Detrital zircon from unconsolidated, Cenozoic sediments from eastern South Africa has been analysed for U–Pb and Lu–Hf isotopes by laser ablation inductively coupled plasma mass spectrometry. Identifiable bedrock sources have made local contributions to the detrital zircon populations, but the dominant zircon components are of regional distribution: late Mesoproterozoic (εHf = –5 to +10), Neoproterozoic to early Palaeozoic (εHf = –10 to +10), and minor late Palaeozoic (εHf ≈ 0). Archaean zircons are scarce even in sediments deposited on exposed Archaean basement or by rivers eroding it. The dominant components cannot be tied to specific first-generation sources in southern Africa or its former Gondwana neighbours. Instead, we see the effect of mixing and remobilization of debris from large parts of the supercontinent in the early Phanerozoic, which was stored in the Karoo basin and other continental cover sequences and shed from there to the present site of deposition. Therefore, data from detrital zircon in these deposits tell us less about the path of detritus from source to sink in a recent sedimentary system than about processes in much earlier erosion–transport–deposition cycles. To facilitate comparison of detrital zircon age distribution patterns, a simple and intuitive method that takes sampling uncertainty explicitly into account is proposed.