The African oystercatcher is a large, noisy wader, with completely black plumage, red legs and a strong broad red bill.

The sexes are similar in appearance, however, females are larger and have a slightly longer beak than males. Juveniles have soft grey plumage and do not express the characteristic red legs and beak until after they fledged.

The call is a distinctive loud piping, very similar to Eurasian oystercatchers. As the Eurasian oystercatcher is a migratory species they only occur as a vagrant in southern Africa, and its black-and-white plumage makes confusion impossible.