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The three spheres of Government

    What is in this guide?

      1. National Government
      2. Provincial Government
      3. Local Government

Government has the responsibility to make policies and laws about the rights and responsibilities of citizens and the delivery of government services. Government collects revenue (income) from taxes and uses this money to provide services and infrastructure that improves the lives of all the people in the country, particularly the poor.

The Constitution of South Africa sets the rules for how government works. There are three spheres of government in South Africa:

  • National government
  • Provincial government
  • Local government

The spheres of government are autonomous and should not be seen as hierarchical. The Constitution says: The spheres of government are distinctive, inter-related and inter-dependent.  At the same time they all operate according to the Constitution and laws and policies made by national Parliament.

The government machinery is made up of three parts:

  • The elected members (legislatures) – who represent the public, approve policies and laws and monitor the work of the executive and departments.
  • The Cabinet or Executive committee (executive)– who co-ordinate the making of policies and laws and oversee implementation by the government departments
  • The departments and public servants – who are responsible for doing the work of government and account to the Executive







    President and Cabinet

    Directors General and departments



    Premier and Executive Council

    Heads of Department and staff



    Mayor and Mayoral Committee

    Municipal Manager, HoDs and staff

The Judiciary is also defined as part of government, but they are independent so that courts can protect citizens without being influenced or pressurised by government. The independence of the Judiciary is a cornerstone of constitutional democracy. It guarantees the supremacy of the Constitution. We do not deal with the Judiciary here since they are not formally part of the policy-making or implementation machinery of government.

  1. National: Role, powers and functions

Laws and policies are approved by Parliament which is made up of the National Assembly and the National Council of Provinces (NCOP). The National Assembly is made up of members of Parliament, elected every five years.

The NCOP was set up to ensure that provincial and local government are directly represented in Parliament. It is made up of representatives of provincial legislatures and local government. Each province has a set number of permanent and rotating representatives. The NCOP has to debate and vote on any law or policy that affects provincial or local government.

The President is elected by Parliament and appoints a Cabinet of Ministers. They act as the executive committee of government and each Minister is the political head of a government department.

Each government department is responsible for implementing the laws and policies decided on by Parliament or the Cabinet. Government departments are headed by a Director General and employ Directors (managers) and public servants (staff) to do the work of government.

Every department prepares a budget for its work. The budgets are put into one national budget by the Treasury (Department of Finance), which has to be approved by Parliament. The Treasury has to balance the income and expenditure of government in the budget and will rarely give departments everything they ask for.

The Presidency coordinates the work of government and provides direction and strategic support to ministers and departments. The Presidency monitors and evaluates overall progress towards achieving government goals.

The Department of Public Service and Administration (DPSA) sets the policies and framework for the Public Service at national and provincial level. This role may be extended to local government in the future.

Some departments only exist at national level because they deal with issues that concern the whole country. Examples are Defence, Foreign Affairs, Water and Forestry, Science and Technology, Trade and Industry, Mineral and Energy, Public Enterprises, Home Affairs and Public Service and Administration. Other departments have national and provincial departments because they deal with direct provincial service delivery. Examples are Education, Housing, Health and Social Development.

Provincial or local government may not do anything that is against the laws or policies set down by national government. Provincial government gets most of its money from the national government through Treasury. Local government also gets grants and some loans through the Treasury.

The Department of Provincial and Local Government (which resides at the national level) is responsible for national co-ordination of provinces and municipalities. In every province, the provincial Departments of Local Government monitors and supports municipalities.

  1. Provincial: Role, powers and functions

There are nine provincial governments. Every province has a Legislature made up of between 30 and 90 members of the Provincial Legislature (MPLs). Some provincial laws are approved by Legislatures. The Legislature also passes a provincial budget every year. Legislatures are elected in provincial elections that are held with national elections, every five years.

A Premier is elected by the Legislature and appoints Members of the Executive Council (MECs) to be the political heads of each provincial department. The MECs and the Premier form the Provincial Executive Council (Cabinet).

Provincial government is headed by a Director General and provincial departments are headed by a Deputy Director General or a Head of Department. They employ Directors (managers) and public servants to do the work of government. Most of the public servants in the country fall under provincial government – these include teachers and nurses.

In each of the nine provinces there are usually at least twelve departments. The names are slightly different and in some provinces departments are combined.

