We vote for Government – and it is ours …

The fact is – we vote for our government, and it is ours. It has the power to make decisions on our behalf, but citizens can become involved in making these decisions too. Many problems in our country, from AIDS to unemployment, are too complex for government to solve on its own. Democracy depends on us all. This brief unpacks the way government works, what checks and balances are in place (very relevant these days, when considering court cases currently in the hotseat, with Hlophe/Constitutional Court and Zuma/the NPA), and how citizens can interact with different levels and branches of government.


For citizens in a democracy, voting needs to become a habit. One of the defining characteristics of a democratic country is that elections happen regularly. According to the Constitution, both the national and provincial legislatures are elected for a five-year term. That’s a long time in politics.

One of the main purposes of an election is to provide a fresh mandate to government. Mandate is a word that carries a lot of weight in a democracy. By voting, citizens indicate support for the policies and proposals of a particular party. In so doing, they place responsibility in the hands of those who are elected to fulfill their election promises. This is their mandate; once they are elected into office, they cannot do as they please.
Moreover, the mandate does not last forever. With each election, voters are able to review their choices and provide a fresh mandate to a new group of elected officials.


The Constitution provides a map for the structure and functions of government in South Africa. Chapter Three of the Constitution provides for three “spheres” of government in our country: national, provincial and local. The use of the word “spheres” marks an important shift from older language. In the past, it was common to talk about different “levels” or “tiers” of government. These terms suggested a hierarchy, with national government being the most important and local government the least important. The Constitution does away with that hierarchy. It states that the three spheres of government are “distinctive, interdependent and interrelated.”

Dividing government into different spheres is part of decentralisation. This is a way of ensuring that not all government power is concentrated in the “centre” or at the top. Rather, power is distributed across the different spheres and becomes more open and accessible to the people. The unique interests of different regions and districts are also recognised more easily.


National government is responsible for certain tasks that cannot be divided between the provinces, for example defence and foreign affairs. Other tasks are shared between national and provincial government, and sometimes even between all three spheres of government. Roads provide an example. The national Ministry of Transport is responsible for building and maintaining the national highways that criss-cross the country. These roads can be identified by their numbering: N1, N4, etc. Provincial transport departments are responsible for the roads linking towns and cities within provincial boundaries, apart from the national roads. Local government is expected to take charge of streets within municipal areas.

As a rule, national government is responsible for developing overall policy and legislation. These are like the rules of the game within which provincial and local government do their work. National government also establishes minimum standards for the provision of services, with the aim of ensuring that citizens in different parts of the country receive comparable treatment. This applies to a wide range of issues from agriculture and arts to health and housing, education and environmental affairs to transport and trade.

Provincial government shares responsibility with national government on a number of these and other issues. There is a stronger emphasis on providing services, and the area of service is limited by provincial boundaries. The distinctions between these roles are not always very clear cut, and occasionally shift between the spheres. The different spheres are expected to consult and inform each other on matters of common interest and to co-ordinate their programmes and laws.


Like all modern democracies, South Africa also has three branches of government: legislative, executive and judicial. Once again, the reason for this division is to prevent the concentration of power in the hands of a small group of people. This important principle, known as the separation of powers, is another cornerstone of democracy. All government power needs to be controlled and limited, even when that government is democratic. The three branches of government are expected to keep an eye on each other’s activities. This is often referred to as a process of checks and balances. Each branch of government has a distinct role to play. They operate independently, although their work is connected to the other branches of government. The degree of independence between them is a key sign of the strength of a democracy.


The judicial branch of government plays no role in proposing or passing laws, but is responsible for applying them. The judiciary is made up of all the courts, from the Constitutional Court and the high courts, to magistrates’ courts and other specialised courts. They operate completely independently from Parliament and the Cabinet. Their role is to interpret laws when they have been violated and to enforce them. They are also responsible for upholding the Constitution. The judiciary plays a very important role in preventing the abuse of power and protecting the rights of people. It ensures that everyone, including government, operates within the law.

Do citizens have a role to play in judicial affairs?

Judges and magistrates are expected to do their work without any interference from citizens. However, there are many instances when citizens are able to solve disputes on their own, without taking them to the courts. Going to court is a costly and time-consuming business. By knowing how to stand up for their rights, and by respecting the rights of others, citizens in communities can learn to develop their own dispute and conflict resolution skills. This does not refer to so-called “kangaroo courts” when citizens take the law into their own hands and inflict punishment on others. Peaceful conflict resolution enables people to negotiate their differences and to arrive at a solution that satisfies their interests. The punishment of criminals remains the work of the formal court system.


The legislative branch of government (or legislature) is mainly involved in the legislation-making (or law-making) process. In South Africa the legislature is known as Parliament. Parliament is based in Cape Town, and is made up of two separate structures, namely the National Assembly and the National Council of Provinces (NCOP). When we vote in national elections, we elect the people who will sit in the National Assembly. They are known as members of Parliament or MPs.

What is the National Assembly?

This is the most prominent chamber of Parliament. It is also more directly accountable to the people. It has 400 members, elected for a five-year term. The first task of a newly-elected National Assembly is to elect the President of the country from among its members. After that, the National Assembly spends its time debating proposals for new laws, and passing them once they have been fully approved. It provides an important forum for the public consideration of issues, and there are many ways in which citizens can have some impact on the discussions. The National Assembly also has the task of holding the various government departments accountable and generally overseeing the work of the executive branch.

