Since the transition to democracy, South African public works programmes have been designed to involve community participation, and have aimed to target the poor. This article examines the targeting performance of seven programmes in Western Cape Province, and analyses the role of government, community-based organisations, trade unions and the private sector in explaining targeting outcomes. These programmes were not well-targeted geographically in terms of highest poverty, unemployment or infrastructure needs. Within localities, jobs went to the poor and unemployed, though not always the poorest, and did well in reaching women despite local gender bias. Targeting guidelines of the state are mediated by diverse and sometimes conflicting priorities that emerge in programmes with multiple objectives, by local perceptions of need and entitlement, and by competing voices within civil society.