Government in South Africa

South Africa is a constitutional democracy with a three-level system of government, an independent judiciary, and a Constitution that is the highest law of the land.

The Union Buildings in Pretoria are the seat of South African government. (Image: Wikimedia Commons)

Each of the three levels of government – national, provincial and local – is “distinctive”. They each have their own legislative and executive authority. This is laid down in the Constitution.

The Constitution of the Republic of South Africa

South Africa’s Constitution is internationally celebrated for its protection of human rights.

The Bill of Rights – chapter 2 of the Constitution – ensures that a broad range of rights are protected. These rights include equality and human dignity, as well as freedom of religion, of expression, of sexual orientation and more. It even protects social rights – the right to housing, food and water, and the protection of the poor.

The Constitutional Court is the final court of appeal. All laws passed by the government, and every action the government takes, have to agree with the principles of human rights and democracy laid down in South Africa’s Constitution.

Parliament: the National Assembly

The National Assembly is elected to represent all South Africans. It is a national forum for public debate, for passing laws and for inspecting and reviewing the actions of the government.

As its name says, the National Assembly is an assembly of people brought together to look after the needs of the nation. These people are known as Members of Parliament, or MPs. The number of MPs in the National Assembly can range between 350 and 400. MPs are appointed by their political parties.

The number of MPs each party can appoint – known as their “seats” in Parliament – is based on the number of votes that party gets from South Africans voting in national elections. MPs serve for five years after each election.

Since the dawn of democracy, South Africa has held nationwide democratic elections in 1994, 1999, 2004, 2009 and, most recently, 2014.

Parliament: the National Council of Provinces

The National Council of Provinces, or NCOP, is the second house of Parliament. It makes sure the different needs of each province are taken care of in the nationwide laws passed by the National Assembly.

The National Council of Provinces is made up of 54 permanent members and 36 special delegates. It elects its own chair. Each of South Africa’s nine provinces sends 10 representatives to the NCOP.

These 10 representatives include six permanent members, and four special delegates. Special calculations of the popular vote in elections make sure that minority interests are represented in each province’s delegation to the NCOP.

Local government representatives are allowed to debate in the NCOP but not vote – 10 part-time members represent the three different types of municipality. The South African Local Government Association also takes part in the NCOP.

The Presidency and the Cabinet

The president, elected by the National Assembly from its members, is the executive head of state and leads the Cabinet. The president may not serve more than two five-year terms in office.

The Presidency is at the apex of South Africa’s government system. Its office is in the Union Buildings in Pretoria, with a subsidiary office in Tuynhuys in Cape Town.

The Presidency is headed by four political principals: the president, the deputy president, the minister in the presidency, and the minister for women.

The Cabinet is made up of the president, the deputy president, and ministers and deputy ministers of national departments. The president appoints Cabinet members, assigns their powers and functions, and may dismiss them.

Provincial government

Each of South Africa’s nine provinces has its own legislature, with 30 to 80 members elected according to proportional representation. The legislature in turn elects one of its members as premier, head of the provincial government.

The premier appoints an Executive Council (akin to the national Cabinet), consisting of members of the legislature, to administer the various departments of the provincial administration. These heads of department are known as members of the Executive Council, or MECs.

The legislature makes provincial laws, and may adopt a Constitution for the province if two-thirds of its members agree. A provincial Constitution must be in line with the principles of the national Constitution.

Provinces are allowed legislative and executive powers – alongside the powers of the national government – over a number of issues. These include gambling, education (excluding university education), the environment, healthcare, police services, vehicle licensing and welfare.

The provinces can take responsibility for administration of these issues if they have the capacity.

Provinces also have exclusive powers over a number of areas, including abattoirs, ambulance services, liquor licences, local museums, culture and recreation, and provincial roads and traffic.

Local government: municipalities

Local government in South Africa administers cities and smaller regions. These are known as municipalities. There are three categories of municipality.

Map of South Africa’s municipalities. Shaded areas indicate district municipalities, each subdivided into the local municipalities they govern. The eight city or metropolitan municipalities are in shades of red, and named. (Image adapted from Wikimedia Commons)

  • Metropolitan municipalities – defined as category A – govern the major city regions.
  • District municipalities, category C, are for wider areas outside the cities, like counties in the US and UK.
  • Districts are further divided into local municipalities, category B.

Metropoles have a choice between two types of government: the mayoral executive system where the mayor has the authority, or the collective executive committee system.

Traditional leaders

Provincial houses of traditional leaders have been set up in the six provinces with traditional leadership: the Eastern Cape, Free State, KwaZulu-Natal, Limpopo, Mpumalanga and North West.

National and provincial houses of traditional leaders enhance the cooperative relationships within national and provincial government.

Local houses of traditional leaders deepen and cement the relationship between municipalities and traditional leaders on customary law and development initiatives.


Legislation may be introduced in the National Assembly only by Cabinet members, deputy ministers, or a member of a National Assembly committee.

Any Bill may be introduced in the National Assembly. In the NCOP, legislation may be introduced only by a member or committee, and it must fall within certain constitutionally defined areas.

Bills passed in the National Assembly must be referred to the NCOP for consideration. The NCOP may pass, propose amendments to or reject a Bill. The National Assembly must reconsider a Bill in cases of amendments or rejections, and pass it again with or without amendments.

This process is simple with regard to Bills affecting national functions such as defence, foreign affairs and justice, when each NCOP delegate has one vote.

But when the NCOP considers a Bill that affects the provinces – on functions such as security, welfare, education and health – each province has one vote. This is to ensure that the nine provinces reach consensus on the Bill.

Such Bills may be introduced in either the National Assembly or the NCOP.

Bills first passed by the NCOP must be referred to the National Assembly, and a mediation committee exists to resolve any disagreements between the two houses. It consists of nine members elected from and by the National Assembly, and nine – one representing each province – from the NCOP.

Ultimately, the National Assembly may override the NCOP by a two-thirds majority.

Bills amending the Constitution require a two-thirds majority in the National Assembly as well as a supporting vote of six of the nine provinces represented in the NCOP.

But a Bill amending Section 1 of the Constitution, which sets out the state’s founding values, requires a 75% majority in the National Assembly.

The National Development Plan

The National Development Plan is South Africa’s socioeconomic policy blueprint for action that must be taken to achieve its vision for the country South Africa will be in the year 2030.

The goals of Vision 2030 include:

  • eliminating poverty by reducing the proportion of households with a monthly income below R419 per person from 39% to zero and the reduction of inequality
  • increasing employment from 13 million in 2010 to 24 million by 2030
  • broadening the country’s ownership of assets by historically disadvantaged groups
  • ensuring that all children have at least two years of pre-school education and that all children can read and write by Grade 3
  • providing affordable access to healthcare
  • ensuring effective public transport

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