The Structure of Government

The structure of government

South Africa is a constitutional democracy characterized by the separation of functions and powers between its three branches of state namely, the executive, the legislature, and the judiciary. The branches have their own constitutional functions and are independent of each other -- this is known as the separation of powers.

Executive Branch

The executive on a national level consists of the President, the Deputy President, ministers, and deputy ministers.

On a provincial level, the executive branch consists of the Premier and Members of the executive Council (MECs) -- think of them as provincial ministers.

The executive is empowered to develop and implement national policy and coordinate the functions of government. The executive also has the power to propose changes to existing legislation and initiate new policies.

Structure of the executive:

The President

The President is Head of State and head of the national executive or Cabinet. He or she is entrusted with maintaining, upholding, and defending the supremacy of the Constitution as the guiding law of the country and promote unity of the nation to advance the Republic.

Election of President

The National Assembly elects one of its members as President. Once elected, the President is no longer a Member of Parliament and must be sworn into office within five days.

Duration of the Presidency

A person may serve as President for no more than two terms, which in total is ten years.

Removal of the President

The President can be removed if he or she has seriously violated the Constitution or the law or has been engaged in serious misconduct or is unable to perform his or her duties. Parliament's Rules were amended to be more explicit about this process of removing a President. Any Member of the National Assembly can initiate, through a substantive motion, a process to remove a President in terms of Section 89. Once such a motion is submitted, the Speaker of the National Assembly must refer it and any supporting evidence to a panel of three independent legal experts. The panel, which the Speaker appoints after consulting political parties represented in the Assembly, must assess if there is sufficient evidence for Parliament to proceed with a section 89 inquiry. The panel must conclude its deliberations within 30 days and report to the National Assembly. The House must then decide whether to proceed with an inquiry. If it decides to proceed with an inquiry, the matter must be referred to a specially constituted Impeachment Committee. This Impeachment Committee will investigate, establish the veracity (and, where required, the seriousness) of the charges against a President and make a recommendation to the National Assembly. The Committee's report must include all views expressed in the Committee.

Once the Impeachment Committee has reported, the House must schedule the report for debate and decision at a House sitting with due urgency. If the report recommends that a President be removed from office, the question must be put to a vote. A President is removed from office if two thirds of Members of the Assembly support the recommendation.

Alternatively, the President can be removed through a motion of no confidence in Parliament. A motion of no confidence is a vote of whether a person in a position of responsibility is still deemed fit to hold that position. For it to pass, such motion requires only a majority vote which is 50% or more of all Members of the National Assembly. After the motion is passed, the President must resign.

Once a President has been removed from office, the National Assembly must elect a new President within thirty days of the vacancy occurring.

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Acting President

If the President is out of the country or unable to perform his or her duties, the following people, in order of priority, are required to serve as acting President:

  1. The Deputy President

  2. a Minister designated by the President

  3. a Minister designated by the Cabinet

  4. the Speaker of the National Assembly until it elects one of its members of Parliament

Powers, functions, and responsibilities of the President include:

  • appointing the Cabinet

  • appointing judges after consulting with the Judicial Services Commission

  • appointing the Public Protector, the Auditor-General and members of the various Commissions on the recommendation of Parliament

  • appointing the Military Command of the Defence Force

  • appointing commissions of inquiry

  • approving and signing Bills passed by Parliament so that they can become laws, or referring Bills back to the National Assembly or to the Constitutional Court if there are concerns over their constitutionality

  • calling special sittings of the Houses of Parliament

  • calling a national referendum

  • receiving foreign diplomats

  • designating South Africa's representatives abroad

  • conferring honours

  • pardoning or reprieving offenders; and

  • declaring a \"state of national defence\" with the approval of Parliament.

The Deputy President

The President appoints the Deputy President from amongst the Members of the National Assembly. He or she then assigns certain powers and functions to the Deputy President who must assist the President in the running of government (section 91 of the Constitution).

Powers and functions assigned to the Deputy President:

  • Leader of Government Business in Parliament

  • Leading Government effort to fast-track Land Reform and the co-ordination of Government programmes to accelerate Land Reform and agricultural support

  • Assist the President in the implementation of rapid response interventions on service delivery and trouble-shooting in service delivery hotspots.

