In South Africa, as in many other countries, there appears to have been a demobilization of mass urban movements following the achievement of representative democracy. This apparent demobilization has led to a perception that South Africa’s neighbourhood‐based civic organizations are in crisis. This article builds on existing studies by sharpening analysis of the nature of this ‘crisis’. We show that there continue to be high levels of popular engagement with self‐governing civic structures at the local level. The decline in mass direct action in civil society appears to be linked to public confidence in political society, i.e. in the political parties and elected councillors that provide mechanisms for local representation in representative democracy. The crisis facing civic organizations is in large part a crisis of adjustment, as civic activists redefine their roles in the new institutional context and accept that their roles will be more limited than in specific extraordinary periods in the past. What makes this task of redefinition so difficult is that civil and political society cannot be easily separated, but, rather, form a tangled web in the minds of civic activists (and, we suspect, ordinary citizens also). The lesson of this South African case‐study is that changing patterns of popular politics need to be located in a careful analysis of political society as well as civil society, and especially of the real and perceived links between them.