Changes in the environment are first observed in changes in the vegetation. Vegetation survey, classification and mapping form the basis on which informed and scientifically defendable decisions on the environment can be taken. The classification and mapping of vegetation is one of the most widely used tools for interpreting complex ecosystems. By identifying different plant communities we are essentially identifying different ecosystems at a particular hierarchical level. Phytosociologists in Europe have been involved in such studies following, in particular, the Braun-Blanquet approach since the early 1900s. In South Africa, such studies were undertaken on a limited basis from the early 1970s and have since then steadily increased. The surveying of the enormous diversity of South African vegetation is one of the objectives of phytosociological studies. The demand for such data has steadily increased over the past few years to guide conservation policies, biodiversity studies and ecosystem management. In South Africa, numerous publications on the vegetation of conservation and other areas in the different biomes have been produced over the last few decades. However, vegetation scientists in South Africa experience unique problems. The purpose of this article is therefore to provide an overview of the history and the specific focus of phytosociological studies in South Africa and to recommend minimum requirements and methods to be followed when conducting such studies. It is believed that the incorporation of these requirements will result in scientifically justifiable research of high quality by phytosociologists in South Africa. Conservation implications: Effective conservation cannot be obtained without a thorough knowledge of the ecosystems present in an area. Consistent vegetation classifications and descriptions form the basis of conservation and monitoring exercises to maintain biodiversity. The incorporation of these guidelines and requirements will facilitate quality phytosociological research in South Africa.