  • Co-ordinate anti-poverty initiatives through, amongst others, Public Employment Programmes, Integrated Service Delivery and Enterprise Development

  • Leading the South African National AIDS Council and the country's integrated response to the challenges of HIV and AIDS

  • Assist the President in efforts towards building a better Africa

  • Support in investment facilitation and Trade Promotion

  • Leading the National Human Resource Development Council and fostering collaboration between government and social partners towards addressing the shortage of skills in critical sectors of the economy

  • Promoting Social Cohesion Initiatives including being patron of the Moral Regeneration Movement


Cabinet includes the President, the Deputy President and ministers who are appointed by the President from the National Assembly. There are also ministers that are appointed from outside of the NA.

The President allocates specific responsibilities known as a "portfolios" to each minister to supervise. Each minister has a deputy, sometimes two, and a ministry which consists of a small team of advisors. The ministry and a department, headed by a Director-General, assist the minister in developing and implementing policy and laws.

Currently there are 27 portfolios which are:

1. Agriculture, Land Reform and Rural Development 15. Mineral Resources and Energy
2. Basic Education 16. Police
3. Communications and Digital Technologies 17. Public Enterprises
4. Cooperative Governance and Traditional Affairs 18. Public Service and Administration
5. Defence and Military Veterans 19. Public Works and Infrastructure
6. Employment and Labour 20. Small Business Development
7. Forestry, Fisheries and the Environment 21. Social Development
8. Finance 22. Sport, Arts and Culture
9. Health 23.Tourism
10. Higher Education, Science and Innovation 24. Trade, Industry and Competition
11. Home Affairs 25. Transport
12. Human Settlements 26. Water and Sanitation
13. International Relations and Cooperation 27. Women, Youth and Persons with Disabilities
14. Justice and Correctional Service

Structure of the Provincial executive

South Africa has nine provinces. Each province has an Executive Council headed by the Premier. Members of the Executive Councils (MECs) comprise the Executive Council and are accountable to their legislatures in the same way as the Executive is accountable to Parliament (Section 125 of the Constitution).

The Premier

The Premier is elected by Members of the Provincial Legislature (MPLs) from amongst themselves. The Premier and the Executive Council are responsible for implementing provincial policies, implementing relevant national legislation, and coordinating provincial administration.

The Executive Council

The Premier appoints MECs from among the MPLs. There may be up to ten MECs in each province. The exception is the Western Cape whose provincial Constitution allows for the additional appointment of up to two non-voting MECs from outside the legislature.


MECs are responsible for portfolios assigned to them by the Premier. They must act in accordance with the Constitution as well as the provincial constitution if the province has one[^1]. MECs provide the legislature with full and regular reports concerning matters relevant to their portfolios.

Legislative Branch


Parliament, as the national legislature, has two Houses: the National Assembly and the National Council of Provinces (NCOP). The national legislative authority in vested in Parliament.

The National Assembly (NA)

The National Assembly is elected by the people, to represent the people. It does this by:

  • electing the President,

  • providing a national forum for public consideration of issues,

  • drafting, considering, and passing legislation and

  • scrutinizing and overseeing executive action.

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The National Assembly can have a maximum of 400 Members or minimum of 350 Members.

South Africa's voting system is based on party-list proportional representation. This means that citizens will vote for a political party, not individuals. Political parties then receive their share of seats in Parliament in proportion to the number of votes it received in the election. For example, if a party wins half the votes, it will hold half the seats in the National Assembly.

The National Council of Provinces (NCOP)

The National Council of Provinces (NCOP) ensures that the nine provinces and local government are represented in the national legislature. It does this mainly by:

  • participating in the national legislative process and

  • providing a national forum for public consideration of issues affecting the provinces


Each province has ten delegates, despite the size of the province. This ensures the provinces are equally represented. There are six permanent and four non-permanent members in each delegation. The delegation must reflect the proportional strength of the various parties in each province.

In addition to the nine provincial delegations, the NCOP includes a delegation of the South African Local Government Association (SALGA) whose ten non-voting representatives are chosen from a group of representatives from the nine provincial local government associations.

Provincial Legislature

Each province has a legislature, its size depending on the population of the province. According to the Constitution, the minimum size of a legislature is 30 members, and the maximum size is 80 members.

The legislative authority of a province is vested in its provincial legislature (section 104 of the Constitution). The provincial legislatures are unicameral. They have the power to consider provincial legislation, elect the Premier, enact a provincial constitution and oversee the provincial government including holding the Premier and MECs accountable. The provincial legislature also scrutinises the budgets and expenditure of the provincial government through appropriation bills.

