The notion of urban autonomy is increasingly significant in a global era where city governments are playing an ever-growing role in development, as well as in domestic and international politics. While extending significantly beyond legal configurations of local government powers and functions, urban autonomy is importantly shaped, enabled and protected by constitutional and legal provisions. This is so especially where urban governance happens in a resource-strapped and often politically volatile environment. This article considers the extent to which formal constitutional structures, and their justiciability, enable and channel urban autonomy in the developing world, with a focus on the constitutionally ensconced powers and functional authority of cities in South Africa. Through an overview of relevant constitutional and statutory provisions and of court decisions upholding urban autonomy in intergovernmental disputes, the article illustrates that South African cities have been served well by a constitutional framework emphasising cooperative governance and developmental local government, as well as by the justiciable entrenchment of local government’s executive, legislative and administrative authority.