With the increasing frequency, magnitude and impact of disasters, there is growing focus on contingency planning as a tool for enhancing resilience. Yet, there is little empirical evidence that reflects on the practice of contingency planning systems within the context of disaster risk reduction. This article explores the practice of contingency planning in southern Africa, focussing on Malawi, Mozambique, Namibia, Zambia and Zimbabwe. A qualitative comparative analysis informed by fieldwork was used. The findings show that (1) there was a wide gap between theory and practice in contingency planning, (2) response activities rarely reflected projected scenarios and (3) resources were inadequate for effective contingency planning. We conclude that unless these issues are addressed, contingency planning is likely o remain a theoretical rather than a practical tool for building disaster-resilient communities in southern African countries. Although a generalisation cannot be made on the status of contingency planning and practice in southern Africa without a wider analysis of more examples, the findings may apply beyond the examined contexts and also offer insights into research gaps.