Government in South Africa

South Africa’s Constitutional Court, which upholds the Constitution, at night. As the supreme law of the country, the Constitution binds all organs of the state – legislative, executive and judicial – at all levels of government.
(Image: Chris Kirchhoff, Media Club South Africa. For more free photos, visit the image library)

South Africa has been a constitutional democracy since 1994. On 27 April that year, the country’s first non-racial democratic election was held – the culmination of intensive multi-party negotiations to agree on an interim Constitution.

South Africa’s final Constitution came into effect on 4 February 1997. The country is now a multi-party democracy with an entrenched Bill of Rights.

Under apartheid, Parliament was sovereign – but nowadays a system of constitutional supremacy applies. This means that the Constitution is the ultimate authority in the land; no other law or government action can supersede its provisions. As the supreme law of the country, the Constitution binds all organs of the state (legislative, executive and judicial) at all levels of government.

These three state functions are arranged in a way that reflects the principle of separation of powers: the legislative, executive and judicial authorities are independent and have distinct roles.

Government is also divided into three tiers. The national, provincial and local levels of government all have legislative and executive authority in their own spheres, and are defined in the Constitution as “distinctive, interdependent and interrelated”.

Operating at both national and provincial levels are advisory bodies drawn from South Africa’s traditional leaders.

Legislative authority

Legislative authority is vested in Parliament, which sits in Cape Town. (South Africa has three capital cities: Cape Town, the legislative capital; Bloemfontein, the judicial capital; and Pretoria, the administrative capital.) Parliament consists of two houses: the National Assembly and the National Council of Provinces. Parliament is bound by the Constitution and must act within its limits.

The National Assembly is elected to represent the people and to ensure democratic governance. It does this by electing the President, providing a national forum for the public consideration of issues, passing legislation and scrutinising executive action.

The National Assembly consists of no fewer than 350 and no more than 400 members elected for a five-year term on the basis of a common voters’ roll. It is presided over by a Speaker who is assisted by a Deputy Speaker.

The number of National Assembly seats awarded to each political party is in proportion to the outcome of national elections, held every five years and run by the Independent Electoral Commission. South Africa’s first democratic general election was held in 1994. 

Also participating in the legislative process is the National Council of Provinces, a body created to achieve cooperative governance and participatory democracy. The council consists of 54 permanent members and 36 special delegates. Each of South Africa’s nine provinces sends 10 representatives to the national council.

Executive authority

The President is the head of state and leads the executive arm of government. The President may not serve more than two five-year terms in office.

The Cabinet consists of the President, the Deputy President and 25 ministers. The President appoints the Deputy President and ministers, assigns their powers and functions, and may dismiss them. All but two ministers must be selected from among the members of the National Assembly. The members of Cabinet are accountable individually and collectively to Parliament. Deputy Ministers are also appointed by the President from among the members of the National Assembly.

Judicial authority

Judicial authority is vested in the courts, which are independent and subject only to the Constitution and the law.

The Constitution makes provision for the following courts (among others):

The Constitutional Court, situated in Johannesburg, is the highest court in all constitutional matters. It consists of the Chief Justice of South Africa, the Deputy Chief Justice and nine Constitutional Court judges.

The Supreme Court of Appeal, situated in Bloemfontein, is the highest court in respect of all other matters. It has jurisdiction to hear and determine an appeal against any decision of a high court.

There are 10 high court divisions:

  • Cape of Good Hope (with its seat in Cape Town)
  • Eastern Cape (Grahamstown)
  • Northern Cape (Kimberley)
  • Orange Free State (Bloemfontein)
  • Natal (Pietermaritzburg)
  • Transvaal (Pretoria)
  • Transkei (Mthatha)
  • Ciskei (Bhisho)
  • Venda (Sibasa)
  • Bophuthatswana (Mmabatho)

Magistrates’ courts are grouped into 13 clusters headed by chief magistrates.

State institutions

Chapter 9 of the Constitution establishes a number of bodies to support democracy. These are:

Provincial government

South Africa has nine provinces:

Each province has its own provincial government, with legislative power vested in a provincial legislature and executive power vested in a provincial premier and exercised with the other members of a provincial executive council.

The provincial legislatures each have between 30 and 80 members elected for a five-year term based on the province’s portion of the national common voters’ roll. The number of seats awarded to each political party is in proportion to the outcome of the provincial election. Provincial elections are held concurrently with national elections.

The premier is elected by the legislature and, as in the case of the President at national level, is limited to two five-year terms in office. The premier appoints the other members of the executive council (MECs), which functions as a cabinet at provincial level.

Local government

Municipalities, which govern for a term of four years, run local affairs subject to national and provincial legislation.

South Africa has 284 municipalities, divided into three categories:

  • Category A – metropolitan municipalities
  • Category B – local municipalities
  • Category C – district municipalities

Metropolitan municipalities, also known as unicities, have exclusive municipal executive and legislative authority in their areas. There are six of these:

District and local councils are interdependent. A district council has municipal executive and legislative authority over a large area, with its primary responsibility being district-wide planning and capacity-building. Within a district council’s area are individual local councils that share their municipal authority with the district council under which they fall.

Members of municipal councils are elected every four years.

Two bodies are mandated by South Africa’s Constitution to help support, manage and coordinate the lower levels of government: the national Department of Public Service and Administration and the South African Local Government Association.

Useful links

National government

Political parties in national government

National government institutions

Judicial authority

State institutions supporting democracy