Urban water supply, sanitation and electricity have been identified as basic needs by the post-apartheid government and the Greater Johannesburg Metropolitan Council (GJMC). This article explores the relationship of Johannesburg’s poor to the urban environment and, in particular, these three key urban services. On the basis of survey data, case studies, textual analysis and in-depth interviews with policy makers and planners, it reviews how poorer citizens were, for a long time, seen as victims under apartheid urban planning. During the rent boycotts that characterised urban struggle politics during the era of late apartheid in Johannesburg, they were often represented as villains. This perception persisted well into the post-apartheid period, where refusing to pay for services was seen as tantamount to a lack of patriotism. Today, Johannesburg’s poorer citizens are increasingly being seen as fixers. The GJMC in its policy document, iGoli 2002, is committed to establishing the commercial viability of service delivery. Cost recovery is seen as important for solving the tension that exists between maintaining established service levels (in historically white areas) and extending services to new and historically under-serviced (mainly black) areas. We conclude that there are opportunities to address urban poverty, inequality and environmental management in an integrated way. However, these are predicated on the GJMC and its advisers understanding the ways in which pro-poor and social justice strategies interface with urban services and the urban environment.