This article challenges the distinction often made in the literature about South Africa’s new social movements between those which pursue a rights-based approach to collective action and those that advocate wider transformative economic, political and social change. It argues that this dichotomy is based on a narrow interpretation of the content of rights-based activism and counter-hegemonic challenges which belie the messy everyday realities of how political mobilisation is forged in the entangled relations between hegemony and counter-hegemony. Through an analysis of the collective-action frames of two affiliates of the Anti-Privatisation Forum (APF), the article shows how rights and anti-capitalism were understood within each organisation. It also demonstrates how the differing interpretations were forged in interaction with the localised political-opportunity structure. In so doing, this article expands the empirical analysis of grassroots community-based organisations in South Africa and contributes to debates on the counter-hegemonic potential of rights-based activism.