In democratic countries such as South Africa, the legislature or Parliament plays a very important role. The members of Parliament are elected to represent the people of the country. They also act as the voice of the people. Parliament, therefore, is accountable to the people of South Africa.

Every five years the people of South Africa get an opportunity to cast their votes for a new Parliament. Each new Parliament is numbered. For example, in the elections of 1994 people voted for the First Parliament. The Second Parliament came into existence after the general elections in 1999 and the Third Parliament in 2004.

Parliament consists of two Houses called the National Assembly and National Council of Provinces. Each House has its own distinct role and functions, as set out in the Constitution. However, there are many instances when the two Houses act together to conduct what is called "joint business".

In the national sphere of government, the legislative power of the Republic is vested in Parliament. In other words, Parliament is responsible for making and passing laws. The National Assembly also chooses the President and is a national forum where issues are debated publicly. The Assembly also has to scrutinise and oversee the actions of the executive. The National Council of Provinces, on the other hand, must ensure that provincial interests are taken into account in the national sphere of government. It does that by taking part in the law-making process and by being the forum where issues affecting the provinces are debated publicly.

Members of Parliament have freedom of speech, subject only to the rules of the Houses, when they participate in committees or debates. They have that right to ensure that they, as elected public representatives, can bring important matters to the attention of the Houses and the public. To protect this right, members enjoy certain privileges and protection in terms of an Act of Parliament called the Powers, Privileges and Immunities of Parliament and Provincial Legislatures Act, 2004.

Furthermore, the importance of the public in the work of Parliament is emphasised by the fact that the Constitution instructs Parliament to facilitate public participation in the law-making process and to take reasonable measures for public access to its committee meetings and House sittings.

Another important power given to Parliament by the Constitution is the authority to makes its own rules and orders and to direct its own internal proceedings. Each House therefore has a set of rules and orders according to which it operates, while Parliament also has Joint Rules that directs joint business.

  • Strategic Plan of Parliament
  • A Beginner's Guide

    Parliament is made up of two Houses, the National Assembly (NA) and the National Council of Provinces (NCOP), whose members are elected by the people of South Africa.

    Each House has its own distinct functions and powers. The National Assembly is responsible for choosing the President, passing laws, ensuring that the members of the executive perform their work properly and providing a forum where the representatives of the people can publicly debate issues. The Speaker is the head and spokesperson of the National Assembly.

    The National Council of Provinces is also involved in the law‑making process and provides a forum for debate on issues affecting the provinces. Its main focus is to ensure that provincial interests are taken into account in the national sphere of government. The Chairperson of the National Council of Provinces is the head of and spokesperson for that House.

    One of Parliament’s most important roles is to approve the government’s budget for providing services to the people of South Africa. The budget is introduced in the National Assembly by the Minister of Finance, whereafter the Houses proceed to discuss the money to be allocated for each separate government department. At the end of this process, Parliament approves the budget. Its duty is to ensure that public funds are spent on improving the quality of life of all South Africans.


    The 1994 elections ushered in a new democratic order in South Africa. The extraordinary participation by South Africans showed that we desired to heal the divisions of the past and establish a society based on democratic values, social justice and fundamental human rights.

    The process of negotiations, which preceded the 1994 elections, resulted in the drafting of a new Constitution, as adopted on 8 May 1996 by the Constitutional Assembly. The Constitution was adopted as the supreme law of the Republic and lays the foundations for a democratic and open society in which government is based on the will of the people and every citizen is equally protected by law. It stipulates the values and mechanisms for governance of our unique people-centred democracy.

    The Constitution sets a single, sovereign democratic state where governance is effected through Parliament, the Executive and the Judiciary. In the Republic the legislative authority is vested in Parliament, the executive authority is vested in the President, and the judicial authority is vested in the Courts.

    Parliament’s role and ultimate outcome is to represent the people and ensure government by the people under the Constitution, as well as represent the provinces in the national sphere of government.

    This mandate of Parliament is achieved through passing legislation, overseeing government action, and the facilitating of public involvement, co-operative government and international participation.

