Community Municipal News

Understanding Local Government

From the government guide

  1. Important things to know about local government
  2. The role and spheres of government

Government has the responsibility to make policies and laws about the rights and responsibilities of citizens and the delivery of government services. The 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 the government works. There are three spheres of government in South Africa:

  1. National government
  2. Provincial government
  3. Local government

Each sphere of government is made up of three parts:

  • The elected members – who represent the public and approve policies and laws
  • The cabinet or executive committee – who co-ordinate the making of policies and laws and oversee implementation by the government departments
  • The departments and civil servants – who are responsible for doing the work of government
  1. National

Laws and policies are approved by the National Assembly (parliament) and the National Council of Provinces [NCOP]. The national assembly is made up of members of parliament, elected every five years. The NCOP is made up of representatives of provincial legislatures and 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 civil 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] and have to be approved by parliament. The Treasury has to balance the income and expenditure of the government in the budget and will rarely give departments everything they ask for.

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

The Department of Provincial and Local Government is responsible for national co-ordination of provinces and municipalities.

  1. Provincial
  • There are nine provincial governments.
  • Some provincial laws are approved by legislatures in each province. 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 departments employ directors and civil servants to do the work of government.

Most of the civil servants in the country fall under provincial government – these include teachers and nurses.

The provincial MEC and Department of Local Government are responsible for the coordination, monitoring and support of municipalities in each province.

  1. Local
  • 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 the council. The mayor is assisted by an executive or mayoral committee, made up of councillors. The mayor together with the executive also oversees the work of the municipal manager and department heads.
  • 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 the council.

Inter-governmental relations and co-operative governance

Inter-governmental relations is the organisation of the relationships between the three spheres of government. The Constitution states that “the three spheres of government are distinctive, interdependent and interrelated”. Local government is a sphere of government in its own right and is no longer a function or administrative implementing arm of the national or provincial government. Although the three spheres of government are autonomous, they exist in a unitary South Africa meaning that they have to work together on decision-making, co-ordinate budgets, policies and activities, particularly for those functions that cut across the spheres.

Co-operative governance means that the three spheres of government should work together (co-operate) to provide citizens with a comprehensive package of services (governance).

Local government is represented in the National Council of the Provinces and other important institutions like the Financial and Fiscal Commission and the Budget Council. The South African Local Government Association [SALGA] is the official representative of the local government.

SALGA is made up of nine provincial associations. Local municipalities join their provincial association. Executive elections and decisions on policies and programmes happen at provincial or national general meetings

SALGA is also an employers’ organisation and sits as the employer in the South African Local Government Bargaining Council. SALGA’s main source of funding is membership fees payable by municipalities.

Guide available here:


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