The literature on development abounds with examples of development failure, yet people still choose to be involved in small-scale development projects. The study explores the unforeseen and less obvious value of projects in the lives of ordinary people in Giyani, Limpopo, South Africa. During the past three decades, the place and people have experienced considerable political, economic and social transformation – Giyani started as the capital of the Gazankulu homeland, but is now in a unified country, part of the present dual economy. Hence, the link between the Giyani project participants’ experiences and the adjustment to the changes was investigated. Interviews with members of four small-scale development projects formed the ethnographic component of the study. These interviews were augmented by a household survey to determine the participation levels in small-scale projects. The study explores the extent to which the needs of the participants are being met by the projects, using Bourdieu’s distinction between economic, social, cultural and symbolic capital as a lens. The effects of ‘structural adjustment’ measures on qualified professionals (civil servants), their participation in projects and adaptation to changes are examined. The study also investigates the experiences of gender empowerment and changes with regard to subservience to customary law and traditional authorities. The gender and power relations of the ageing process were also examined. The study examined the Avelanani crèche, which was formed to provide pre-school education for the children of refugees from Mozambique, and which was funded through missionary networks. The Giyani Aged Garden project, established by the homeland government, provides a space for retired people from both the civil service and those from poor backgrounds to share and function for their mutual benefit. Ahitipfuxeni, a town-based project, has stage-managed its qualification for funding from various government departments and agencies. By contrast, Hi Hlurile, a project established during ‘structural adjustment’ by professionally trained women, straddles the Second and First Economies and is using business principles, product and service quality, and global connectedness to access ‘social funds’ and other networking opportunities. The study has revealed that these four projects have not achieved the goal of economic empowerment, but that they do provide a safe haven for women and men in times of rapid changes in the political, social and economic spheres. The participants demonstrate agency within a project environment that promotes participative decision-making, democratic leadership and activities supporting empowerment through the accumulation of various forms of capital. The survey demonstrated that 16.2% of the residents of Giyani were involved in small-scale projects. Of the project participants, 89% were women, and 63% of the households of project participants depended solely on government grants for regular income. The findings of the study were used to analyse the government’s plan to facilitate development through Community Development Practitioners, a concept that would promote State planning and control that would stifle the agency of people, would increase the size of the civil service and absorb funding that should reach the poor.