This article considers what would happen if unemployed people in South Africa had a right to a minimum level of regular work on decent terms. It looks at the example of India, where a law was passed in 2005 guaranteeing rural households up to 100 days of work a year at minimum wage rates. More than 55 million households now participate in this programme – a rare example of a policy innovation bringing about significant change in a society. India’s employment guarantee has important implications for social and economic policy and gives new meaning to the concept of ‘a right to work’. The article explores how structural inequality limits South Africa’s development options, and considers early lessons from South Africa’s Community Work Programme to make the case for an employment guarantee in South Africa.