Background: Emergency contraception (EC) is widely available free of charge at public sector clinics in South Africa. At the same time, rates of teenage and unintended pregnancy in South Africa remain high, and there are few data on knowledge of EC in the general population in South Africa, as in other resource-limited settings. Methods: We conducted a cross-sectional, interviewer-administered survey among 831 sexually active women at 26 randomly selected public sector clinics in the Western Cape province. Results: Overall, 30% of the women had ever heard of EC when asked directly, after the method was described to them. Only 15% mentioned EC by name or description spontaneously. Knowledge of EC was independently associated with higher education, being married, and living in an urban setting. Four percent of women had ever used EC. Discussion: These data suggest that knowledge of EC in this setting is more common among women of higher socioeconomic status living in urban areas. For EC to play a role in decreasing unintended pregnancy in South Africa, specific interventions are necessary to increase knowledge of the method, where to get it, and the appropriate time interval for its use before the need for EC arises. Future health promotion campaigns should target rural and low socioeconomic status communities. © 2007 Myer et al; licensee BioMed Central Ltd.