In line with a broader ‘participatory turn’, the collective elaboration of city development strategies (CDSs) has become a leitmotiv in urban development planning, promising to deliver on both democracy‐deepening and pro‐poor concerns. Yet, this promise reposes on somewhat shaky grounds: much depends on the broader political opportunity structures within which CDSs are attempted. Using Johannesburg’s recent experiment with city‐wide strategic planning as a case study, this article explores the complex interplay between participatory processes and the broader political machinery of governance. In the messy terrain of late 1990s transition politics, Johannesburg’s CDS can be read rather more as an instrument of the ruling ANC party’s consolidation of power over the city, than as a ‘genuine’ attempt at collective strategic planning. However, this usurpation of participatory ideals did not entail the demise of equitable or even pro‐poor concerns: more formal processes of participation, such as electoral representation and bureaucratic power, ensured the continued meshing of developmental concerns alongside growth imperatives at the heart of the CDS. The ambiguous relationship between newly entrenched routine participatory processes and the most recent — and arguably more equitable — review of the CDS, meanwhile, raises further questions about the actual function of participatory processes in urban governance.