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This paper examines the complexity of the South African policy-making context and its official and non-official actors and investigates the challenges that scientists face when trying to exert their influence here in order to strengthen the science–policy interface. Based on this analysis, the paper makes preliminary recommendations on how scientists can venture to lobby policy-makers in spite of the many obstacles they face. The main areas of interest in this paper are the science–policy interface, the policy-making process and lobbying. Copyright © 2011 John Wiley & Sons, Ltd.