Doing Business in South Africa

Business Etiquette south africaThe Rainbow Nation

South Africa is ultimately a multifaceted nation. Its many people, languages and cultures have experienced a turbulent history that seemingly turned the corner in the early nineties with the end of apartheid. The government's goal since then has been to end racial discrimination and develop a unique identity based on being South African rather than anything else. Although work has begun, the dream of a "rainbow nation" remains difficult to realise.

As a result it is difficult to impart advice on how to interact with 'South Africans' due to there being no real representative of a true 'South African' other than a member of the white Afrikaner, black African, Indian, Cape-Malay and other communities. To add to the complexity there are also marked differences between rural and urban dwellers. Speaking on general terms those in rural areas are seen as outgoing yet conservative while those in the cities are more flexible in thought but often more concerned with material wealth.

In addition to the multiple cultures there are also numerous languages spoken in the country. The government officially recognizes 11 languages: Afrikaans, English, Ndebele, Pedi, Shangaan, Sotho, Tsona, Tswana, Venda, Xhosa and Zulu. However the foreign visitor need not worry as English is the language of commerce.

Meeting & Greeting

There are as many ways of greeting one another as there are cultural groups in South Africa. However, when dealing with foreigners the default approach is to shake hands. Some women may not shake hands and merely nod their head. A simple nod back accompanied with a smile is all that is needed.

People are, on the whole, fairly relaxed and informal in the business environment; when meeting people it is considered good form to engage in some personal dialogue based around one another's health, family, leisure time or sport. Getting straight down to business and rushing through these social niceties marks you as ill-mannered and may cause you to be perceived as uninterested.

Business cards are normal practice but little ceremony surrounds their exchange. The usual rules apply, i.e. treat the card with respect and store away properly rather than in a pocket. A short comment on the card is also polite.


Generally speaking the South Africans are direct (and often loud) communicators but they are also very aware of what, how and to whom something is being said. People will be conscious of what may or may not make someone uncomfortable. The communication style is very much dependent on the level of a relationship; the closer people are the more comfortable they will be with speaking openly and honestly. Relationships in their infancy require more tact and diplomacy.

Although South Africa is a transactional culture, meaning they do not require a history with people in order to do business with them, they are a personable people that have deeply routed traditions. This means it if often a good idea to try and build a rapport as well as furnish counterparts with some background information about oneself or company.

South Africans follow the European approach to personal space, meaning people keep their distance when speaking. Unlike Latin or Arab cultures they do not appreciate touching and the like.

If you like to chat then South Africa is an ideal place for a good conversation. People will enjoy a good chin wag on a number of subjects. Being an outdoor nation they love sports and this is always a good place to start. The most popular sports are rugby, football and cricket. Other good topics of conversation include food, South African wines and international travel. Topics to avoid are comparing cities as people are very proud of their own cities and do look kindly upon being told that another city is better. Do not raise controversial subjects such as race relations or local politics.

Business Meetings

Appointments should be made for meetings through the normal channels. It is often difficult to schedule meetings from mid December to mid January or the two weeks surrounding Easter, as these are prime vacation times.
Initial meetings are often but not always used to establish a rapport. Most meetings will start with some small talk but move swiftly to the business at hand. Come prepared and if possible send an agenda ahead of time to give your counterparts and idea of what you want to address. However, note that agendas are not seen as rigid in South Africa; people will digress and come back to issues in a circular fashion.  
If making a presentation, keep it precise. Decisions are made on facts and figures rather than intuition or anything else intangible. Present your business case with statistics and case studies, including charts and graphs. 
Although the majority of businesses work in English, there may be occasions where having materials translated into Afrikaans could make a good impression, especially if you are working with an Afrikaans company in areas like Bloemfontein or Pretoria.

Business Culture Guides

We offer free guides to doing business in many countries. Please visit Business Culture Guides for a full list.

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