Releasing figures from a widely awaited national mortality study, Statistics South Africa (Stats SA) on Friday said reported deaths leapt to 499,268 in 2002 from 318,287 in 1997.
Among adults over 15, deaths increased by 62%.
Before the Stats SA figures were released, Health Minister Manto Tshabalala-Msimang said the government was doing its best amid confusion about the extent of the disease and numbers of people needing treatment.
"Give me a country that has precise figures. Everybody is working on projections and we were working on projections too," she said in Cape Town.
"You really are working in the dark, so you just give the medicines hoping God will help us and be on our side."
The report showed deaths increasing most rapidly for women and people aged between 20 and 49 - both regarded as groups most susceptible to the Aids virus, which affects an estimated one in nine of the country's 45 million people.
South Africa last year launched a
public anti-retroviral programme
The study "provides indirect evidence that the HIV epidemic in South Africa is raising the mortality levels of prime aged adults," Stats SA head Pali Lehohla said in a statement.
The Stats SA study looked likely to spark new debate over the extent of the Aids crisis in South Africa, where President Thabo Mbeki's government is often accused by critics of both underplaying and underestimating the crisis.
"Death from Aids of working age adults is a real and immediate crisis," the opposition Democratic Alliance said in a statement responding to the new numbers on Friday.
The Stats SA study was based on three million official death certificates recorded over a five-year period. It said that on average 1368 South Africans died every day in 2002, compared with just 872 deaths per day in 1997.
"Give me a country that has precise figures. Everybody is working on projections and we were working on projections too"
South African Health Minister
"It is in the 30 to 34 age group that we are seeing a very very high percentage of deaths being registered," said Liz Gavin, the agency's director of population statistics.
Officials said exact causes of death remained difficult to ascertain as in many cases common Aids-related diseases such as tuberculosis, influenza or pneumonia were officially recorded as responsible.
These three diseases are killing many more South Africans than before as the Aids virus spreads through the population.
Pneumonia was listed as responsible for 15,000 deaths in 2001 compared with 22,000 in 1997, while the toll from influenza and pneumonia jumped to 31,000 from 21,000 in the same period.
HIV, the subject of intense social stigma in South Africa where publicly funded Aids drug treatment only became available last year, was directly blamed for 9000 deaths in 2001 against 6000 four years earlier.
Aids activists have sought to press the South African government into a more aggressive stance against the HIV/Aids epidemic, saying that both stigma and lack of publicly available treatment were hindering the fight against the disease.
South Africa last year launched a public anti-retroviral drug programme, but implementation remains slow with tens of thousands of prospective patients still unable to access the life-saving medication.