Some of them are:

    • Finance
    • Economic development
    • Tourism
    • Housing
    • Education
    • Health
    • Social Development
    • Transport
    • Public works
    • Planning and Environment
    • Sport, recreation, art and culture
    • Agriculture
    • Local government
    • Safety and security or Community Safety

Each province has to develop a Provincial Growth and Development Strategy (PGDS) that spells out the overall framework and plan for developing the economy and improving services. Provinces also have a Spatial Development Framework (SDF) that says where and how residential and business development should take place and how the environment should be protected. 

The provincial MEC and Department of Local Government are responsible for co-ordination, monitoring and support of municipalities in each province.

  1. Local (municipal): Role, powers and functions

The whole of South Africa is divided into local municipalities. Each municipality has a council where decisions are made and municipal officials and staff who implement the work of the municipality.

The Council is made up of elected members who approve policies and by-laws for their area. The Council has to pass a budget for its municipality each year. They must also decide on development plans and service delivery for their municipal area.

The work of the Council is co-ordinated by a Mayor who is elected by Council. The Mayor is assisted by councillors in an Executive Committee (elected by council) or a Mayoral Committee (appointed by the mayor). The Mayor together with the Executive or Mayoral Committee also oversees the work of the Municipal Manager and department heads. In some very small municipalities the whole Council forms the executive – this is called a Plenary Executive.

The work of the municipality is done by the municipal administration that is headed by the Municipal Manager and other officials. S/he is responsible for employing staff and co-ordinating them to implement all programmes approved by council.

Different kinds of municipalities

There are three different kinds of municipalities in South Africa:

1. Metropolitan municipalities (Category A):

Metropolitan municipalities exist in the six biggest cities in South Africa. They have more than 500 000 voters and the metropolitan municipality co-ordinates the delivery of services to the whole area. There are metropolitan municipalities in Johannesburg, Cape Town, Ethekwini (Durban), Tshwane (Pretoria), Nelson Mandela (Port Elizabeth) and the Ekhuruleni (East Rand).

These municipalities are broken into wards. Half the councillors are elected through a proportional representation ballot, where voters vote for a party. The other half are elected as ward councillors by the residents in each ward.

2. Local municipalities (Category B):

Areas that fall outside of the six metropolitan municipal areas are divided into local municipalities. There are a total of 231 of these local municipalities and each municipality is broken into wards. The residents in each ward are represented by a ward councillor.

Only people who live in low population areas, like game parks, do not fall under local municipalities. The areas are called district management areas (DMA) and fall directly under the district municipality.

In local municipalities, half the councillors are elected through a proportional representation ballot, where voters vote for a party. The other half are elected as ward councillors by the residents in each ward.

3. District municipalities (Category C):

District municipalities are made up of a number of local municipalities that fall in one district. There are usually between 3 - 6 local municipalities that come together in a district council and there are 47 district municipalities in South Africa. Some district municipalities also include nature reserves and the areas where few people live - district management areas. These fall directly under the district council and have no local council. The district municipality has to co-ordinate development and delivery in the whole district. It plays a stronger role in areas where local municipalities lack capacity to deliver. It has its own administration (staff).

The district council is made up of two types of councillors:

    • Elected councillors - they are elected for the district council on a proportional representation ballot by all voters in the area. (40% of the district councillors)
    • Councillors who represent local municipalities in the area - they are local councillors sent by their council to represent it on the district council. (60% of the district councillors)

While metropolitan municipalities are responsible for all local services development and delivery in the metropolitan area, local municipalities share these responsibilities with district municipalities. This is especially the case in very rural areas, where district municipalities will have more responsibility for development and service delivery.

Functions of municipalities

Municipalities are responsible for the following functions:

Electricity delivery Water for household use
Sewage and sanitation Storm water systems
Refuse removal Fire fighting services
Municipal health services Decisions around land use
Municipal roads Municipal public transport
Street trading Abattoirs and fresh food markets
Parks and recreational areas Libraries and other facilities
Local tourism  


Government and the Constitution  |   The three spheres of government   |  Elections in South Africa   |  Local government elections  |   Party agent’s guide for national elections  |   Intergovernmental relations and planning | Policy and law making process | Vision and key programmes of government | Government spending and Income | Economic development and AsgiSA | The developmental state | Government accountability and public participation | SA and the world | The Public Service | Batho Pele | Combating corruption in government

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