Information on cause of death is essential for rational public health planning, yet mortality data in South Africa is limited. In the Agincourt subdistrict, verbal autopsies (VA) have been used to determine cause of death. A VA is conducted on all deaths recorded during annual demographic and health surveillance. Trained lay fieldworkers interview a close caregiver to elicit signs and symptoms of the terminal illness. Each questionnaire is reviewed by three medical practitioners blind to each other's assessment, who assign a 'probable cause of death' where possible. Of 1001 deaths of adults and children identified between 1992 and 1995, 932 VAs were completed. The profile of deaths reflects a mixed picture: the 'unfinished agenda' of communicable disease and malnutrition (diarrhoea and kwashiorkor predominantly) are responsible for over half of deaths in under-fives, accidents are prominent in the 5-14 age-group, while the 'emerging agenda' of violence and chronic degenerative disease (particularly circulatory disease) is pronounced among the middle-aged and elderly. This profile shows the social and demographic transition to be well underway within a rural, underdeveloped population. Validation of VA findings demonstrate that the cause of death profile derived from VA can be used with confidence for planning purposes. Findings of note include the high death rates from kwashiorkor and violence, emerging AIDS and pulmonary tuberculosis, and circulatory deaths in the middle-aged and young elderly. A deeper understanding of the causal factors underlying these critical health problems is needed to strengthen policy and better target interventions.