    The role of Parliament includes the promotion of the values of human dignity, equality, non-racialism, non-sexism, the supremacy of the Constitution, universal adult suffrage and a multi-party system of democratic government. It upholds our citizens’ political rights, the basic values and principles governing public administration, and oversees the implementation of constitutional imperatives.

    It provides legislation that prevents or prohibits unfair discrimination, and holds members of the executive accountable, collectively and individually. Parliament also provides multi-party parliamentary committees to have oversight of all security services in a manner determined by the national legislation or the rules and orders of Parliament.

    Parliament further facilitates public involvement in the legislative and other processes and in its committees, has the responsibility to promote the principles of co-operative government and intergovernmental relations, and ratifies international agreements which are binding on the Republic.

    Parliament as an organ of state, through legislative and other measures, must assist and protect the courts and state institutions, to ensure the independence, impartiality, dignity, accessibility and effectiveness of these.

    This mandate of Parliament determines its reason for existence. It is the origin of the institution, and is based on the provisions of the Constitution of the Republic of South Africa, Act 108 of 1996, establishing Parliament and setting out the functions it performs. Parliament therefore fulfils this mandate by performing the following functions:

    The mandate of Parliament provides direction to set the mission, indicating the purpose of Parliament and describing its main business.

    The mission is: As the freely elected representatives of the people of South Africa, our mission is to represent, and act as a voice of the people, in fulfilling our constitutional functions of passing laws and overseeing executive action.

    Our mission indicates our core business, the functions of Parliament, as described in the Core Objectives.

  • Legislation

    Parliament makes new laws, changes existing laws and repeals laws that are no longer needed. Laws can be made in different ways.


    A bill (draft law) is introduced in Parliament by a Minister, a Deputy Minister, a parliamentary committee or an individual Member of Parliament (MP). Most bills are drawn up by government department under the direction of the relevant Minister or Deputy Minister. A bill introduced by a member of the executive must be approved by the Cabinet before being submitted to Parliament for processing. Bills introduced by individual MPs are called private members’ bills.

    Before it can become a law, a bill must be passed by both Houses of Parliament. Most bills are introduced in the National Assembly, but certain bills that affect provinces may be introduced in the NCOP. Once it has been introduced, a bill is referred to the relevant committee. where it is debated in detail and, if necessary, amended. If there is much public interest in a bill, the committee may organise public hearings. Once the committee has finalised its deliberations on a bill, it reports to the corresponding House. After the House has debated the bill, it takes a decision on whether to pass the bill. A bill could be referred back to the committee for further work before the House takes a decision. Once the first House has agreed and passed a bill, it is then referred to the other House. If a bill passes through both the National Assembly and the NCOP, it is sent to the President for assent. Once the President has signed a bill passed by the Houses, it becomes an Act of Parliament – a law of the land.

    An Illustrated Guide

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  • Oversight

    The true test of democracy is the extent to which Parliament can ensure that government remains answerable to the people. This is done by maintaining constant oversight (monitoring) of government’s actions.

    Parliament and its Committees have powers to summon any person or institution to give evidence or produce documents, and to report to them.


    The Constitution states that Parliament has the power to conduct oversight of all organs of state, including those at provincial and local government level.


    Oversight is a function granted by the Constitution to Parliament to monitor and oversee government actions.

    When exercising oversight, Parliament focuses on the following areas:

    • implementation of laws
    • application of budgets
    • strict observance of laws of Parliament and the Constitution
    • effective management of government departments.

    By overseeing the actions of government, Parliament is able to ensure that service delivery takes place, so that all citizens can live a better quality life.

    • to detect and prevent abuse
    • to prevent illegal and unconstitutional conduct on the part of the government
    • to protect the rights and liberties of citizens
    • to hold the government answerable for how taxpayers' money is spent
    • to make government operations more transparent and increase public trust in the government.

    Parliament consists of two Houses, namely:

    • the National Assembly (NA), and
    • the National Council of Provinces (NCOP)

    Each has a specific oversight role to play.

