Background. Although stressful life events (SLEs) are associated with psychopathology, the contribution from distal and proximal events and the specificity of their association with common mental disorders require further exploration. We examined the association of recent life events and past adversities to mood, anxiety, substance use and impulse control disorders in South Africa. Methods. Data were analysed from the South African Stress and Health Study, a population-based study of mental disorders in a nationally representative sample of 4 351 adults. Psychiatric disorders were assessed with the Composite International Diagnostic Interview (CIDI). This included questions covering early and later SLEs (negative life events, relationship stress, partner violence, social strain and adverse events during childhood) and various socio-demographic variables. Logistic regression models were constructed for 3 957 respondents (2 371 female, 1586 male) with no missing covariate data, to assess life stress and socio-demographic predictors of 12-month and lifetime disorder. Results. Recent negative life events and relationship problems were significant predictors of any 12-month disorder and any lifetime disorder. Physical partner violence predicted any lifetime disorder. There was evidence of specificity for the prediction of mood versus anxiety disorders, with childhood adversity specifically associated with mood disorders but not anxiety disorders. Single marital status was the strongest socio-demographic predictor of any 12-month and any, lifetime disorder. Conclusions. Stressful life events, distal and proximal, contribute significantly and independently to the prediction of major psychiatric disorders among South Africans, underscoring the importance of screening adversities in adults with common mental disorders, and of providing appropriate adjunctive interventions.