We examine recent observations of water mass distribution and circulation schemes at different depths of the South Atlantic Ocean to propose a layered, qualitative representation of the mean distribution of flow in this region. This furthers the simple upper layer geostrophic flow estimates of Peterson and Stramma . In addition, we assess how well ocean general circulation models (GCMs) capture the overall structure of flow in the South Atlantic in this regard. The South Atlantic Central Water (SACW) is of South Atlantic origin in the subtropical gyre, while the SACW in the tropical region in part originates from the South Indian Ocean. The Antarctic Intermediate Water in the South Atlantic originates from a surface region of the circumpolar layer, especially in the northern Drake Passage and the Falkland Current loop, but also receives some water from the Indian Ocean. The subtropical South Atlantic above the North Atlantic Deep Water and north of the Antarctic Circumpolar Current (ACC) is dominated by the anticyclonic subtropical gyre. In the eastern tropical South Atlantic the cyclonic Angola Gyre exists, embedded in a large tropical cyclonic gyre. The equatorial part of the South Atlantic shows several depth-dependent zonal current bands besides the Angola Gyre. Ocean GCMs have difficulty capturing this detailed zonal circulation structure, even at eddy-permitting resolution. The northward extent of the subtropical gyre reduces with increasing depth, located near Brazil at 16°S in the near-surface layer and at 26°S in the Antarctic Intermediate Water layer, while the tropical cyclonic gyre progresses southward. The southward shift of the northern part of the subtropical gyre is well resolved in global ocean GCMs. However, high horizontal resolution is required to capture the South Atlantic Current north of the ACC. The North Atlantic Deep Water in the South Atlantic progresses mainly southward in the Deep Western Boundary Current, but some water also moves southward at the eastern boundary.