Objective. The prenatal screening programme for Down syndrome (DS) in the South African public health sector remains primarily based on advanced maternal age (AMA). We assessed the changes over time and effectiveness of this screening programme within a Cape Town health district. Methods. Retrospective analysis of the Groote Schuur Hospital Cytogenetic Laboratory and Pregnancy Counselling Clinic databases and audit of maternal delivery records at a primary health care facility. Results. The number of amniocenteses performed for AMA in consecutive 5-year periods reduced progressively from 786 in 1981 - 1985 to 360 in 2001 - 2005. Comparing prenatal with neonatal diagnoses of DS, the absolute number and the proportion diagnosed prenatally have remained relatively constant over time. The Pregnancy Counselling Database showed that, of 507 women receiving genetic counselling for AMA in 2008 - 2009, 158 (31.1%) accepted amniocentesis – uptake has reduced considerably since the early 1990s. The audit of women delivering at a primary care facility found that only 10 (16.4%) of 61 AMA women reached genetic counselling in tertiary care: reasons included late initiation of antenatal care and low referral rates from primary care. Conclusion. Prenatal screening and diagnosis for DS based on AMA is working ineffectively in the Cape Town health district assessed, and this appears to be representative of a broader trend in South Africa. Inclusion of fetal ultrasound in the process of prenatal screening for DS should be explored as a way forward.