Despite the absence of an unemployment grant in South Africa, there is growing concern that other social assistance provision might nevertheless weaken work motivation and create a ‘dependency culture’. This study explores attitudes about the relationship between grant receipt and paid employment in South Africa. Using both quantitative and qualitative data, it examines whether there is evidence of a ‘dependency culture’, the nature and strength of labour market attachment among grant recipients, and the opportunities and barriers to employment they face. We found that both those in and out of work placed a high value on paid employment. Joblessness had not become ‘normalised’, and all categories of the workless were extremely motivated to get work. Grant recipients did not subscribe to a distinctive culture but to mainstream values and aspirations. While some benefit claimants subscribed to popularly promoted prejudices about other social assistance claimants, our findings appear to counter recent concerns about potential unintended effects of the current grant system. The key factors in reducing people's chances of finding employment seem linked to the structural conditions of the labour market and the wider economy rather than the motivational characteristics of the unemployed and the arrangements of the grant system.