BACKGROUND: The incidence of renal cell carcinoma (RCC) is increasing globally owing to the increased use of cross-sectional imaging. Computed tomography (CT) scan is the modality of choice in the diagnosis and pre-operative assessment of RCC. Nephrectomy is the standard treatment for RCC and pre-surgery biopsy is not routinely practised. The accuracy of CT diagnosis and staging in a South African population has not been established. OBJECTIVES: To determine the accuracy of CT scan in the diagnosis and pre-operative staging of RCC at Grey's Hospital. METHODS: A retrospective chart review was performed; CT scan reports and histopathological results of adult patients who underwent nephrectomy for presumed RCC on CT scan between January 2010 and December 2016 were compared. RESULTS: Fifty patients met the inclusion criteria for the study. CT significantly overestimated the size of renal masses by 0.7 cm (p = 0.045) on average. The positive predictive value of CT for RCC was 81%. Cystic tumours and those 4 cm and smaller were more likely to be benign. CT demonstrated good specificity for extra-renal extension, vascular invasion and lymph node involvement, but poor sensitivity. CONCLUSION: In our South African study population, CT is accurate at diagnosing RCC, but false-positives do occur. Non-enhancing or poorly enhancing, cystic, fat-containing and small lesions (4 cm or smaller) are more likely to be benign and ultrasound-guided biopsy should be considered to avoid unnecessary surgery. CT assessment of extra-renal extension and vascular invasion is challenging and additional imaging modalities such as magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) venogram, duplex Doppler ultrasound or Positron emission tomography-computed tomography (PET/CT) may be beneficial.