The livelihoods of South Africa’s rural African poor have long been characterized by diverse activities, and intertwined with urban opportunities. This paper examines the interlinked nature of land, employment and rural livelihoods within contemporary South Africa, in order to examine aspects of how the rural poor survive. Drawing on a body of livelihood and poverty-oriented enquiry, several vignettes from South Africa’s former ‘homeland’ communal areas are presented and discussed. Contemporary rural livelihoods are not only located in migratory networks and diverse livelihood activities, they are considered here as constituted in terms of four broad domains. First, they are forged within various land-based and agrarian activities. Second, they are often supported by small-scale, informal economic activities, both farm and non-farm. Third, they are frequently shaped by South Africa’s comparatively well-developed system of state cash transfers and, fourth, they are patterned by culturally inscribed patterns of mutuality and social reciprocity. The complexity and vulnerability that typically characterize rural lives are examined in terms of these four domains, along with constellations of social differentiation with which they are intertwined.