Ward councillors and committees are the fulcrum on which a democratic commitment to participatory local government, and its attendant developmental aims, pivot. Yet, ward councillors are often the targets of localised protests that are now endemic as a critique of the pace and accomplishments of democratic developmentalism. If participatory structures issuing from the slogan ‘the people shall govern’ were intended to allow people to voice their grievances and realise their aspirations, why do so many local communities turn to protest instead? This article investigates the workings of the ward system through an intensive case study of one ward in Chochocho, Manzini (a rural trust area in Mpumalanga province), where qualitative in-depth interviews as well as observation revealed that while the communication function attendant to democratic governance has been decentralised, this has not been accompanied by a similar decentralisation of the capacity of the community to control more directly access to, and decisions over, resource and development priorities. As the councillor has little influence over decision-making regarding the allocation of developmental resources, the result is not only ineffective service delivery in the community, and a growing equivalence between ward structures and that of the local ANC branch, but as a result, a deep sense of frustration that feeds scepticism about participation amongst community members. It is this diminution of participation from the rhetoric of ‘people shall govern’ to the reality of ‘the people shall speak’ that animates the contestations over the ward system as an effective space of participation for local communities.