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We review the epidemiology of human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) in South Africa where the prevalence of HIV infection is among the highest in the world. The epidemic reached South Africa relatively recently but the prevalence of infection has increased rapidly and there are significant differences among provinces. Although few 15-year-old people are infected the prevalence increases rapidly with age thereafter, especially among women. The prevalence of herpes simplex virus type 2 exceeds that of HIV and curable sexually transmitted infections are common. 'Circular migration' may help to explain the high rates and rapid spread of HIV in the region. The incidence of tuberculosis has increased dramatically as a result of the HIV epidemic. Antiretroviral therapy for the prevention of vertical transmission has been shown to be effective in local conditions but transmission through breast-feeding remains problematical. While some epidemiological models have been developed, much more needs to be done in this regard in order to plan, coordinate and evaluate an effective response to the epidemic. We conclude by discussing some of the research that is needed and steps that could be taken to reduce the continued spread of the infection.