.
Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park This park combines Northern Cape’s old Kalahari Gemsbok National Park (South Africa) with Botswana’s Gemsbok National Park.
Maloti-Drakensberg Transfrontier Project A project that protects the natural and cultural heritage of the Maloti-Drakensberg Mountains in South Africa and Lesotho.
Feature: Close Encounters of the Wild Kind
Although you’ll hear plenty of horror stories, the threat of attack by wild animals in Africa is largely exaggerated and problems are extremely rare. That said, it is important to remember that most African animals are wild and that wherever you go on safari, particularly on foot, there is always an element of danger.
On organised safaris you should always get advice from your guide. If you're on a self-drive safari, ask authorities of the park you are entering. Some of the advice you will receive – such as not getting between a hippo and its water; and that black rhinos are skittish, as are lone animals such as male elephants and buffaloes – holds true across the region, and you will pick it up easily enough. And a good rule of thumb is, if you're not sure, just don't get too close.
Wildlife viewing requires a bit of common sense, and by following a few simple guidelines you’re sure to have a trouble-free experience. Remember that viewing wildlife in its natural habitat may present dangers not found in a zoo, but it’s a large part of what makes a visit to Southern Africa so special, and is incomparable to seeing an animal in a cage.
Feature: Introduced Plant Species
Introduced plant species present a real threat to Southern African ecosystems. For example, Australian wattle trees and Mexican mesquite flourish by sinking their roots deeper into the soil than indigenous trees, causing the latter to suffer from lack of nourishment. The Australian hakea shrub was introduced to serve as a hedge, and is now rampant, displacing native trees and killing off smaller plants. Areas such as South Africa’s unique Cape fynbos floral kingdom are threatened by Australian acacias, which were introduced for their timber products and to stabilise sand dunes.
Feature: National Park Accommodation
Most parks and reserves contain accommodation, so you can stay overnight and take wildlife drives in the early morning and evening. Accommodation ranges from simple campsites to luxury lodges run by companies that have concessions inside the parks. Prices vary to match the quality of facilities. In some countries you can just turn up and find a place to camp or stay; in other countries reservations are advised (or are essential at busy times).
Feature: African Parks
When it comes to rebuilding some of Africa's most vulnerable national parks, nonprofit African Parks (www.african-parks.org) has done an outstanding job. Together with local governments, it takes over the long-term management of national parks and protected areas, focusing on saving wildlife, restoring landscapes and building sustainable futures for local communities.
In Southern Africa, African Parks is responsible for five parks: Bangweulu Wetlands and Liuwa Plain National Park in Zambia; and Liwonde National Park, Majete Wildlife Reserve and Nkhotakota Wildlife Reserve in Malawi. In some of these areas its work has been nothing short of miraculous.
In Malawi, for example, it has successfully translocated 261 elephants, more than 800 zebras, two collared black rhinos and various antelope species from Liwonde to Nkhotakota, with a further 250 elephants to follow from Majete. See www.500elephants.org for more info on this extraordinary project.
Out in Zambia's remote west, African Parks has helped Liuwa Plain turn the corner by working closely with the local Barotse people (many of whom live within the park's boundaries) and restoring the local lion population.
As part of its brief, African Parks takes over parks, usually for a minimum 20-year period, maintains its own antipoaching force, helps to build up the infrastructure for each of the parks under its control, and seeks to ensure future financial and environmental sustainability into the future. Its funding comes from a range of sources, including governments, philanthropists, conservation organisations and ordinary donors.
Beyond Southern Africa, African Parks also counts Rwanda's Akagera National Park within its portfolio, while its remaining four parks inhabit war zones or areas where government or any other control is minimal: Zakouma National Park (Chad), Garamba National Park (Democratic Republic of Congo), Parc National d'Odzala (Republic of Congo) and Chinka (Central African Republic).
Sidebar: Rhino Lips
Rhinos aren’t named for their colour, but for their lip shape: ‘white’ comes from wijde (wide) – the Boers’ term for the fatter-lipped white rhino.
Sidebar: The Cost of Ivory
The lure of riches to be made from ivory is staggering. By the late 1980s the price of 1kg of ivory (US$300) was three times the annual income of more than 60% of Africa’s population.
Sidebar: Mozambique's Elephants
The Great Elephant Census in 2016 found 3.2 elephant carcasses for every 10 live elephants spotted in Mozambique, the highest survival rate of any country surveyed. In Zambia's Sioma Ngwezi National Park, the figure was 8.5. per 10 live elephants.
Sidebar: Animal Welfare
For information on campaigns to save elephants, and the fight against the illegal international trade in wildlife, visit the website of the International Fund for Animal Welfare (www.ifaw.org).
Sidebar: Trees of Southern Africa
Trees of Southern Africa, by Keith Coates Palgrave, provides the most thorough coverage of the subcontinent’s arboreal richness, illustrated with colour photos and paintings.
Sidebar: Alien Plant Species
There are more than 700 alien plant species in the region, and about 10% of these are classed as invasive aliens – that is, they thrive to the detriment of endemic species.
Sidebar: Transfrontier Parks
See www.peaceparks.org for all the latest news on the transfrontier parks in the region, including progress reports and maps of all the parks.
Sidebar: Earthlife Africa
Earthlife Africa (www.earthlife.org.za) is an active environmental group operating in South Africa and Namibia. It’s a good contact for anyone wanting to get involved in environmental work.
Sidebar: The Little Five
The longer you spend in Southern Africa, the more you’ll appreciate the subtleties of the region, including the delight of spotting some of the less-famous species. If you’re up for a challenge, the lesser-known Little Five are the rhinoceros beetle, buffalo weaver, elephant shrew, leopard tortoise and ant lion.
Sidebar: IUCN Redlist
The status of the world's species is determined by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN), which oversees the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species (www.iucnredlist.org). Each species is assessed according to a set of rigorous scientific criteria and classified as Least Concern, Near Threatened, Vulnerable, Endangered, Critically Endangered, Extinct in the Wild or Extinct.