South Africa has not been spared in the rampant global increase in obesity. Throughout Africa, as elsewhere, ethnicity has a major impact on the incidence and pathogenesis of comorbid diseases, particularly diabetes. Combined figures for obesity and overweight (body mass index [BMI] > 25 kg m(-2)) obtained across all ethnic groups in the adult population in 1998, were 57% for women and 29% for men. From the 1960s until the late 1980s, the notion of 'healthy' or 'benign' obesity was propagated in South Africa. Not surprisingly, this led to ignorance around the problem of obesity, and treatment of some of the comorbid diseases was neglected. Fortunately, as an increasing number of seminal studies draw us closer to reality, the misperception of benign obesity is being corrected. This is allowing us to address the real issues underlying the current epidemic, and to recognize and manage the comorbid diseases, in particular type 2 diabetes. A new framework for research is also emerging as we begin to define the factors underlying the impact of ethnicity on obesity.