The clinical utility of antigen-specific interferon (IFN)-gamma release assays (IGRAs) using pleural mononuclear cells, for the diagnosis of tuberculosis (TB), requires clarification. We compared the diagnostic utility of unstimulated pleural IFN-gamma levels with several pleural antigen-specific T-cell IGRAs (early secretory antigenic target-6 and culture filtrate protein-10 (T-SPOT.(R)TB, QuantiFERON(R)-TB Gold In-tube), purified protein derivative (PPD) and heparin-binding haemagglutinin (HBHA)) in 78 South African TB suspects. Test results were compared against a clinical score and a reference standard. Out of 74 evaluable subjects 48, seven and 19 had definite, probable and no TB, respectively. 11 (15%) out of 74 pleural samples (nine (19%) out of 48 of the definite TB cases) had total cell counts that were inadequate for T-cell processing. In the remaining 63 samples, the sensitivity, specificity, positive predictive value and negative predictive value of different diagnostic methods were as follows. Maximal bioclinical score: 54, 89, 92 and 43%, respectively; T-SPOT.(R)TB: 86, 60, 84 and 64%, respectively; QuantiFERON(R)-TB Gold In-tube: 57, 80, 87 and 44%, respectively; HBHA-specific IGRA: 59, 31, 64 and 27%, respectively; PPD-specific IGRA: 81, 40, 76 and 46%, respectively; and pleural fluid unstimulated IFN-gamma: 97, 100, 100 and 94%, respectively. Unstimulated IFN-gamma was the most accurate test for distinguishing TB from non-TB effusions in a high-burden setting. The antigen-specific T-cell IGRAs were limited by suboptimal accuracy and the inability to isolate sufficient mononuclear cells to perform the assay.