PURPOSE : The paper aims to enhance the understanding of the impacts of climate change on rural communities in Africa, including people's livelihoods, their adaptive capacity, coping practice and ability to engage in sustainable forest use and management of climate change adaptation. DESIGN/METHODOLOGY/APPROACH : The paper opted for a desktop review approach, using the forest-sed rural communities of South Africa as a case study. FINDINGS : This review shows that climate variability and change are affecting rural people and their livelihoods negatively. Forest-based livelihoods are particularly vulnerable. Nevertheless, the people have developed coping mechanisms to cushion the effects of climate variability and change. However, the effectiveness and efficiency of these strategies are greatly constrained by factors that are related mostly to their socioeconomic characteristics (for example, skill level, educational status and health) and the functionalities of infrastructures and services in their communities. RESEARCH LIMITATIONS/IMPLICATIONS : Given that the study focused on forest-based rural communities and livelihoods, the results may be limited in generalizability. This may have particular implications for other categories of rural communities and livelihoods in Africa and developing countries in other continents. PRACTICAL IMPLICATIONS : The study showed that opportunities for planning and implementing effective climate change adaptation at rural community level in South Africa are reliant on effective strategies to overcome the constraints identified by the study. The authors thus recommend that climate change adaptation initiatives in rural communities of Africa should focus on improving people's socioeconomic conditions and the overall sustainable development of the community. ORIGINALITY/VALUE : This paper fulfils an identified need to study how climate change affects rural forest-based communities and livelihoods.