What is the National Council of Provinces?

Many people are not very aware of the existence of the NCOP. It has 90 members, ten from each province. They are not directly elected during the national elections. Rather, the provincial legislatures decide on the composition of their delegation to the NCOP. The NCOP helps to maintain the link between provinces and national government. Its specific role is to ensure that the interests of the provinces are considered during the national law-making process. All legislation that passes through the National Assembly is also debated in the NCOP, with a special emphasis on those issues where the national and provincial spheres of government have shared responsibility. The NCOP cannot block legislation that does not affect the provinces.

What are the parliamentary committees?

To assist Parliament in its work, there are four different types of committees: portfolio committees, select committees, ad hoc committees and joint standing committees. MPs sit on at least one committee and sometimes several. Each committee has a specialised focus, and it is here that the most detailed discussions on proposed legislation take place. If Parliament feels that a proposed law (known as a bill) requires more work, it is referred to the relevant committee where it can be improved and amended. Sometimes a bill can be referred back to a committee several times before it is approved by Parliament and passed into law.

What is the role of the provincial legislatures?

The legislative branch of government at provincial level is known simply as the Provincial Legislature. The legislatures vary in size depending on the population of the province. Gauteng has the biggest legislature and the Northern Cape has the smallest. The members are known as MPLs. Provincial legislatures are responsible for passing laws that apply only within their province. They also hold the executive branch of government in the province accountable.

How can citizens interact with the legislative branch?

Citizens can organise themselves to have an impact on decisions that are taken both at national and provincial level. Members of the public have the right to contact any MP, member of the NCOP, or MPL to inform them of their views. This can be done through constituency offices in communities or directly through the offices of Parliament or the provincial legislature.

Perhaps the easiest way for citizens to participate in the law-making process is by making submissions to one of the parliamentary committees, or by attending public hearings. When a bill has been referred to a committee, there is usually a lot of openness to the views of interested citizens. Advertisements are often placed in newspapers around the country to inform citizens of proposed laws that are under discussion. The important thing to remember is that MPs and MPLs are our representatives, and that discussions that take place in Parliament are about our lives.


The executive branch is what people generally mean when they refer to “government.” This branch includes the President, the Deputy President, and the Cabinet.

What is the Cabinet?

The Cabinet consists of 26 ministers appointed by the President from the National Assembly. After they have been appointed, the ministers cease to be MPs. The Cabinet is accountable to Parliament, and members of the Cabinet report regularly to Parliament on the work of their departments. This is part of the system of checks and balances. Each Cabinet minister is responsible for a different government department. Each department is headed by a Director General and is staffed by large numbers of civil servants. Cabinet plays an important role in the overall co-ordination of different departments. An issue like crime, for example, needs collaboration between the ministries of Safety and Security, Justice and Correctional Services.

What does the executive branch do?

Ministers and their departments take responsibility for proposing new policies and laws. However, Cabinet cannot pass laws. After the preparatory work has been done, Cabinet “introduces” these laws for discussion in Parliament. Parliament debates and amends the proposed law before passing it. After it has been passed, it once again becomes the responsibility of a particular government department (or group of departments) to implement it. This is the work that gives the executive branch its name: the verb “execute” means to carry out or administer laws and policies.

What is the provincial executive?

Each province has an Executive Council, headed by the Premier. The Executive Council performs the same tasks as the Cabinet, except that it operates at provincial level. Members of the executive council are usually referred to as MECs. Just like ministers, they are responsible for different issues, and they provide political leadership to the various departments in the provincial government. The Director General of the province is the chief administrator of all the provincial departments combined. At the head of each department is a Deputy Director General.

What is the difference between policies and laws?

A policy is a general course of action adopted by government. Laws are rules enacted by Parliament to promote or prevent certain actions. Laws are made within a policy framework. The aim of a law is to put policy into practice and to give it “teeth.” For example, several years ago the Cabinet, under President Mandela, developed a youth policy. To assist with the implementation of this policy, Parliament passed a law that brought the National Youth Commission into existence.

How can citizens interact with the executive?

Citizens can have an influence on government policies by communicating their ideas to Cabinet ministers and key decision-makers in the departments. This takes a lot of organising and hard work, but a powerful idea can go a long way. Often, when government is developing a new policy, it publishes a first draft in the form of a “green paper.” The green paper is intended for public discussion and at this stage the policy is very open to change. Once interested groups of citizens as well as experts have responded to the ideas in the green paper, something called a white paper is produced. The white paper is the final version of the policy and usually forms the basis of new legislation.

In the day-to-day work of policy implementation, government departments can benefit greatly from working in partnership with citizens, and citizens can contribute their talents, skills and intelligence to the work of building our nation. Rather than simply providing services or putting structures in place for citizens, government officials can draw on the ideas of citizens to improve delivery. There are many examples of local communities engaging in public work with government officials. For instance, in the past communities were being invited to shape the way in which the tourism industry develops in their area, giving their ideas, developing local businesses that support tourism and becoming guides. Water committees have helped to promote community oversight of water infrastructure.

This was drawn from Youth Vote Material. See www.idasa.org for more


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