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Home » Geographical Thought, Sub-Saharan Africa

Where Is Southern Africa?

Submitted by on September 21, 2011 – 5:35 pm 4 Comments |  
Maps of Indicating Different Definitions of Southern AfricaRecent GeoCurrents posts have focused on Southern Africa. The regional boundaries, however, has not been defined. What exactly, one might ask, does Southern Africa encompass? It obviously includes South Africa, but what other countries, or parts of countries, are slotted into the region? As is often the case with broad geographical designations, the answer remains elusive. Although the initial “s” in “Southern” is usually capitalized, indicating usage as a specific place-name rather than as a vague locational referent, different sources define the region in strikingly different ways. As a result, one can rarely be sure exactly what an author means when he or she discusses “Southern Africa.”

Wikipedia's Map of Three Southern Africas The Wikipedia article on Southern Africa notes that the term is “variably defined,” but goes on to specify three standard definitions, two formal and one informal. The first is that employed by the United Nations in its “geoscheme” of global division, used primarily for organizing statistical information. The U.N.’s “Southern Africa” is of minimal scope, composed only of South Africa, Namibia, Botswana, Lesotho, and Swaziland. (The same five countries also constitute the Southern African Customs Union, regarded as the oldest customs union in the world). The Wikipedia’s second definition follows the membership roll of the Southern African Development Community (SADC), generating a much larger region; this version of Southern Africa, including both Tanzania and the Democratic Republic of the Congo, covers almost the entire southern half of the continent. But as the article notes, DR Congo is more commonly placed in Central Africa while Tanzania is usually classified as part of Eastern Africa. As a result, the article goes on to outline an informal, “geographic” Southern Africa of “general usage.” This region essentially takes in everything south of DR Congo, including all of the islands of the western Indian Ocean (Madagascar, Mauritius, Reunion, Comoros, Mayotte, and Seychelles).

In actuality, “general usage” is much too variable to constitute any precisely defined “Southern Africa.” Many sources exclude the Indian Ocean islands, due both to their insular locations and to their distinctive cultural histories. Others seem to pick and choose countries at will, as revealed by the selection of maps culled from an internet image search for “Southern Africa map.” One view of the region adds Zimbabwe to the UN five, another adds Mozambique, another tacks on Zambia as well as Mozambique and Zimbabwe (while apparently excluding Lesotho and Swaziland), another includes all of these countries as well as Malawi and the British Atlantic territory of St. Helena, another takes in Madagascar and environs as well, another subtracts the islands while incorporating Angola and Tanzania, another extends as far north as Kenya, and yet another encompasses even Uganda. A few map of the region, moreover, deviate from the state-based framework. The Southern Africa of South African bird watchers, for example, includes southern but not northern Mozambique. The most aberrant example that I have found, the “walking safari map of southern Africa, takes in most of Zambia, most of Zimbabwe, part of Botswana, and nothing else.

Directionally defined geographical regions tend toward ambiguity. At the global scale, even so basic a term as “the West” can refer in some contexts to an area no larger than northwestern Europe, yet in others can take in almost half of the world (see the discussion in The Myth of Continents). Similar discrepancies are encountered in regard to the global South, East, and North. Directionally labeled regions defined from a particular vantage point tend to be particularly slippery. The “Middle East,” for example, is in the “middle” of the “the East” as seen from London or Paris; as result, Morocco and Algeria are by definition excluded from the region; due to cultural considerations, however, they often slip in nonetheless. Historical change can also generate spatial slippage; the area that is now called the Middle East is deemed the Near East when it comes to studies of the ancient world, when the core of the West is regarded to have been the Greek and Italian peninsulas. The same deviation can apply to sub-national regions as well; in the United States, the Midwest is not located in the middle of the West, but rather entirely to its east.

