This article analyses variation in municipal cost recovery for water services in South Africa. It uses original data from a national survey of municipalities, conducted in late 2000. A multivariate causal model is estimated to measure the effects of social and institutional context, service infrastructure, and billing and payment practices. The analysis shows that cost-recovery outcomes vary widely and are quite sensitive to factors that can be influenced by municipal decision-makers. Substantive implications for a typical South African municipality are clarified through simulations of the effects of upgrading infrastructure, introducing various cost-recovery measures, and extending basic services to poor households. As profound changes in the institutional and policy environment—including municipal restructuring (demarcation) and the 'free basic water' policy—force municipalities to review their cost-recovery strategies, the article offers insights into how to achieve the best possible outcomes.