Understanding Local Government

This guide contains the following:

  1. Why should organisations understand local government
  2. Important things to know about local government
  1. The role and spheres of government
  2. Types of municipalities
  3. Powers and functions of municipalities
  4. Elections
  5. Structures of council
  6. Decision-making in council
  1. Raising issues with council

  1. Why should organisations understand local government?

Local government is the sphere of government closest to the people. Many basic services are delivered by local municipalities and local ward councillors are the politicians closest to communities. Organisations that play an activist and/or developmental role should understand how local government works and how to influence it.

The South African government has clear policies that local municipalities and councillors should be sensitive to community views and responsive to local problems. Partnerships should be built between civil society and local government to address local issues. A number of laws outline participation processes that municipalities have to use to consult the community.

This guide is part of a series that explains different aspects of local government and the mechanisms for participation and consultation that organisations can access.

The other guides on local government are:

  • Developmental local government
  • Ward committees
  • Integrated development planning
  • Municipal budgets and finance
  • Municipal service delivery
  1. Important things to know about local government
  1. 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. 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:

  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 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.

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 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 co-ordination, 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 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 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 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 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.

  1. Types of municipalities

There are three different types 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, Durban, Pretoria, Port Elizabeth and the 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.

  1. 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 and fall directly under the District Municipality.]

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.

  1. District municipalities [Category C]:

District municipalities are made up of a number of local municipalities that fall in one district. There are usually between 4 - 6 local municipalities that come together in a district council. Some district municipalities also include nature reserves and the areas where few people live - these are called district management areas. They 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 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 that responsibility with district municipalities. This is especially the case in very rural areas, where district municipalities will have more responsibility for development and service delivery.

  1. Powers and 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

National or provincial government can also delegate other responsibilities to municipalities. When municipalities are asked to perform the role of another sphere of government, clear agreements should be made about who will pay the cost. If municipalities are given responsibility for something without being given a budget to do the work, it is called an "un-funded mandate".

Municipal councils have the power to:

  • Pass by-laws – local laws and regulations about any of the functions they are responsible for. By-laws may not contradict or over-rule any national laws
  • Approve budgets and development plans – every year a municipal budget must be passed that sets down how money will be raised and spent. [See chapter 4]. The council should approve an overall plan for how development should take place in the area. This is called an integrated development plan [IDP] and all projects and planning should happen within the framework of the IDP. [See chapter 3]
  • Impose rates and other taxes – property rates are a form of tax that municipalities can place on the value of properties. It is an important source of income.
  • Charge service fees – for us of municipal services like water, electricity, libraries, etc.
  • Impose fines – for anyone who breaks municipal by laws or regulations, for example traffic fines, littering or library fines.
  • Borrow money – the council may agree to take a loan for a development or other project and to use the municipal assets as surety.

Decisions about most of the above must be made in full council meetings. Many of the minor decisions that municipalities have to take can be delegated to exco, portfolio committees or to officials or other agencies that are contracted to deliver services.

When other agencies deliver services, it is important that the municipal council keeps political power. Councils have to develop systems to ensure that delegated functions are performed properly and within a clear policy framework. Contracts must be drawn up to ensure that agencies stick to agreements.

  1. Elections

Councils are elected every 5 years. The last election was held on 5 December 2000. There are basically two types of elections: one for metro councils and one for local councils.

Metro councils:

In a metropolitan municipality each voter will vote once for a political party on a proportional representation ballot. The parties will then be given seats according to the percentage of votes that they received in the metropolitan area as a whole. Each party has a list of candidates and the councillors are drawn from this list. Each voter will also receive a ballot for their ward with the names of the ward candidates. The person receiving most votes in a ward will win that seat. Ward candidates may stand as representatives of parties or as independents.

Metro councils may also set up sub-councils to serve different parts of their municipality. Sub-councils are not elected directly by voters. Existing councillors are allocated to serve on each sub-council.

Local councils:

In a local municipality each voter will vote once for a political party on a proportional representation ballot. The parties will then be given seats according to the percentage of votes that they received in the area as a whole. Each voter will also receive a ballot for their ward with the names of the ward candidates. The person receiving most votes in a ward will win that seat. Ward candidates may stand as representatives of parties or as independents.

District councils:

Every voter in a local municipality will also vote for the district council that their local area is part of. The district municipality ballot will have party names on it and the seats will be allocated according to the percentage of votes parties gained in the whole district municipal area.

