While much descriptive research has documented positive associations between social capital and a range of economic, social and health outcomes, there have been few intervention studies to assess whether social capital can be intentionally generated. We conducted an intervention in rural South Africa that combined group-based microfinance with participatory gender and HIV training in an attempt to catalyze changes in solidarity, reciprocity and social group membership as a means to reduce women's vulnerability to intimate partner violence and HIV. A cluster randomized trial was used to assess intervention effects among eight study villages. In this paper, we examined effects on structural and cognitive social capital among 845 participants and age and wealth matched women from households in comparison villages. This was supported by a diverse portfolio of qualitative research. After two years, adjusted effect estimates indicated higher levels of structural and cognitive social capital in the intervention group than the comparison group, although confidence intervals were wide. Qualitative research illustrated the ways in which economic and social gains enhanced participation in social groups, and the positive and negative dynamics that emerged within the program. There were numerous instances where individuals and village loan centres worked to address community concerns, both working through existing social networks, and through the establishment of new partnerships with local leadership structures, police, the health sector and NGOs. This is among the first experimental trials suggesting that social capital can be exogenously strengthened. The implications for community interventions in public health are further explored.