Mon. May 25th, 2020

Understanding South Africa’s government and electoral system

Understanding South Africa’s government and electoral systemUnpacking the inner-workings of the nation’s engine room.

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With South Africa’s sixth democratic parliament beginning today, here’s a look at how the nation’s government really works.

The general elections – held on 8 May 2019 – have ultimately determined three things; members of the National Assembly, which forms the basis for national administration, provincial legislatures in each province, which determines provincial government rule, and who will become the next President of South Africa.

Understanding the National Assembly

South Africa’s final Constitution came into effect on 4 February 1997 and is regarded as the ultimate authority in the land. No other law or government action can mitigate its might. The Constitution is inseparable from South Africa’s democracy and forms the cornerstone of the democratic, multi-party state.

The Constitution binds all organs of the state – legislative, executive and judicial – at all levels of government. It is, therefore, the most vital and overarching aspect of South Africa’s political constituency.

The structure of the National Assembly, which is determined by the outcomes of a general election, impacts the government’s ability to amend the Constitution, thereby affecting the very makeup of South Africa. 

The National Assembly consists of 400 members elected by proportional representation (PR) with a closed list approach. Half of the members are elected from national party lists; the other half are elected from provincial party lists. Once every five years members are elected in accordance with the Constitutional mandate to restore proportionality.

Any party wishing to amend the Constitution needs to hold a two-thirds majority in the National Assembly. Naturally, the party which holds more than 50% of all parliamentary seats is defined as the ruling party. The ruling party holds national administrative power, including the election of the nation’s President.

The party with the second most parliamentary seats is defined as the official opposition party.

Read: Election results 2019 – Here’s who made it to the National Assembly

Understanding Parliament and Legislative authority

South Africa’s parliament, which resides in Cape Town, oversees legislative authority and consists of two houses: The National Assembly, mentioned above, and the National Council of Provinces (NCOP). Parliament’s power is mandated by the South African Constitution.

The electoral process directly impacts parliament by way of party representation. Parties with more representatives hold more power, however, smaller party’s can often play a pivotal role in swinging the vote by way of strategic coalitions. Members of Parliament have many responsibilities, including:

  •  making laws that will improve our lives;
  • discussing and debating government policy and other political issues;
  • consulting with you, the people, and representing your views in Parliament;
  • helping people in their constituencies;
  • approving the budgets of government departments, as presented to Parliament by the Minister of Finance;
  • making sure that the work that government promised to do is being done; and
  • checking that public money is being spent wisely.

Legislative authority includes a parliamentary voting process whereby every seat obtained through the general election counts. The National Council of Provinces, a body created to achieve cooperative governance and participatory democracy, consists of 54 permanent members and 36 special delegates. Each of South Africa’s nine provinces sends 10 representatives to the national council – these representatives also participate in the legislative process.

Understanding Executive authority

The President of South Africa, along with selected Cabinet ministers and the Deputy President, leads the executive arm of government. The president, who may not serve more than two five-year terms in office, has the executive authority to appoint and recall the Deputy President and Cabinet ministers – the former, so long as they are members of the National Assembly.

The executive arm of government is accountable to Parliament. Their oath of office resolves their responsibilities and actions to be in line with the Constitution of South Africa.

Understanding Judicial authority

Judicial authority, which is technically a division of parliament’s legislative authority, has its power vested within the courts of South Africa. Laws passed in parliament are implemented in the judicial system. However, these courts operate independently and without prejudice – subject only to the Constitution of South Africa. The courts, in order of their authority, are listed as:

  • the Constitutional Court
  • the Supreme Court of Appeal
  • high courts
  • magistrates’ courts

The Constitutional Court, situated in Johannesburg, is the highest judicial authority and deals with issues of a Constitutional nature. The Supreme Court of Appeal, situated in Bloemfontein, is the highest court which deals with issues outside of the Constitution. The Supreme Court of Appeal has the authority to hear and determine an appeal against any decision of a high court.

Provincial government

Each of South Africa’s nine provinces have its own individual provincial government. Provincial legislature determines legislative authority while executive power rests with the provincial premier. The premier works together other members of a provincial executive council to draft legislature.

Provincial elections are held concurrently with national elections and with the premier being elected by the legislature. The legislature holds between 30 and 80 members based on the province’s portion of the national common voters’ roll. Seats are awarded in proportion to the outcome of the provincial election. 

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