Not all councillors serving on a district council are directly elected. Only 40% of the seats will be given to parties on the basis of the votes they got on the PR ballot. The remaining 60% of seats on the district council will be allocated to the local councils in that area. Each local council will be given a number of seats and must send councillors from their ranks to fill those seats. The seats should be filled according to the support that parties have in a specific council. So, for example, if a local municipality is given 5 seats on the district council and the ANC gained 60% of the seats on the local council, the ANC councillors should fill 3 of the 5 seats. The other 2 seats should be allocated to other parties according to their strength.


People who live in District Management Areas [game parks and other low population areas] get a PR ballot for the district council and a PR ballot for the DMA. They do not vote for local councils or wards.

  1. The structures of council

All councils have the following structures:

  • A mayor – who heads the council
  • An executive or mayoral committee – that meets regularly to co-ordinate the work of council and make recommendations to council.
  • A speaker [except in very small councils] – who chairs council meetings
  • Council meetings – where the full council meets to make decisions
  • Committees – where a few councillors meet to discuss specific issues

There are different types of mayors, executives and committees. The structures are set out in the Municipal Structures Act. In each province the MEC for Local Government decides what types of structures will be used by different councils.

Mayors and executives

Every council should have a mayor and an executive. There are 3 different types of executives:

  1. Mayoral executive

Most local councils in the country have an executive mayor. The executive mayor is elected by the full council. He or she may appoint a mayoral committee that will assist in making decisions, proposals and plans that have to be approved by council. The mayoral committee may not consist of more than 10 people or more than 20% of the sitting councillors. The council may delegate any executive powers to the executive mayor. An executive mayor is almost like the president at local level and a mayoral committee is almost like the cabinet. When a municipality has an executive mayor they should still elect a Speaker to act as the chairperson of council meetings.

  1. Collective executive

A number of councils have a collective executive system. Here the mayor is still elected by the municipal council as a whole but the council also elects the executive committee. The members of the executive can be made up from members of different parties. The elections are on a PR ballot and parties will usually get the same percentage of seats on the exec as they have on the council. The mayor is the chairperson of the executive committee. The municipal council must delegate powers to the executive committee. In a collective executive system a speaker is also elected by the council.

  1. Plenary executive

A plenary executive system should only be used in very small municipalities. The municipal council elects a mayor but there is no executive or speaker. The mayor chairs the council meetings and the council as a whole makes the decisions and plans. So the plenary of the council acts as the executive.

The Executive Committee’s [exco] main role is to co-ordinate council business and to make sure that things run smoothly. This is very important especially in large municipalities. Most councils do not have long meetings very often and somebody has to prepare properly to make sure that the most important decisions are made by the full council meeting. Council can also delegate some decision-making power to exco.

Much of the preparation work on policies and programmes happen in the council committees and recommendations then go to the exco. A committee may have looked at issues in isolation – for example looking at building a clinic without taking into account the provision of water and electricity to that clinic. At exco the chairs of different committees can look at proposals together to make sure that they are implementable. The exco is an important place where politicians can try to resolve issues or make compromises in private rather than having big fights in full public view.

Most council decisions are made on the basis of exco recommendations. The exco can sometimes make final decisions independently of the full council but these are usually only on routine uncontroversial issues. Where the exco may make decisions on its own these decisions still have to be reported to the full council meeting.

Exco may not make final decisions on important things like finance or policy. In most cases exco debates an issue and then makes a recommendation to council. Sometimes exco’s recommendation will support the recommendations received from a committee and at other times it may oppose a committee recommendation. If Exco is not allowed to make decisions their recommendations must be debated by council where the final decision will be taken.

When an issue is debated in an exco meeting the exco may call for further explanations from people who can add to the debate. The exco meeting will usually include the committee chair, who should be an exco member, and senior officials in the department involved. Any other committee members may be requested to attend the exco meeting to motivate a proposal.

Council committees

Most council have a number of council committees that specialise in specific areas. Councillors then get a chance to dedicate time to specific issues and to become experts in those. Committees make recommendations to council and saves the council from having to deal with all matters in detail. Committees do not make final decisions since most decisions need approval by council as a whole. There are three different types of committees:

  1. Portfolio committees - These are the most common and usually have the same names as the different departments in council e.g. health committee, planning committee, finance committee.
  2. Geographically-based committees - These are set up to deal with issues in a specific area. This system is usually used in large metropolitan municipalities that also have sub-councils.
  3. Issue-related committees - These may be set up to deal with a specific issue in a way that involves people from different committees. This helps to stop problems from being treated in isolation.

Section 80 committees are usually permanent committees that specialise in one area of work and sometimes are given the right to make decisions over small issues. Section 80 committees will also advise executive committees on policy matters and make recommendations to council. Section 79 committees are usually temporary and appointed by the executive committee as needed. They are usually set up to investigate a particular issue and do not have any decision-making powers. Just like Section 80 committees they can also make recommendations to council. Once they completed their task Section 79 committees are usually disbanded. Outside experts as well as councillors can be included on Section 79 committees.

