Although almost entirely ignored by South African scholars, studying perceptions of social mobility is profoundly important for understanding South Africa’s changing economic and political environments. This study probes perceptions of social mobility in a single South African city, Cape Town, through twelve in-depth ethnographic interviews with black African residents of Cape Town. This paper differs from other research on perceptions of social mobility by examining how previous experiences of social mobility, instead of current class position, influence these perceptions and future expectations. Most of the interviewees stressed the continuing relationship between race and class: respondents tended to believe that the top of the income distribution is mostly white, while the bottom of the income distribution is entirely black. Despite the widespread perception of the distribution of income in South Africa as racialised, all of the interviewees identified a number of pathways to upward mobility for black people. They disagreed, however, on the accessibility of these pathways. This study found that those who had either experienced some degree of social mobility or those who were born into advantaged backgrounds tended to conceptualise mobility in predominantly individualistic terms and believed that upward mobility was available to those willing to work hard and motivated to take advantage of educational opportunities. In contrast, those from more disadvantaged backgrounds who had not experienced significant mobility, although also recognising the importance of hard work and education for economic success, tended to offer structural explanations for their lack of mobility and faulted their lack of social capital and rampant nepotism in Cape Town for exhausting the few available opportunities.