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Office bearers of the legislature

Parliament: National Assembly

  • The Speaker and Deputy Speaker are the Presiding Officers, and they manage the National Assembly's affairs.

  • The Leader of Government Business is appointed by the President from the Cabinet. He or she is responsible for organising parliamentary business initiated by the Executive and ensuring Ministers attend to their parliamentary responsibilities

  • Chief Whips organise party business in the National Assembly

  • House Chairpersons includes:

    • House Chairperson of Internal Arrangements ensures the well-being of members

    • House Chairperson of International Relations ensures and monitors implementation of Parliament's International Relations Strategy and

    • House Chairperson of Committees oversees and reports to the Programme Committee on progress with Bills, committee programmes and committee expenditure

The Presiding Officers together with the Chief Whips and Leader of Government Business decide on the programme for the National Assembly.

Parliament: NCOP

The NCOP elects a Chairperson and a Deputy Chairperson to run its affairs.

Other office bearers in the NCOP:

  • the Chairperson of Committees and his or her Deputy.

  • Two sets of Whips:

  • province Whips to organise the work of its delegation and

  • party Whips to organise its party business within the NCOP

Provincial Legislatures

Like Parliament, office bearers in the provincial legislatures include:

  • the Speaker

  • the Deputy Speaker

  • the Leader of the House

  • Chief Whips (representing the majority party and largest minority party)

  • the Whips

  • the Chairperson and the Deputy Chairperson of Committees, and

  • the Leader of the Official Opposition

Functions and responsibilities of office bearers

Presiding officers

The National Assembly is presided over by the Speaker, elected by its Members. There is also a Deputy Speaker. This is the same for the provincial legislatures. They preside over sittings of the NCOP and organise the affairs of the National Assembly/provincial legislature.

The NCOP is presided over by the Chairperson and Deputy Chairperson. They preside over sittings of the NCOP and organise the affairs of the House.

These presiding officers and his or her deputies are elected from amongst the Members of each legislature and should be fair and impartial in the execution of their duties. They are responsible for:

  • presiding over sittings of the House and chairing debates

  • making sure that Members can participate freely while keeping to the rules

  • interpreting the rules

  • They may also give a ruling or make a ruling on a matter for which there is no provision in the current parliamentary rules

  • Preserving parliamentary integrity and decorum of the House

  • Serving as the Executive Authority for the House

  • Ensuring the smooth running of the House business and its Committees

  • Ensuring the development and management of the House programme

The National Assembly may remove the Speaker or Deputy Speaker from office by resolution. Majority of the NA Members need to be present when this resolution is adopted.

Chairperson of Committees

The Chair of Chairs performs these functions:

  • to preside at meetings of the Committee of Chairpersons

  • to approve programmes, budget and expenditure of Committees

  • to preside at the sittings of a House when the Speaker and Deputy Speaker are not available

  • Ensure committees are supported

  • Coordinate and facilitate committee training

Leader of Government Business (LOGB)

The Leader of Government Business (LOGB) is chosen by the President with consent of Cabinet from amongst the Members of the Cabinet and represents Cabinet in Parliament. The LOGB is usually the Deputy President.

The LOGB plays a crucial role in coordinating the national executive affairs in Parliament and ensuring Ministers attend to their parliamentary responsibilities. The LOGB is the link between the executive and the legislature.

In provincial legislatures, the Leader of Government Business is referred to as the Leader of the House, is appointed by the Premier and serves as a link between the Executive Council and its legislature. They perform the same functions as the Leader of Government Business nationally.

Chief Whips and Party Whips

Whips contribute to the smooth running of a legislature by managing the participation of their political party caucuses. They assist with the ordering of business on the Order Paper, move motions, respond to points of order etc. Whips ensure party discipline through ensuring attendance and participation etc

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There are two Chief Whips who are the official office bearers. One represents the majority party, and the other is from the largest opposition party. The Chief Whips are formally appointed by the Speaker, based on the recommendations of the respective political parties. The Chief Whips are the heads of the whippery for each party.


Much of the work of legislatures is delegated to Committees. This means that:

  • issues can be debated in more detail than is possible in a full sitting of the House

  • public hearings can be held on specific matters

  • Members assigned to a Committee can develop expertise and in-depth knowledge of the field covered by that Committee; and

  • internal arrangements, proceedings and procedures for the legislature can be devised and monitored.

