Business culture in South Africa

Business etiquette

Business culture in South Africa

South Africa is a very diverse country, so describing the business culture is not an easy task. In any case how a business meeting goes depends on many factors.

When doing business in South Africa you are expected to have a good knowledge of the local situation - politics, economics and so on - any subject that can help your business.

In South Africa it is common for people to refer to themselves as “blacks” or “whites” so you shouldn’t act surprised or consider it rude or racist.

You should take time and try to establish a good relationship with your South African partners.

Being aggressive when doing business in South Africa is not a good idea. Instead you should be patient and try to show understanding.

Business languages in South Africa

The South African government recognizes 11 official languages: Afrikaans, English, Ndebele, Pedi, Shangaan, Sotho, Tsona, Tswana, Venda, Xhosa and Zulu. You shouldn’t be worried about doing business in English since most people involved in international business speak the language, even though some may have a very strong accent.

Many white South Africans prefer using simple language to heavy business or diplomatic terminology. This should not be confused with lack of commitment or irresponsibility.

Some of the black South African cultures prefer the diplomatic approach. They wouldn’t disappoint their foreign business partner by openly disagreeing or by showing that they don’t know how to respond to a question.

Dress code for business

The dress code for business meetings in South Africa, as in most parts of the world, depends on the type of company you are working with.

Formal business dress code for men is suits, or alternatively - pants, tie and a suit jacket. You should keep your clothes conservative but stylish.

For women business suits, formal skirts or pants and shirts are acceptable. Formal dresses are also a choice. Avoid wearing too tight or too revealing clothes.
In many cases South Africans appreciate presentation more than substance. You should iron your clothes and polish your shoes to make a good impression.

Formal greetings and communication

Using humour is accepted when doing business in South Africa. It is mostly used as an ice breaker. You should be careful with the extent and frequency you use humour to avoid coming off as unprofessional.

The accepted greeting is a firm handshake. You should keep eye contact when shaking a person’s hand. Sometimes, women just nod their heads as a greeting, so it is best to wait for the woman to extend her hand before you proceed to a handshake. If a man knows the woman he is greeting well, he may kiss her on the cheek.

In general, maintaining eye contact is important. You should look your opponent in the eyes while they speak and show that you are listening by nodding your head.
Business meetings in South Africa tend to be quite informal. South Africans are generally straightforward.

Exchange of business cards is not a very common practice. If you want to give your business card to your partners it is best to wait until the end of the meeting. If you are offered a business card, it can mean that the other party is encouraging further communication. In any case, you should show appreciation when you are offered a business card and treat it with care.

Meetings and meals in South Africa

Scheduling a meeting in South Africa may take some time, especially if you are arranging it by phone or via email. It is best if you send a fax message, for example, which briefly states the context of the meeting before actually calling to appoint a date and time for it.

Punctuality is appreciated by English-speaking South African business representatives, while black cultures tend to be a bit more time-flexible. Still, you should know that in many companies and all of the government buildings visitors are required to sign in and out and also pass through a metal detector. When going to a meeting, keep that in mind so that you can be actually meet the other party on time. Also, organize transportation in advance to avoid being late.

When asked when something is supposed to be done, South Africans may say “just now”, but it doesn’t necessarily mean “this instant”. You should find a way to ask for a more specific deadline.

In South Africa, personal face-to-face meetings are preferred to telephone or online conference calls or emails.

In general, when addressing their associate, South Africans don’t use titles. Still, some honorary doctorates may prefer to be addressed by their title. When addressing a female whose marital status is unknown, it is best if you simply call her by her name to avoid misunderstandings. You can start calling someone by their first name only after you are invited to do so, otherwise you risk leaving a bad impression.

Even though gift exchange during business meetings is not a typical habit, it is not unheard of. These gifts are not considered bribing and should be accepted, otherwise the giver may be offended.

If you are invited to diner at the house of a business partner, an appropriate gift is a bottle of good South African wine, chocolates, or flowers for the hostess.

Further reading

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