While public discourses emphasise the growing role of ward councillors in service delivery and urban policy implementation, as well as underline their role as mediators between local government and urban residents, local councillors are increasingly the target of mass urban protests. They are also relatively absent from the public scene as far as municipal decisions and debates are concerned. What can explain this discrepancy? This article argues that institutional channels (be it representative democracy, or various institutions and instruments set up by local government to enhance participation) are currently not working in the South African city, and the city of Johannesburg in particular. Whether in low-income or high-income areas, suburbs or townships, residents have to resort to other means, sidelining in particular their ward councillor, to be heard. The article analyses the structural and contextual constraints that may be responsible for this lack of bottom-up dialogue, and concludes that both the limited power of ward councillors in Council, and the lack of incentive for fostering their accountability to voters, lead to the development of patterns of clientelism at the local level. After examining the actual implementation of some urban projects in Johannesburg, the article argues that local government fragmentation (in different tiers, in several city agencies and utilities, and with the widespread use of contracts and consultants) is also an important factor in the failure of participatory processes.