BACKGROUND. There are several factors in the healthcare system that may influence a woman’s ability to access appropriate obstetric care. OBJECTIVE. To determine the delays/barriers in providing obstetric care to women who classified as a maternal near-miss. METHODS. This was a descriptive observational study at Steve Biko Academic Hospital, a tertiary referral hospital in Pretoria, South Africa. One hundred maternal near-misses were prospectively identified using the World Health Organization criteria. The ‘three-delays model’ was used to identify the phases of delay in the health system and recorded by the doctor caring for the patient. RESULTS. One or more factors causing a delay in accessing care were identified in 83% of near-miss cases. Phase I and III delays were the most important causes of barriers. Lack of knowledge of the problem (40%) and inadequate antenatal care (37%) were important first-phase delays. Delay in patient admission, referral and treatment (37%) and substandard care (36%) were problems encountered within the health system. The above causes were also the most important factors causing delays for the leading causes of maternal near-misses – obstetric haemorrhage, hypertension/pre-eclampsia, and medical and surgical conditions. CONCLUSIONS. Maternal morbidity and mortality rates may be reduced by educating the community about symptoms and complications related to pregnancy. Training healthcare workers to identify and manage obstetric emergencies is also important. The frequency of antenatal visits should be revised, with additional visits in the third trimester allowing more opportunities for blood pressure to be checked and for identifying hypertension.