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The Influence of Geography and Historical Development of South Africa

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A clear understanding of the geography of South Africa throws much light on its historical development. For instance, the attraction of the Europeans to the Cape as well as their subsequent settlement there was a response to the geography of South Africa.

For any discussion of South African history to be meaningful, therefore, one should take adequate cognizance of its geography, as it influences the course of its historical development.


South Africa is the Southern part of the African plateau. The area is dominated by the great plateau. South Africa has coastal strips along the west coast. South Africa does not enjoy adequate rainfall because of its geographical factors. The eastern part of South Africa is more mountainous than the western part, and as a result of this, the eastern part enjoys more rainfall than the western part.

The Drakensberg Mountain

The Drakensberg Mountain is responsible for the rainfall in the eastern part and the rain decreases westwards. The dry western part was, therefore, the result of the prevailing rain-bearing South-East Trade Winds having lost most of its moisture contents on the Drakensberg before getting to the western part.

Drakensberg | Mountains, Location, & Facts | Britannica
Drakensberg Mountain. source: Britannica

According to G. Parker and P. Pfukani “The high Drakensberg escarpment acts as a barrier to the South-East Trade Winds, forcing most of their moisture to be precipitated on the east-facing slopes. As the winds blow into the interior they are relatively dry, causing rainfall to decrease westwards”.

The Cold Benguela

The cold Benguela current lowers the temperature of the westward blowing wind, which becomes an off-shore wind on the west coast. The resultant effect is the Kalahari-Namib desert of the west (where the Bushmen and the Hottentots had been driven to).

The Cold Benguela current is also an important cause of the presence of birds whose droppings, the guano, form an important fertilizing product. Also, following the pattern of rainfall, vegetation is most abundant on the eastern coast and it grows sparser towards the western part.


There are many rivers in South Africa. Most of these rivers are to be found in the eastern part. They include the Great Fish River, Limpopo River and Zambezi River. The wet eastern part is very important for the inhabitants, as there are many well-watered areas.

There are also ubiquitous water holes around which populations are concentrated. However, we should bear in mind also that the mountainous nature of the eastern part of South Africa tends to make it less habitable than it should be.

The only important river in the western part is the Orange River, which is a long protracted dry season period that becomes a disjointed collection of pools. The swiftness of the rivers mentioned above and their low volume of water, especially during the long dry season, make navigation on them almost impossible and this fact explains why it was initially extremely difficult for the Europeans to penetrate into the interior of South Africa in particular and Southern Africa in general.

The Cape Colony

The Cape Colony enjoys the Mediterranean type of climate. It has winter rainfall and hot and dry summer. This type of climate, that is, the Mediterranean type favours the cultivation of grapes, wheat, fruits, barley, tobacco and other cereals.

South Africa also has abundant grassland and with an absence of tsetse fly, the rearing of cattle is highly favoured. Most of the soils of Southern Africa, of which South Africa is an integral part, are not really fertile and erosion is conspicuously noticeable in the eastern part.

Settlements of Groups

These geographical factors enumerated above profoundly affected the historical development of the whole of Southern Africa and most especially South Africa. The geography of South Africa encouraged the settlement of the white elements at the Cape. It is also a major factor to explain pastoralism among the Bantu groups of South Africa.

The pattern of settlement of the Bantu groups and their movements in Southern Africa could be explained through geographical factors. It was also in consequence of these geographical factors that Africans were pushed to the less fertile areas (e.g. the Bushmen and the Hottentots were pushed to the Kalahari – Namib Desert) by the white settlers.

Also, geographical factors can best explain why certain occupations like pastoralism, agriculture and mining are done in certain parts of Southern Africa. The expansion of the white settlers into the interior was also necessitated by geographical factors.

Influence of the Movement

According to Arthur Keppel Jones, “The direction of the trekking movement was influenced too by the rainfall ……” In the words of W.M. Macmillan, “But climatic conditions very definitely set limit to the colony’s expansion northwards the Voortrekkers (the word-Voortrekkers, refers to pioneers in the trekking of the Boers into the interior) who venture ….. into the attractive but tropical low veld of the Transvaal ……”.

He said further, “Geographical conditions in the first instance decided the course of South African colonization”. It can, therefore, be concluded that like any other country in any part of the world, the historical development in South Africa as well as the whole of Southern Africa is profoundly influenced by geographical factors.

Written by Prof. V.O. Edo and Dr S.A. Ogunode.

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