Ward committees

Ward committees may also be set up in municipalities where the ward committee model is being used. The purpose of a ward committee is:

  • to get better participation from the community to inform council decisions
  • to make sure that there is more effective communication between the council and the community
  • to assist the ward councillor with consultation and report-backs to the community

Ward committees should be elected by the community they serve. A ward committee may not have more than 10 members and women should be well represented. The ward councillor also serves on the ward committee and should act as the chairperson. Ward committees have no formal powers but can advise the ward councillor or make submissions directly to council. It should also participate in drawing up the integrated development plan of the area.

  1. Decision-making in council

Standing orders

All council meetings are run according to rules that are called Standing Orders. These set out how the meeting should be run, how you can propose motions or pass resolutions and how decisions will be made. The speaker or chairperson of the council decides whether anyone is breaking the Standing Orders and is responsible for keeping order.

Cycle of decision-making

There is a cycle of decision-making that is followed in most councils:

  1. Agendas have to be prepared before meetings and any committee reports, petitions or motions have to appear on an agenda before they can be discussed.
  2. When an issue comes up for discussion at a council meeting it is often referred to a committee or to the exco for further discussion and a deadline is given for when a report should be made.
  3. If the matter is referred to a committee the committee will report to exco. Exco will consider the issue and either support their recommendations or put opposing recommendations forward to the council meeting.
  4. The council will then vote on the matter.

Resolutions and motions

Most council decisions are taken when a committee or exco makes a recommendation to council. When council agrees by a majority vote, the recommendation becomes a resolution of council.

Motions are usually used to call for or propose something that is a little more controversial. It is a useful tool to use especially if the administration is not co-operating with council, since council motions cannot be ignored.

Any councillor may propose a motion in council and in some cases the motion may be passed without being referred for further discussion. Once passed the motion becomes a resolution of council.

Every motion needs a proposer and a seconder. In the opening debate on a motion, only the proposer will be allowed to speak to motivate for the motion. Standing orders will usually set a time limit for this. Most motions are referred to committees or exco for further discussion. They will then come back to council with a recommendation on the motion.

A motion should be submitted 10 days before the next council meeting to ensure that it is included on the agenda. Motions can be supported by petitions where this is necessary or useful. The council Standing Orders will say how motions should be debated. In some cases if an urgent problem arises after the 10-day deadline for the agenda, a councillor may move an urgent motion at the beginning of the council meeting before the exco report is discussed.

  1. Raising issues with council

There are many different ways that councillors and the public can use to raise issues with council. Here we explain the most common ones: petitions, questions and requests.


Councillors or individuals are allowed to submit petitions to the municipal manager. A petition is usually used to inform the council and the administration that a large number of people want something to be done. Petitions are used to draw the attention of the administration to something that should be done. They can be used to point out that one of the laws or policies of the municipality is not being applied properly or to call for a change. Either the community or a councillor can draw up a petition.

These are handed to the council secretary at a council meeting. The person who delivers a petition may explain its subject but is not allowed to make a speech about it. The petition is usually referred to the management committee that will then report to council. The officials circulate the petition to the relevant departments who will make recommendations to the relevant portfolio or standing committees. These committees then make recommendations to exco who make recommendations to council. The councillor or group who submits the petition should keep track of the progress of the petition.

Questions to council

Questions asked by councillors are a useful and easy way of monitoring council officials and getting reliable information about council policies and programmes. Questions may be submitted in writing or may be asked during a meeting. Like motions, written questions must be submitted 10 days before the council meeting so that the officials can have time to prepare the answers. Answers are often tabled at the meetings themselves. The exco chairperson can immediately answer a question verbally or can provide a reply in writing. Any councillor may ask a question about exco’s recommendations or decisions and any exco member may make immediate verbal replies. The public should approach ward councillors to ask questions on their behalf.


Requests are the easiest and simplest way to get information or to bring problems to the attention of officials. Councillors or members of the public should make requests directly to officials - make a phone call, write a letter, or visit an official and ask them to attend to something. Requests will only work when there is a policy and/or a by-law that says that what you are requesting should be done by the person you are making the request to. So, for example, if someone has a blocked water drain you can go to the relevant official and make a request to get it fixed. But if you want something new to be put into your ward and there is no policy on it then a request will not be sufficient.

Public meetings and forums

Local municipalities have to hold consultation meetings on a number of issues and should set up Integrated Development Planning forums to draw in civil society. Organisations should find out when meetings will be held and use them to take up important local issues. If a forum exists that deals with or affects your organisation’s area of work, approach the council and ask to join.