Exploring the Major Influences on Government Behaviour and Achievements

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“The care of human life and happiness, and not their destruction, is the first and only legitimate object of good government” (Jefferson 1809). The critical analysis of the degree, characteristics, and sustainability of countries’ achievements or ‘objects’, has been the subject of political academia for many years, with several pieces of scholarship being written on the concept. Less discussed in political circles, but just as imperative to realising political scholarship’s aim to specify and expand upon “legitimate object(s) of good government,” (Jefferson 1809), are the influences on government behaviour, and to what extent they inform and determine a government’s achievements. The most prolific of these ‘influences’ are the goals a government pursues, the structure of the state, and the power of organised interests within the country, and this essay will aim to analyse which of these influences is more imperative in determining what governments achieve. The context through which these concepts will be assessed and compared is that of the present South African government and state. This choice was made in order to provide a case study with which to observe the real-life application of these concepts, so as to provide a deeper understanding of the degree of their effect on governments, as well as to offer more literature in areas where this essay’s analysis of the government influences seemed academically lacking (for example, the ‘goals’ a government pursues is entirely dependent on the government itself, so there appears to be a shortage of academia that provide specific parameters for this concept). Before delving into the main argument, it is important to note that the frequently used term ‘government achievements’ will for the purposes of this essay, broadly be defined as ‘all behaviour of government, as well as all its interactions with the political environment it exists in’; policymaking, government programmes, strategy implementation, to name but a few examples.

The goals a government pursues:

To clarify exactly what the ‘goals a government pursues’ refers to, it can be classified as any situation, state, or statistic a country aims to achieve or obtain. As stated above, the goals a country’s government pursues are dictated by the specific political characteristics of the country and government itself. It is reasonable to assume that there might be general goals that all governments should strive towards, for example a developing country might aim to achieve goals in the field of economic growth, redistribution of income, and employment rates (Chand 2018), but not the existence of strict codes or guidelines.  

Ideally, the goals a government sets should be the ultimate dictator of what they achieve, as the former sets the theoretical parameters with which the latter is measured against. In practice though, governments’ goals act only as a façade of capability and competence, and often offer little to no guarantee of delivering progress or development in any of the aspects of society addressed. There exist several exemplary futile illustrations of these goal strategies in South Africa. The outcomes approach, the government’s plan to address five priority areas identified in the socio-economic landscape of South Africa, “decent work and sustainable livelihoods, education, health, rural development, food security and land reform and the fight against crime and corruption,” (South African Government 2019), within the period of 2014 to 2019. From the time of writing, all five areas of need identified within this framework, have seen little to no improvement, with food security substantially decreasing to the lowest it has been since the birth of the South African democracy (IPC 2020). Similar examples are present in more times, perhaps the most prevalent of them being the National Development Plan 2030. Implemented in 2013, it details a step-by-step approach to the grandiose goal of completely “eliminating poverty and reducing inequality” (South African Government  2013) by the year 2030. Eight years after the NDP’s initial formation, South Africa’s former statistician-general Dr. Pali Lehohla is quoted as having said “The NDP was never implemented; it was left on the shelves” (Sibanyoni 2021). This serves to prove that goal setting, in a South African context, has no effect on what the government achieves, and rather acts as a projection of the potential intentions of government, as opposed to committed promises and guarantees.

The structure of the state:

State structure can be defined as “the organizational form of the state, i.e. the distribution of power among agencies, the working of these agencies, and the underlying self-perception influencing the exchange between these agencies as well as between the government and society at large” (Cante 2016). The formation of the state directly informs the power dynamic between state agencies, the processes of accountability state agencies are liable to, and finally the relationship between state agencies themselves (Cante 2016). The government, being one of the aforementioned ‘state players’ is therefore directly affected the state structure.

