A South African national livestock survey was conducted in 2003 as part of an FAO initiative. This article presents the results of the survey in respect to cattle, with an emphasis on beef cattle. The survey was weighted towards the emerging sector where information was scanty and unreliable. Cattle farming appeared to be the major enterprise in this sector with extensive cattle farming accounting for 75% of the systems. The head of the households were mainly male and more than 60% were older than 50 years. The average cattle herd size for the communal and emerging sectors were 19, whereas it was 413 in the commercial sector. The primary reason for keeping cattle in the communal sector was for meat and cash (47% of use). Keeping cattle for milk accounted for only 10% of use, and draft power for 4%. Non-descript cattle dominate the emerging sector with the Nguni and Brahman breeds also playing a significant role. The presence of large numbers of non-descript and Brahman cattle poses a threat to the indigenous cattle genetic resources of this sector. Indigenous landrace breeds dominate the seed stock industry, and to a lesser extent, the commercial industry, where British and European breeds are utilized for crossbreeding. Mating seasons were practiced in almost 90% of the commercial sector, whereas its utilization in the communal sector was only 2%. In the commercial sector, performance was found to be three times more important than any other trait determining the choice of bull, while size was the most important factor in the communal sector.