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Abstract. This paper investigates the role of heterogeneity and speciation/extinction history in explaining variation in regional scale (c. 0.1–3000 km2) plant diversity in the Cape Floristic Region of south-western Africa, a species- and endemic-rich biogeographical region. We used species-area analysis and analysis of covariance to investigate geographical (east vs. west) and topographic (lowland vs. montane) patterns of diversity. We used community diversity as a surrogate for biological heterogeneity, and the diversity of naturally rare species in quarter degree squares as an indicator of differences in speciation/extinction histories across the study region. We then used standard statistical methods to analyse geographical and topographic patterns of these two measures. There was a clear geographical diversity pattern (richer in the west), while a topographic pattern (richer in mountains) was evident only in the west. The geographical boundary coincided with a transition from the reliable winter-rainfall zone (west) to the less reliable non-seasonal rainfall zone (east). Community diversity, or biological heterogeneity, showed no significant variation in relation to geography and topography. Diversity patterns of rare species mirrored the diversity pattern for all species. We hypothesize that regional diversity patterns are the product of different speciation and extinction histories, leading to different steady-state diversities. Greater Pleistocene climatic stability in the west would have resulted in higher rates of speciation and lower rates of extinction than in the east, where for the most, Pleistocene climates would not have favoured Cape lineages. A more parsimonious hypothesis is that the more predictable seasonal rainfall of the west would have favoured non-sprouting plants and that this, in turn, resulted in higher speciation and lower extinction rates. Both hypotheses are consistent with the higher incidence of rare species in the west, and higher levels of beta and gamma diversity there, associated with the turnover of species along environmental and geographical gradients, respectively. These rare species do not contribute to community patterns; hence, biological heterogeneity is uniform across the region. The weak topography pattern of diversity in the west arises from higher speciation rates and lower extinction rates in the topographically complex mountains, rather than from the influence of environmental heterogeneity on diversity.