The cyprinid genus Barbus, with more than 800 nominal species, is an apparently polyphyletic assemblage to which a number of unrelated species, groups and/or assemblages have been assigned. It includes species that exhibit three different ploidy levels: diploid, tetraploid and hexaploid. Several lineages of the family Cyprinidae constitute a major component of the African freshwater ichthyofauna, having about 500 species, and fishes assigned to the genus 'Barbus' have the most species on the continent. We used complete sequences of the mitochondrial cytochrome b gene in order to infer phylogenetic relationships between diploid, tetraploid and hexaploid species of 'Barbus' occurring in southern Africa, the only region where representatives of all of the three ploidy levels occur. The results indicate that most of the lineages are incorrectly classified in the genus 'Barbus'. The southern African tetraploids probably originated from southern African diploids. They constitute a monophyletic group distinct from tetraploids occurring in the Euro-Mediterranean region (Barbus sensu stricto). The 'small' African diploid species seem to be paraphyletic, while the 'large' African hexaploid barbs species are of a single, recent origin and form a monophyletic group. The evidence of multiple, independent origins of polyploidy occurring in the African cyprinine cyprinids thus provides a significant contribution to the knowledge on the systematic diversity of these fishes, and warrants a thorough taxonomic reorganization of the genus.