This study inquires how the idea of districts came into being in the South African education system in the absence of official policy. It questions why there is no explicit government policy on education districts, particularly in view of the ubiquity of districts in South African education policy discourse. In doing so, the study elucidates the character of South African local education, and illuminates the niche that districts occupy in the education system. Additionally, by invoking Sutton and Levinson’s (2001:4) thesis that ‘people make policy through practice’, the study brings to light practical meanings assigned to districts by schools, and by national, provincial and district officials. The study argues that the central dilemma of education districts in South Africa is their structural condition. It concludes that districts operate at the intersection of the dual, related dichotomies of support and pressure, centralisation and decentralisation. Districts persistently endeavour to coalesce the dichotomy of support and pressure in their work with schools; at the same time, they struggle to straddle their role as deconcentrated field units of provincial head offices and as school support centres. The study proposes that only conscious engagement with these dichotomies, as well as active agency on district-school relationships, will districts manage the tensions between the policy, support and management roles expected of them. The dominant discourse on the role of districts in South Africa places districts as support centres for schools (Mphahlele, 1999; DoE, 2000). While districts post-1994 do not reflect the authoritarian and controlling features of the apartheid era, the study found that policy transmission, policy compliance and ‘policy alleviation’ (a process where district officials attempt to ‘soften’ the rough edges of policy effects on schools), tend to dominate district functions. Even the ‘support’ provided by districts to schools reflects that which is intended by government, rather than that experienced by schools. District agendas are set from the top down rather than the bottom up; hence schools rarely experience district support as a response to their own problems and needs. In reflecting on the character of districts, the study concludes that there is no system of local education in South Africa since there are no common norms and standards governing it. Local education in South Africa does not function as a single organism but comprises disparate structures that vary considerably in organisational design and nomenclature. Despite these differences though, the all-encompassing concept of ‘districts’ to describe local education in South Africa remains ubiquitous in education discourse. An explanation for the homogenisation of the discourse on local education resides with the observation that as deconcentrated units of provincial education departments, districts reflect a common rationale for their existence, namely to serve as field units of government. The reasons for the absence of a policy on districts are rooted in constitutional, legal, historical and political influences. The Interim Constitution (RSA, 1993), for example, shaped government thinking on local education by concentrating government’s attention on school-level rather than local-level governance. Moreover, interpretations of the Constitution (RSA 1996) by key legal experts suggest that national government cannot develop policy on provincial organisation, as this is a provincial competence. However, the establishment of the district health system created by the National Health Act, 2003, stands in contradiction to this line of reasoning, and reinforces the conclusion of the study – that national education authorities have not established a statutory district education system because there is no South African precedent for it and no political incentive to create it.