South Africa's past apartheid inequities create unique challenges in achieving water delivery goals. The South African government implemented the free basic water (FBW) policy in July 2001 to ensure all South Africans had access to a basic amount of safe water by 2004. The FBW policy entitles all people to a free lifeline supply of 6000 ls/6 kilolitres (kl) (1 kl = 1000 l) of water per household per month. Despite being heralded as a way of ensuring access of lifeline water services to low-income households, fundamental policy flaws exist. The FBW allocation does not meet the basic water requirements and special water requirements of the majority of low-income households. Low-income households require more than the 6 kl allocation and are thereby expected to pay the full cost for their water service. The affordability crisis has not been addressed as tariff structures and cross-subsidisation mechanisms remain inadequate. The financial sustainability of the FBW policy is reliant on the equitable share, an unconditional grant from national government and user-fees, which the extensive low-income sector cannot afford to pay. The FBW policy is analysed, via a case study, conducted in Pietermaritzburg, KwaZulu-Natal, within the Msunduzi municipal jurisdiction, which draws on low-income household experience of the policy.