The functions of Committees include:

  • initiating legislation

  • debating and amending legislation and policy documents

  • monitoring the departments, they oversee

  • investigating and making recommendations on the budgets of these departments

  • holding public hearings or asking for submissions on important bills

  • investigating any function of the executive and its department, which includes summoning ministers and any department official to appear before them to give information

Committees do not take decisions but make recommendations to the House. Each Committee elects its own chairperson and is supported administratively by a Committee secretary/clerk.

Portfolio Committees

In the National Assembly there are \"Portfolio\" Committees which oversee government departments for each government department/portfolio there is a portfolio committee.

Select committees

In the NCOP, there are "Select" Committee that oversee groups of departments. There is an emphasis on provincial issues in the Select Committees.

Committees in the provincial legislatures

Provincial legislatures also have committees to scrutinise the affairs of provincial government. These committees often oversee a grouping of provincial government departments

Ad hoc committees

Both Parliament and provincial legislatures have temporary Committees, known as \"Ad Hoc\" Committees, which are formed to consider specific issues. Once the issues are dealt with, they are resolved.

Standing Committees

Some committees are permanent structures and are known as \"standing committees\" such as the Standing Committee on Public Accounts. Some standing committees have members from both the National Assembly and the NCOP, which are called \"joint\" standing Committees.

The Judiciary

The Judiciary is tasked with interpreting and applying the laws of the country. While, in the case of South Africa, there is a partial fusion of the Executive and Legislative branches, the Judiciary is completely independent. The judicial branch is comprised of all the courts and is headed by the Chief Justice. 

The courts are:

  • the Constitutional Court

  • the Supreme Court of Appeal

  • the High Courts

  • the Magistrates Courts and

  • various other Courts.

The Constitutional Court

The Constitutional Court of South Africa is the highest court in the country when it comes to the interpretation, protection, and enforcement of the Constitution. It deals exclusively with constitutional matters -- those cases that raise questions about the application or interpretation of the Constitution. It is presided over by 11 judges.

It is also the only court that may decide upon disputes between organs of state in the national and provincial spheres. The disputes may concern:

  • the constitutional status, power, or functions of any of those organs of state

  • the constitutionality of any national or provincial Bill or Act

  • the constitutionality of any amendment to the Constitution

  • the possible failure of the Parliament or the President to fulfil a constitutional obligation; or

  • certifying a provincial constitution.

Supreme Court of Appeal

The Supreme Court of Appeal is the highest court of appeal except in constitutional matters, and may hear only:

  • appeals

  • issues connected with appeals; and

  • other matters that may be referred to it in circumstances defined by an Act of Parliament.

When people are not satisfied with the decision of a High Court, they may take the matter further to the Supreme Court of Appeal. It is presided over by five judges.

High Court

High Courts are primarily intended for more serious criminal and civil cases.

Each province has a High Court which is situated in the capital. There are 14 provincial divisions of the High Court. The present 14 provincial divisions of the High Court are situated in:

  • Eastern Cape High Court (Bhisho)

  • Free State High Court (Bloemfontein)

  • Western Cape High Court (Cape Town)

  • KwaZulu-Natal High Court (Durban)

  • Eastern Cape High Court (Makhanda)

  • South Gauteng High Court (Johannesburg)

  • Northern Cape High Court (Kimberley)

  • KwaZulu-Natal High Court (Pietermaritzburg)

  • Eastern Cape High Court (Gqeberha)

  • North Gauteng High Court (Pretoria)

  • Limpopo High Court (Thohoyandou)

  • Eastern Cape High Court (Mthatha)

  • North West High Court, Mafikeng (Mmabatho) and

  • Polokwane Circuit Court of the North Gauteng High Court, Pretoria

Magistrates' Courts

Magistrates' Courts are the entry point for most people who go to court. There are two kinds of magistrate courts: regional courts and district courts. Regional courts are higher in rank which means that they hear more serious cases than the District Magistrate Courts and may impose heavier sentences.

Other Courts

There are various other courts which are located at varying levels in the court hierarchy:

  • the Small Claims Courts which look at minor cases involving sums of R3000 or less

  • the Electoral Court which deals with electoral issues, for example when there is a dispute among political parties concerning the elections

  • the Labour Court which deals with issues pertaining to labour relations; and

  • the Land Claims Courts which deal with matters of land redistribution.

[^1]: The Western Cape is the only province that has a provincial constitution