The potential for shale gas development (SGD) in South Africa’s environmentally sensitive Karoo region has attracted the interest of energy companies, government and the public. The South African government is eager to revive economic growth, improve energy security following an energy supply crisis and relieve high unemployment. The public is torn between environmental concerns and prospects of economic benefits, while investors seek clarity in legislation. The impact of the US shale revolution explains the allure of SGD and constitutes the only model worldwide of a developed shale industry. South Africa is a useful case study for examining how various societal interests shape support for and opposition to SGD. While government seeks to proceed with exploration, a dominant coal industry and other alternatives including renewables and nuclear compete for attention, and there are increasing concerns about the size and economic viability of South Africa’s shale gas deposits. Influential actors in the energy-intensive industries comprising South Africa’s powerful ‘minerals-energy complex’ will play a role in how any shale industry might develop. By considering the interests of key actors including a vacillating government, cautious energy companies and a determined environmental lobby, this article examines South Africa’s tenuous road towards SGD.