The South African policy sphere hails the commercialisation of small-scale farming as the answer to a myriad of socio-economic, ecological and political challenges of rural livelihoods. Yet the low agricultural productivity of this sector challenges the realisation of this pathway. Through comparison with large-scale farmers, this review sought to elicit the main reasons for differences in productivity and explore the prospects of small-scale farming. It highlights that low productivity of small-scale farming cannot be solely ascribed to biophysical constraints and that differences rather arise at farm and regional level. Therefore, intervention strategies should not be solely sought at field scale, which seems to be the norm. While the prospects of small-scale farming may seem gloomy at first glance, opportunities such as investing in horticulture exist. Prospects for small-scale farming are limited by the country's very competitive and thriving large-scale farming that saturate most agricultural markets. A key conclusion from this review is that we still do not know enough about small-scale farming systems in South Africa. For example, what is the contribution of small-scale farming to the living income of households? Are farming households food and nutrition secure? In particular, the role of agriculture in improving rural livelihoods is poorly understood. Farming is likely to remain an important supplementary livelihood opportunity for the majority of rural households. As such, small-scale farming needs to be rethought as part of a broader livelihood strategy by all stakeholders while continuously seeking alternative entry points towards thriving rural livelihoods. This means provision of support for transition to more commercial farming activities for those with interest and sufficient resources, while alternative employment or social protection is provided for others. A key question for research is what types of farming (crops and livestock) and what scale of operation is needed to achieve commercial success in different regions.