A community-based antiretroviral therapy (ART) programme was established in 2001 in a South African township to explore the operational issues involved in providing ART in the public sector in resource-limited settings and demonstrate the feasibility of such a service. Data was analysed on a cohort of patients with symptomatic HIV disease and a CD4 lymphocyte count < 200 x 10 cells/l. The programme used standardized protocols (using generic medicines whenever possible), a team-approach to clinical care and a patient-centred approach to promote adherence. Two-hundred and eighty-seven adults naive to prior ART were followed for a median duration of 13.9 months. The median CD4 lymphocyte count was 43 x 10 cells/l at initiation of treatment, and the mean log10 HIV RNA was 5.18 copies/ml. The HIV RNA level was undetectable (< 400 copies/ml) in 88.1, 89.2, 84.2, 75.0 and 69.7% of patients at 3, 6, 12, 18 and 24 months respectively. The cumulative probability of remaining alive was 86.3% at 24 months on treatment for all patients, 91.4% for those with a baseline CD4 lymphocyte count > or =50 x 10 cells/l, and 81.8% for those with a baseline CD4 lymphocyte count < 50 x 10 cells/l. The cumulative probability of changing a single antiretroviral drug by 24 months was 15.1% due to adverse events or contraindications, and 8.4% due to adverse events alone. ART can be provided in resource-limited settings with good patient retention and clinical outcomes. With responsible implementation, ART is a key component of a comprehensive response to the epidemic in those communities most affected by HIV.