Academic performance at universities in South Africa is a cause of concern. It is widely acknowledged that there are a variety of factors that contribute to poor academic performance, but language is regarded as one of the most important issues in this discussion. In this article, the relationship between language and academic performance at a South African university for the first-year group in 2010 (n = 900) is investigated, taking their performance in their second (2011) and third (2012) year into account. The authors review: (a) the relationships between measures of language ability (matric scores, and scores on university placement tests like the NBT and TALL/TAG); and (b) the relationship between these language measures, performance in courses offered by universities to support students and general academic success indicators to investigate the language issue and academic performance at university. The main findings of the study are: (a) matric average results above 65% are useful to predict academic success at university; matric average results below 65% cannot be used with confidence to predict success at university; (b) language measures (e.g. matric language marks, and scores on academic literacy tests used by some universities) are not good predictors of academic success at university; (c) there are strong positive relationships between the academic literacy components in the NBT and TALL/TAG; and (d) scores achieved in academic literacy modules are good predictors of academic success. The implications of these findings are discussed in the context of strategic decisions that academic managers should consider when they reflect on the language issue and its impact on academic performance at South African universities.