In 2001 South Africa introduced a social policy to provide all citizens, but particularly the poor, with a monthly supply of limited volumes of free water. Although criticised by international agencies at the time, lifeline tariffs to the poor are now promoted as a strategy to meet the Millennium Development Goals. Much of free basic water's contemporary allure lies in its ostensible artifice in offering water security to poor citizens whilst simultaneously strengthening the municipal cost-recovery regime. Past attempts at unravelling what has become something of a social policy allegory were hindered by the absence of a state voice in this intriguing narrative. A legal challenge launched by poor Soweto, Johannesburg citizens has enabled the public to have access to state affidavits. These primary data, together with improved positioning of free water literature within a broader scope of municipal water systems (rights, volumes and tariff structures), socio-political paradigms and a more rigorous interrogation of previously uncontested international standards and ideological ‘neutral’ discourses provide a more comprehensive chronicle of the complex free water narratives. As such, the offering of free water, far from being a benign concession, was used to contain very poor households to limited volumes of water beneath what they required whilst ensuring that the majority of still poor households, who consumed beyond the free volumes, paid the full cost of the water service.