We describe the nature of recent (50 year) rainfall variability in the summer rainfall zone, South Africa, and how variability is recognised and responded to on the ground by farmers. Using daily rainfall data and self-organising mapping (SOM) we identify 12 internally homogeneous rainfall regions displaying differing parameters of precipitation change. Three regions, characterised by changing onset and timing of rains, rainfall frequencies and intensities, in Limpopo, North West and KwaZulu Natal provinces, were selected to investigate farmer perceptions of, and responses to, rainfall parameter changes. Village and household level analyses demonstrate that the trends and variabilities in precipitation parameters differentiated by the SOM analysis were clearly recognised by people living in the areas in which they occurred. A range of specific coping and adaptation strategies are employed by farmers to respond to climate shifts, some generic across regions and some facilitated by specific local factors. The study has begun to understand the complexity of coping and adaptation, and the factors that influence the decisions that are taken.