In South Africa, disability grant allocation has been under review and tensions are evident in government rhetoric stressing welfare provision on the one hand, and encouraging 'rationalization' on the other. This ambiguity is traced down to the level of grant negotiations between doctors and 'clients' in a psychiatry clinic in Khayelitsha. Here 'having nerves' embodies the distress associated with harsh circumstances and is deemed by supplicants as sufficient to secure a grant. The paper illustrates how national discourses influence the presentation and experience of suffering and the way in which doctors mediate diagnoses. The implications of local understandings of 'health citizenship' for expectations of the post-apartheid state are explored.