In this article, I use public opinion data collected over the past decade to probe three widely held assumptions about local government and public participation in South Africa. The first, widely held by advocates of political decentralisation and devolution of power, posits a direct relationship between the physical proximity of government institutions from the citizens they serve and the level of popular goodwill toward that government. However, public evaluations of local government have consistently been worse than those of either provincial or national government. Not only do people see local government as more corrupt than any other government institution, their levels of performance approval and trust in political institutions are inversely related to the proximal distance between them and that institution. The second assumption, widely held by advocates of 'participatory democracy', assumes that citizens have a natural predisposition to participate in public affairs. Accordingly, the participatory movement in South Africa has tended to define its central task as one of creating the mechanisms and forums for citizens to debate with each other and communicate with policy makers. However, citizen engagement with local government (measured in the form of individual contact with local councilors) is very low, both in absolute terms but also in relative terms compared to other African countries (though various pieces of evidence suggests that participation is increasing). Third, more recent analyses have assumed that low levels of voter turnout in local elections and increasing levels of public protest are a function of enduring poverty and inequality and growing dissatisfaction with service delivery. Yet analyses of individual participation in both local politics and government, and in protests and demonstrations, reveals that the poor are more likely to participate (rather than less), and that neither dissatisfaction nor satisfaction with local government performance provides an adequate account of this participation.