The study uses data from eight censuses conducted between 1970 and 2011 to reconstruct long term trends in terminal celibacy in South Africa. The cohort analysis covers those born between 1870 and 1971. Results show a quasi-stable prevalence of terminal celibacy for cohorts born before 1920, followed by a steep rise. Levels and trends were notably different for the four population groups. Black/Africans had the highest level at endpoint (50% celibate), despite lower levels at onset, followed by Coloured (34%). Indian/Asian had the lowest level at endpoint (14%). White/European had highest levels at onset, and intermediate values at endpoint (17%). Differences were large by ethnicity, Zulu and Swazi having the highest prevalence of terminal celibacy (60%). Correlations with development were complex, with higher values among persons with lower education, and those living in urban areas, and lower values among those who were employed. Overall, cultural factors dominated the rise in terminal celibacy in South Africa.