    The Constitution states that the National Assembly is elected to represent the people and to ensure government by the people under the Constitution. It does this by:

    • ensuring that all executive organs of state at the national level of government are answerable to it, and
    • maintaining oversight over the exercise of national government authority, and the implementation of legislation.

    The National Council of Provinces represents the provinces to ensure that provincial interests are taken into account in the national sphere of government.

    • The NCOP's role is to exercise oversight over national aspects of provincial and local government.
    • The NCOP may require a Cabinet member, an official of the national government or a provincial government MEC to attend a meeting of the Council or a committee.

    Parliamentary committees are established as instruments of the Houses in terms of the Constitution to facilitate oversight and monitor the government.

    These committees are the “engine rooms” of Parliament’s oversight and legislative work.

    Committees scrutinise legislation, oversee government action, and interact with the public.

    One of the most important aspects of the oversight function is the consideration by committees of annual reports of organs of State, and reports of the Auditor-General.

    Depending on the purpose of the oversight, the Committee will either request a briefing from the organ of State or visit it for fact-finding.


    a) Budget Votes

    • The Minister of Finance announces the budget projections for the next financial year, as well as the budget votes of each department.
    • Parliament must approve the Budget.
    • After the presentation of budget votes, each Committee has hearings with the respective government Department over which it exercises oversight.
    • This serves to determine whether the Department has kept its undertakings of the previous year, and spent taxpayers’ money appropriately.

    b) Questions for executive reply

    • Putting Questions to the government is one of the ways in which Parliament holds the government to account.
    • Questions for oral or written reply can be put to the President, the Deputy President and Ministers on matters for which they take responsibility.
    • Question time affords members of Parliament the opportunity to question members of the Government on matters of service delivery, on behalf of their political parties or the electorate.

    c) Members' statements

    • Using this process, Members of Parliament can make statements in the House, on any matter.

    d) Notices of motion

    • By giving a Notice of a Motion a member of any political party can bring up issues for debate in Parliament, thereby helping to fulfil their oversight responsibilities.
    e) Plenary debates
    • Plenary debates are another way to bring important information to the attention of the government regarding specific government programmes or legislation required to improve service delivery.
    f) Constituency Work
    • Constituency work affords Members of Parliament the greatest opportunity to conduct individual oversight.
    • Constituency work provides the closest form of interaction between Members of Parliament and the public.
    • Members have a duty to alert Parliament to any issues identified during such oversight interventions.

    a) Making a submission

    • Making a submission to a Committee of Parliament is one way of making your voice heard in Parliament.
    • By making a submission, you have an opportunity to influence the opinion of Members of the Committee who are discussing a particular piece of draft legislation before it becomes a law.

    b) Petition

    • Every citizen has the right to petition Parliament, as provided for in the Constitution.
    • Any person, group of people or organisation may petition Parliament.
    • A petition is a formal request to an authority for action. It can assume the form of either a demand, a request for a favour, or the redress of a grievance.

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  • Public Participation

    Another vital function of Parliament is to encourage and facilitate participation from you, the people, in the process of Parliament. In fact, the constitution says that there must be public participation in what goes on in Parliament. After all, the word “Parliament” comes from the word meaning “to speak”. So make sure you make your voice heard in Parliament and in the provincial legislatures.

    Parliament provides a national forum for the public consideration of issues and facilitates the involvement of the public in the processes of Parliament. The access to the institution and its members and information provided to the public remain a vital focus of Parliament. Public participation activities include the People's Assembly, the Taking Parliament to the People programme, the Women's Parliament and the Youth Parliament (sectoral parliaments), public hearings, outreach programmes, radio programmes and broadcasts, television broadcasts, business and educational publications, newsletters, promotional material, the website, Facebook, Twitter and YouTube.


    Since the advent of democracy in 1994 it has become possible for all citizens to get involved in what is happening in Parliament. It is up to each of us to make full use of all the opportunities we have to try to influence the decisions that our political representatives make at national, provincial and local level.