There are different types of state structures, that each inform the dynamic between the state agencies in their own unique manner. The United States of America, for example, employs federalism, a state structure that dictates the national government and the state government be two individual sovereign powers, for the purpose of creating a distinct separation of powers (Norton 2020). Similarly, South Africa organises its state into the legislative branch, the judicial branch, and the executive branch, also to broaden the spread of power (South African Government 2021).  The legislative authority controls the creation of legislation, and is presented as the South African parliament system, the exectuive authority, who are in charge of implementation of legislation and governance and who are represented as the President, his Deputy and Minisiters, and finally the judicial authority, who enforce the compliance with the country’s laws both on an individual and state agency level and who are represented by the South African court systems (South African Government 2021). There are also several more separate state institutions in South Africa, whose main aim is to support and enforce democratic practices, such as the Public Protector, the Human Rights Commission, the Commission for the Promotion and Protection of the Rights of Cultural, Religious and Linguistic Communities, the Commission for Gender Equality, the Auditor-General of South Africa, and the Independent Communications Authority of South Africa (South African Government 2021). All of the aforementioned branches of state power and state institutions, act as state agencies and thus interact with other state agencies, i.e. the government. It would be then reasonable to conclude, that the structure of the state has the most considerable and substantial affect on what a government achieves (out of the list provided by this essay), purely based on the number of state agencies with a considerable, if not, an equal amount of power in the South African political landscape. For example, the public protector has been integral in exposing the corruption of the South African government and its involvement with the infamous Gupta family, and the judicial and executive branches of state power went at a figurative ‘head-to-head’ when the constitutional court sentenced former president Jacob Zuma to jail, earlier this year.

Power of organised interests in South Africa:

Interest groups are defined as “any association of individuals or organizations, usually formally organized, that, on the basis of one or more shared concerns, attempts to influence public policy in its favour,” (Thomas 2021). The extent to which interest groups influence government behaviour depends equally on the strength of the interest group, as well as the willingness of the government in question. The National Rifle Association for example, an interest group in the United States of America, has been so successful in its attempts to affect public policy to represent its own ethics and affiliations, that despite having one of the highest rates of gun violence in the world, the NRA has successfully defeated every single attempt at institutionalising even the most basic gun control, with an unprecedented level of influence of the American government (Hammer 2010).

While South Africa possesses no interest group with that level of influence and power currently, there are a few that certainly have become a strong political entity in their own right. COSATU, or the Congress of South African Trade Unions, is perhaps the most prevalent example of a powerful interest group within South Africa. A congress of trade unions that include mine workers, teachers, policemen and allied health workers, it has played both a significant role in South Africa’s history and current times, being both instrumental in mobilising black workers in the Apartheid era, as well as currently fighting and negotiating with the government on behalf of the workers it represents (most often the mine and public service workers) (COSATU 2021). While there is a certain amount of government influence employed by COSATU,  it does not exist in any extreme degrees, and is therefore not as consequential as other influences this essay has tackled. 


This essay aimed to critically analyse three possible sources of government influence, the goals a government pursues, the structure of the state, and the power of organised interests, through the perspective of South Africa’s complex socio-political climate, to identify which of these concepts had the greatest affect on what the government achieves/how it behaves in South Africa. It has concluded that, in South Africa, the structure of the state has the most affect on what a government achieves, with the power of organised interests coming second, and the goals a government pursues ranking having the least influence on what the South African government achieves.

Works Cited:

South African Government . 2019. The Outcomes Approach. Johannesburg: South African Government .

Cante, F. 2016. Handbook of Research on Transitional Justice and Peace Building in Turbulent Regions. Colombia : Universidad del Rosario.

Chand, S. 2018. “5 Main Aims of Government for Economy Development – Discussed.” Your Article Library , January 3: 1.

COSATU. 2021. “Congress of South African Trade Unions .” Johannesburg .

Hammer, S. 2010. Interest groups in the USA – The National Rifle Association. Washington: Martin Luther University .

IPC. 2020. South Africa: Acute Food Insecurity Situation September – December 2020 and Projection for January – March 2021. Cape Town: IPC analysis portal .

Jefferson, T. 1809. Thomas Jefferson to the Republicans of Washington County, Maryland, 31 March 1809. Washington : Maryland Herald .

Norton, W. 2020 . Federalism and the separation of powers . Chicago : Norton and Company .

Sibanyoni, M. 2021. NDP 2030 Targets: SA’s targets vs reality. Cape Town: SABC.

South African Government . 2013. The National Development Plan 2030. Pretoria : South African Government .

South African Government . 2021. The South African Government structure and functions . South African Government .

Thomas, C. 2021. Britannica. Accessed November 1, 2021. https://www.britannica.com/topic/interest-group.