This paper examines the principle of beneficence in the light of moral and epistemological concerns that have crystallized in the South African context around clinical care. Three examples from the South African experience affecting the development of bioethics are examined: medical colonialism, the death in detention of Steve Biko, and the HIV/AIDS epidemic. Michael Gelfand's book [(1948). The sick African: a clinical study. Cape Town: Stewart Printing Company.] on African medical conditions captures the ambiguous nature of colonial medicine that linked genuine medical treatment with the civilizing mission. Biko's death was a key historical event that deeply implicated the medical profession under apartheid. The present HIV/AIDS epidemic presents the gravest social and political crisis for South African society. All three experiences influence the meaning and relevance of beneficence as a bioethics principle in the South African context. This paper argues for a South African bioethics informed by a critical humanism that takes account of the colonial past, and that does not model itself on an "original wound" or negation, but on positive care-giving practices.