Most of the time, such ambiguity is of little account, as it hardly matters exactly what area is referenced when one writes about “Southern Africa” or “the West.” In some circumstances, however, such terms are applied with precision, which can result in confusion if one remains unaware of the fact. Just last month, for example, I received a letter from a prospective graduate student interested in studying Cambodian history through Stanford University’s program in South Asian Studies. I had to inform him that as far as academia is concerned, Cambodia is located not in South Asia but in Southeast Asia, and that Stanford has no program to speak of in Southeast Asian Studies. He did not write back.

Map of UN Geoscheme of Global Division Due to such potential confusion, it might prove beneficial to have a mutually agreed-upon set of such regional designations, at least for scholarly purposes. I would find it useful, for example, to be able to deploy such terms as “Southern Africa” in an exact sense, taking for granted that educated readers would understand what part of the world I am referencing. But no such unambiguous divisional system is available. One might consider using the United Nations’ “geoscheme,” but it is too idiosyncratic to be of much utility, as it expands Eastern Africa beyond recognition, places Iran in “Southern Asia,” classifies Mexico as part of Central America, and so on. The most glaring infelicity in the UN scheme is its inclusion of South Sudan in Northern Africa. By no reasonable criterion does South Sudan belong in this region. To begin with, the new country is located much closer to the center of the continent than to its northern coast. One could even argue, moreover, that its very non-North-African nature led South Sudan to seek and gain independence from the Khartoum regime. One can only hope that the U.N. will reassign South Sudan to Central or Eastern Africa, either of which would be a far more appropriate designation.

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  • http://www.pereltsvaig.com Asya Pereltsvaig

    This is a very interesting post, but the same question applies to many geographical regions. I dealt with the similar problem when I had to decide how to divide the world into large chunks to consider in chapters of my book on languages of the world. Should I go by continents? Geopolitical regions? The UN Geoscheme? I decided to go with geolinguistic regions many of which I defined in a way that is not widely accepted. Luckily Africa wasn’t a big problem, as all of sub-Saharan Africa was squeezed into the same chapter. Asia was much more problematic for me…

    • http://geocurrents.info Martin W. Lewis

      Yes, such problems are unavoidable. For Asian regions, South Asia, East Asia, and Southeast Asia are fairly clearly divided, although Vietnam belongs equally well in East Asia and Southeast Asia. Definitions of Central Asia are much more variable. Scholars sometimes use the term “Southwest Asia,” which overlaps in an unclear manner with the Middle East.

       But it seems that different regions might be needed for linguistic analysis. Where did place Malagasy? In regards to linguistics, Madagascar seems to belong with Insular Southeast Asia and Oceania, not sub-Saharan Africa.   

      • http://www.pereltsvaig.com Asya Pereltsvaig

        You are absolutely right: at first I tried to fit the content of my chapters into the usual geographical designations like South Asia, East Asia, and Southeast Asia, as most other authors of similar books do, but ended up decided against it, as it required a lot of cross-references between chapters and needlessly breaking up the discussion.

        So I placed Malagasy into the Austronesian (South Sea Islands) chapter, with languages of Insular Southeast Asia and Oceania, but I do have a separate section dedicated to it (and I discuss the influence of Bantu languages on Malagasy).

        With other Asian regions, I departed from the usual divisions too. I discuss South Asia as part of the Indo-European realm, stretching from Europe to South Asia; a separate chapter is dedicated to eastern (lower case!) Asia (Chinese, Vietnamese and Thai are all discussed there); there is no chapter on Southeast Asia (Vietnamese and Thai are discussed in the same chapter as Chinese, Austronesian languages in a different chapter); and Southwest Asia is lumped with North Africa and (parts of) Central Asia, where Turkic and Semitic languages are mostly spoken.

        If anything, it provides a different way to divide up the landmasses, but I tried to make the division as consistent as possible.

        • http://geocurrents.info Martin W. Lewis

          Your division makes a lot of sense. What is shows is that different regionalization schemes are needed for different issues. A single, all-purpose system of global division does not seem reachable.