The external causes of death in South African adolescents are described. Nationally registered mortality data for 1984-1986 were used to calculate proportional mortality. Mortality rates were also calculated, except in the case of black deaths, since these deaths are known to be under-registered and the estimated population figures are known to be inaccurate. Of the 16,348 adolescent deaths registered in 1984-1986, external causes accounted for 56.8% and symptoms, signs and ill-defined conditions for 10.0%. A greater proportion of girls died from symptoms, signs and ill-defined conditions whereas a greater proportion of boys died from external causes. A larger proportion of black adolescent deaths were categorised as symptoms, signs and ill-defined conditions. The risk of death by external cause for coloureds aged 15-19 years was 1.7 that of whites, while in the 10-14 year age group it was the same as that of whites. In the 15-19-year age group assault was the most common external cause of death in blacks and coloureds, compared with road accidents for whites. The highest number of deaths by external cause per day occurred over the Christmas period. The analysis indicated that mortality rates in South African adolescents are high and that many deaths may be the result of risk-taking behaviour. With the increasing urbanisation of blacks, the impact of external causes of death can be expected to increase further.