Theory on environmental governance and water governance emphasises decentralised, devolved forms of interaction between stakeholders. As previously excluded actors are empowered to take part in governance, new forms of cooperation are created. This paper examines how the cooperative principle has influenced stakeholder interaction at the local and international scales of water governance in South Africa. Water policies and initiatives have been set up to promote multi-level governance that emphasises cooperation between various stakeholders. The emphasis on cooperation and inclusiveness is particularly pertinent to the South African context because of its apartheid past. The paper asks whether there have been new forms of cooperation between a wider array of actors, as the theory proposes. By using the case studies of the Sabie catchment and the Lesotho Highlands Water Project to examine local and international level governance, the paper finds challenges related to power disparity and interdependence of actors, and risk perceptions of inclusive decision-making. It is found that at both the local and international level, the state, which is a 'traditional' actor, still plays an influential role in decision-making. 'New' actors such as businesses, civil society, and regional institutions are more visible but have limited decision-making power. Non-linear, time-consuming forms of cooperation occur in water governance.