    • Keeping yourself informed
    • Joining a political party
    • Lobbying outside Parliament
  • Co-operative Government

    Parliament plays a major role in facilitating co-operative government by working with the other arms of government in the discharge of certain statutory functions as prescribed in legislation, the appointment of public office bearers and approving instruments such as international agreements.

    A range of functions and duties are assigned to Parliament in the Constitution and in many other laws that have been placed on the statute book over the years.

    Most of these functions concern the appointment and dismissal of office bearers of the institutions supporting democracy (Chapter 9 of the Constitution) such as the Auditor-General, Public Protector, various commissions and also other boards and councils. However, the functions also include obligations as diverse as the ratification of international protocols and conventions; determining the President's salary and allowances; receiving and considering quarterly reports on all conventional arms exports; confirming the provisional suspension of magistrates; approving the salaries, allowances and benefits of magistrates and judges, as determined by the President; consenting to the extension of the operation of section of the Criminal Law Amendment Act; agreeing to the excision of land from a national park; and approving proposals for leasing of sea space in terms of the Sea-Shore Act.

  • International Participation

    Parliamentary international relations is the continuation of a political process and dialogue among legislatures of the world. At different international meetings, members of Parliament (MPs) and presiding officers have the opportunity to exchange views with their counterparts from other countries on a range of international challenges.

    The Parliament of South Africa participates in several international forums and organisations, including the -

    • Pan-African Parliament;
    • SADC Parliamentary Forum;
    • Commonwealth Parliamentary Association;
    • Inter- Parliamentary Union (IPU); and
    • African, Caribbean, Pacific-European Union Forum.

    Parliament has identified four guidelines that inform its international relations programme of action:

    Developing and strengthening partnerships in Africa
    Parliament, in line with the country’s foreign policy, gives special attention to Africa in its overall international relations policy framework. This includes engaging proactively with some of the legislative assemblies of countries where the South African government has been involved in peace building efforts.

    Advancing multilateralism
    Evolving international structures have placed a greater responsibility on parliamentarians, in view of their oversight role, to interact with one another on matters such as respect for the rule of law, human rights, and governments’ transparency and accountability. Parliament’s participation in international parliamentary bodies is also aimed at making significant progress towards achieving the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) and getting support for Africa’s development agenda.

    Bilateralism through friendship societies and strategic groups
    At this stage, Parliament is focusing on building bilateral relations with other legislative bodies through proactively forming “friendship groups” with those bodies rather than establishing formal ties. However, the National Assembly recently signed a Memorandum of Understanding with the People’s Assembly of the People’s Republic of China, the only formal bilateral agreement it has entered into to date.

    Providing for public input
    Parliament makes provision, through the relevant offices, committees and other mechanisms, to ensure that there is ongoing engagement with the public on important international relations issues, in line with the vision and programmes of Parliament.

  • Elections

    The constitution says that elections for Parliament must be held once every five years. Every citizen over the age of 18 who is registered can vote. The group of people who are entitled to vote is called the electorate. If the majority of voters are not satisfied with what the government has been doing, they will be able to vote it out of power. The party that wins the next election will become the majority party and will therefore be able to form a new government.


    There are two kinds of electoral systems,

    • Constituency-based elections
      Voters in each local area (constituency) elect an individual candidate to represent them in Parliament. The person who wins the majority of votes in each constituency becomes a Member of Parliament. The partly with the majority of MPs forms the government. In this kind of elections system the individual MP holds the seat, not the political party he or she belongs to.
    • Proportional representation elections
      Voters in a large area vote for political parties. The political party chooses the people who will become its MPs. Each party is allocated a number of seats proportional to how many votes it got in the election.

    Before 1994 South Africa made use of constituency-based elections, but since then national and provincial elections have used proportional representation and party lists. Local government elections use a mixture of proportional representation and constituency-based elections.


    Parliament is elected using proportional representation and party lists. Before the election each political party submits a list of its candidates in a numbered order of preference. The seats of Parliament are allocated in proportion to the number of votes cast in the election. This means a party that won 10% of the votes will get 10% of the seats. If a party wins 20 seats, the first 20 people on its party list will become MPs.


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