The majority of South Africa's rural population resides in the former homelands. Although cash from urban and government sources is the mainstay of the rural economy in many areas, the multiple and diverse livelihood base of rural households is not widely recognised. This diversity includes the land-based strategies of arable farming, livestock husbandry and consumption and trade in natural resources. This article examines recent and emerging literature from a livelihood perspective in terms of the role and value of each of these three land-based livelihood sectors. We conclude that the contribution of land-based activities to rural livelihoods is important in both financial and social terms, and is probably greater than previously appreciated within the whole gamut of livelihood strategies adopted by rural households, including transfers from formal employment and state pensions. We examine the policy implications of this for land and agrarian reform in South Africa.