In the period preceding the May 2011 municipal elections there was speculation in the South African media about how widespread dissatisfaction with economic insecurity and poor service delivery would affect voting behaviour. The popular protests that occur intermittently are symptoms of a deep structural malady: the prevalence of chronic poverty in the context of a widening gap between South Africa’s rich and poor. State officials keep pointing to the cushioning effects of social grants and poverty alleviation initiatives, but critics argue that poor state performance and failure to include communities in political process are holding back socioeconomic development. This article discusses recent research on economic hardship and the ‘politics of the poor’ in four residential sites in the vicinity of Pretoria. The data reveal grassroots perceptions of poverty and vulnerability and the coalescing and contradictory political discourses across racial divides.