Government in South Africa

South Africa is a constitutional democracy with a three-tier system of government, an independent judiciary, and a Constitution - the highest law of the land - recognised as one of the most progressive in the world.

Sections in this article:

The Constitution mandates that each of the three tiers of government - national, provincial and local - is "distinctive", with a legislative and executive authority of its own.

They are nonetheless "interdependent and interrelated". The key is "cooperative governance" - the title of Chapter 3 of the Constitution.

The Constitution of the Republic of South Africa

 Constitutional Court of South AfricaA sculpture outside South Africa's Constitutional Court on Constitution Hill in Johannesburg. The court has a unique collection of artworks, curated by retired judge Albie Sachs. (Image: South African Tourism)

South Africa’s Constitution is internationally acclaimed for its emphasis on human rights.

The Bill of Rights - chapter 2 of the Constitution - ensures protection of a broad range of rights, from equality and human dignity, to freedoms of religion, expression, sexual orientation and more, to the right to adequate housing, water and sanitation.

The Constitution was approved by the Constitutional Court on 4 December 1996. It became law on 4 February 1997.

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

Three levels and three spheres of government

 Nelson Mandela Statue at the Union BuildingsIn Pretoria, a statue of Nelson Mandela stands outside the Union Buildings, the seat of South Africa's government administration. (Image: South African Tourism)

South Africa has three levels of government: national, provincial and local (municipal).

National government is further divided into three separate spheres: law-making (legislative authority), the actual work of governing (executive authority) and the courts (judicial authority).

South Africa's three capital cities reflect these spheres.

The executive capital is Pretoria, where the Union Buildings house the seat of government and the offices of the president.

The judicial capital is Bloemfontein, home of the Supreme Court of Appeal.

Cape Town is the legislative capital, where the Houses of Parliament draft, vote and pass the laws of the country.

The two houses of Parliament are the National Assembly, which creates law for the country as a whole, and the National Council of Provinces, which ensures those laws will meet the different needs of each province.

Parliament: the National Assembly

 Parliament of South AfricaA worker outside the National Assembly building of Parliament in Cape Town. (Image: GCIS)

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 in the mid-1990s, South Africa has held nationwide democratic elections in 1994, 1999, 2004, 2009 and, most recently, 2014.

2014 national election results

Parliament: the National Council of Provinces

 Constitutional Court of South AfricaThe National Council of Provinces building at Parliament in Cape Town. (Image: South African Tourism)

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

 TuynhuysTuynhuys in Cape Town houses the subsidiary office of the Presidency, after the Union Buildings in Pretoria. (Image: Wikimedia Commons)

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

 Northern Cape provincial government buildingsThe eye-catching architecture of the Northern Cape Provincial Legislature buildings in Galeshewe, Kimberley, the home of the province's government. (Image: Media Club South Africa)

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

 City of Johannesburg Civic Centre buildingsThe Civic Centre in Braamfontein houses the City of Johannesburg metropolitan municipality government. (Image: Media Club South Africa)

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

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.

Chapter 7 of the Constitution explains the different categories:

  • Category A - Metropolitan: A municipality that has exclusive municipal executive and legislative authority in its area.
  • Category B - Local: A municipality that shares municipal executive and legislative authority in its area with a category C municipality within whose area it falls.
  • Category C - District: A municipality that has municipal executive and legislative authority in an area that includes more than one municipality.
Map of South Africa's municipalitiesMap 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)

The country has 278 municipalities: eight metropolitan, 44 district and 226 local.

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.

Metropolitan municipalities in South Africa

Traditional leaders

National House of Traditional LeadersA March 2015 photo of the National House of Traditional Leaders in the Old Assembly Chamber of Parliament in Cape Town. (Image: The Presidency)

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.

State institutions to support constitutional democracy

Chapter 9 of South Africa's Constitution establishes six state institutions to support democracy. Known as "chapter nine institutions", these are:

  • The Public Protector investigates "any conduct in state affairs, or in the public administration in any sphere of government, that is alleged or suspected to be improper or to result in any impropriety or prejudice".
  • The Human Rights Commission promotes "respect for human rights and a culture of human rights" as well as the "protection, development and attainment of human rights".
  • The Commission for the Promotion and Protection of the Rights of Cultural, Religious and Linguistic Communities promotes "respect for the rights of cultural, religious and linguistic communities" and is tasked to "develop peace, friendship, humanity, tolerance and national unity among cultural, religious and linguistic communities, on the basis of equality, non-discrimination and free association".
  • The Commission for Gender Equality must "promote respect for gender equality and the protection, development and attainment of gender equality".
  • The Auditor-General must "audit and report on the accounts, financial statements and financial management of all national and provincial state departments and administrations, all municipalities, and any other institution or accounting entity", as required by law.
  • The Electoral Commission must "manage elections of national, provincial and municipal legislative bodies in accordance with national legislation, ensure that those elections are free and fair, and declare the results of those elections".


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
Compiled by Mary Alexander and reporter
Updated: 6 November 2015

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South Africa Houses of Parliament south africa, houses of parliament, parliament, governmentThe flag of South Africa flies above the Houses of Parliament in Cape Town. (Image: GCIS)

Coat of arms of the Republic of South Africa seal, south africa, coat of arms, government, unity in diversityThe coat of arms of South Africa was introduced in 2000 on 27 April, Freedom Day, the national holiday marking the date of the country's first-ever democratic elections, held in 1994. The motto ǃke e: ǀxarra ǁke is in the Khoisan language of the ǀXam people. It translates literally as "diverse people unite" - unity in diversity.


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