This article has just appeared online in Urban Forum (with hardcopy publication to follow). It can be read here. It is the outcome of extensive desk, observation and interview research conducted in the South African towns of Vanderbijlpark and Vereeniging, falling under the Emfuleni local municipality, which suffered a high-profile governance collapse in 2018. In dissecting the causes of the collapse, the article discusses the fault-lines in the legal and structural architecture underlying governance of South African cities and towns. It argues that, while human failings explain some of the municipality’s failings, there are also deeper problems around municipal demarcation, intergovernmental relations, urban autonomy and local government financing.