This paper examines the history and impact of the rapidly expanding social protection system in South Africa. We document the dominance of cash transfer-based assistance programmes compared to social insurance. There is a clear racial pattern of social protection coverage, with Africans benefitting largely from social assistance and whites being disproportionately covered by social insurance. We also find that the expanded social assistance has a substantial impact on poverty and nutrition, with little evidence of adverse labour market effects. The programme appears to be affordable and, in the South African context, administratively feasible. We discuss potential economic and political incentive problems with the co-existence of social assistance and social insurance and, finally, the implications for the design of social protection programmes in other sub-Saharan African countries.