Cancer is projected to become a leading cause of morbidity and mortality in low-income and middle-income countries in the future. However, cancer incidence in South Africa is largely under-reported because of a lack of nationwide cancer surveillance networks. We describe present cancer surveillance activities in South Africa, and use the International Agency for Research on Cancer framework to propose the development of four population-based cancer registries in South Africa. These registries will represent the ethnic and geographical diversity of the country. We also provide an update on a cancer surveillance pilot programme in the Ekurhuleni Metropolitan District, and the successes and challenges in the implementation of the IARC framework in a local context. We examine the development of a comprehensive cancer surveillance system in a middle-income country, which might serve to assist other countries in establishing population-based cancer registries in a resource-constrained environment.