The study of men and masculinity has become a strong feature of gendered research and scholarship in South Africa in the last twenty years. Gender policy frequently includes consideration of men and masculinity, marking a significant shift from the days when ‘gender’ was synonymous with women. The gendered focus on men owes its origins to feminist theory and thus centres on the subordination of women. The concept of hegemonic masculinity is part of a theoretical framework developed to analyse men's power (Carrigan, Connell & Lee 1985). It proposes a multiplicity of masculinities and hierarchies of power and shows how men exercise power over women and other men. In this paper we discuss the concept as it has been developed and then explore how it has been used in the South African context. What is significant is that it was initially adopted to explain the country's high levels of violence and to analyse the gender relationships under colonialism, apartheid and post-apartheid. Among the reasons that the concept of ‘hegemonic masculinity’ has become widely used in gender research in South Africa is because it can broaden the understanding of questions of gender inequality. The concept is multidimensional and allows consideration of men's power over women, the multiple and unequal location of men themselves, fluidity in power relations and the persistence of patriarchal trends. The pliability of the concept encouraged its adoption across a wide range of disciplines and fields. However, the concept is controversial. Its analytical and pragmatic utility and political potential are questioned and its exact meaning debated. In this paper we reflect on the use of the concept in gender research conducted in southern Africa. We select from a wide range of publications and projects with no claim that this selection is exhaustive or representative. The work on masculinity and men has grown dramatically in the last twenty years and it is not possible in an article of this length to cover all of this work. Instead we have chosen to examine four areas roughly defined by methodology and disciplinary location – in societal analyses, psychology, education and in health. We highlight the diverse and sometimes confusing ways that the concept is used, while also explaining why it is misused. In the process we identify aspects of the concept that seem more or less valuable and show what value it gives to theory, social analysis, research and practice.