South African river floodplains and their alluvial deposits reflect a diversity of geological and geographical drivers. We use a genetic geomorphic classification system originally developed for dryland wetlands to characterise geomorphic processes and potential successions of sedimentary fill for South African floodplains. Using case studies from the literature, we consider differences between alluvial rivers and mixed bedrock-alluvial rivers in the context of macro-scale geomorphic setting, and evaluate the impact of the setting on floodplain persistence and potential as a palaeo-environmental archive. Sedimentary facies associations represented in South African floodplains, including lateral and oblique accretion, channel, channel infill, levee vertical accretion, floodplain vertical accretion and debris flow deposits, are also evaluated.

Floodplains of South Africa’s interior are typically mixed bedrock-alluvial as channel beds are set upon or close to bedrock and sediment thickness is limited. By contrast some floodplains in tectonic basin settings have sediment deposits exceeding 30 m in thickness. The resulting rivers are alluvial, and thus able to adjust their width, depth and slope to accommodate changes in discharge and sediment supply. Similarly, coastal floodplain rivers are alluvial due to downcutting during the last glacial maximum and subsequent sedimentary infilling as sea levels rose.

When considering the potential of floodplains as palaeoarchives of environmental change, two considerations emerge. First, floodplain stratigraphy is not a response to a single variable due to complex process-form feedbacks. Rather, floodplain stratigraphy is an outcome of both autogenic and allogenic processes. Second, most South African floodplains are zones of sediment recycling, and as such, preservation potential is typically low. Thus, although floodplain settings of the interior may be a few million years old, the sediment within them may be only thousands to tens of thousands of years old. Our review indicates that research has historically focused on meandering river and mixed bedrock-alluvial anabranching river floodplains, while understanding of other floodplain sub-types remains limited.

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