The promotion of local governance and the transfer of water management responsibilities to water user associations (WUAs) have been central in water reform processes throughout the world, including in the reforms that took place in post-apartheid South Africa. This paper reflects on the notions of inclusion and representation as put forward by the various actors involved in the establishment of a WUA in a tertiary catchment in the Thukela River Basin. The paper describes how the WUA in the study catchment came to be dominated by commercial farmers, despite the South African government's aim to redress the inequities of the past by the inclusion and representation of historically disadvantaged individuals. The authors argue that the notions of inclusion and representation as embedded in the concept of the WUA are highly contested and more aligned with the institutional settings familiar to the commercial farmers. The paper concludes that, unless the inherently political nature of the participatory process is recognized and the different institutional settings become part of the negotiation process of the ‘why’ and the ‘how’ of progressive collaboration at catchment level, the establishment of the WUA in the study catchment will not contribute to achieving the envisioned transformation.