This paper investigates the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic and related policy measures on livelihoods in urban South Africa. Using qualitative research methods, we analyse two rounds of semi-structured phone interviews, conducted between June and September 2020 in the township of Khayelitsha, Cape Town. We contextualise these by presenting a snapshot of the nationwide dynamics using quantitative panel data. Our findings describe how the shock of the COVID-19 pandemic has deepened the economic vulnerability which preceded the crisis. Survivalist livelihood strategies were undermined by the economic disruption to the informal sector, while the co-variate nature of the shock rendered social networks and informal insurance mechanisms ineffective, causing households to liquidate savings, default on insurance payments, and deepen their reliance on government grants. In addition, the impact of the pandemic on schooling may deepen existing inequalities and constrain future upward mobility.