This article examines the complex space between the commodification and decommodification of water, showing how civil society leaves these ‘fictitious’ boxes behind in water and sanitation struggles. Drawing on Polanyi (1944), it looks at how the balance between what is commodified and what is not, can – and is – affected by the engagement between government and civil society in all its forms. In response to the local municipality implementing policy or introducing innovations, civil society in all its forms responds, and acts as a catalyst for significant policy shifts. Important changes in people’s lives can result from civil society engagement with the municipality through dialogue and negotiation alongside protest. Based on key informant interviews, primary documents, and participant observation, it maps out the various forms of this engagement in four critical areas of water and sanitation in Durban, South Africa, namely disconnections and affordable water; dry sanitation and urine diversion toilets; and participation and citizen voice. Although constrained by structural realities, there is evidence that civil society agency can ‘make a difference’ in people’s everyday lives, spurring us on to more extensive policy challenges to widen this space, while contributing to the development of counter hegemonic alternatives.