South African Business Etiquette

Welkom om Suid-Afrika! (‘‘Welcome to South Africa!” in Afrikaans)

South Africa is an ethnically diverse, multicultural nation located at the southernmost tip of the African continent. South Africa has a rich indigenous and colonial history, as well as a beautiful landscape which attracts tourists in increasing numbers each year.

South Africa is a newly-industrialized country with great purchasing power and regional influence. As such, it may be wise to investigate the country and its potential business opportunities.

Before you set off on a business trip to South Africa, let’s first learn about the dos and don’ts of South African business etiquette.

The Lowdown

  • South Africa was colonized by the Dutch; as such, Dutch imperial culture greatly affected the customs and population makeup of the country.
  • South Africa has three capitals: Pretoria, Cape Town, and Bloemfontein. However, the largest city is Johannesburg.
  • There are 11 official languages of South Africa: Afrikaans, English, Ndebele, Northern Sotho, Sotho, Swazi, Tsonga, Tswana, Venda, Xhosa, and Zulu. Afrikaans replaced Dutch in common usage in 1984.
  • South Africa (formally known as Republic of South Africa), is a unitary constitutional parliamentary republic.
  • Apartheid was abolished in 1994, so keep this is mind in conversation.

Dressing Sharp

  • Typically, people in South Africa will wear Western dress; however, African women may don a sari.
  • Although South Africans may be dressed casually for the first meeting, you should dress to impress at the outset. They may tell you to dress more casually for future meetings.
  • Men should wear dark-colored, clean business suits.
  • Women should wear dark-colored, clean business suits or dresses.

Make or Break Meetings

  • Greeting your South African party with a handshake and eye contact is appropriate.
  • There’s no formal protocol for the exchange of business cards – but they can be exchanged at the first meeting.
  • If you know the South African party’s title (eg, “Dr.” or “Prof.”), you should use it.
  • English is commonly used in business, although Afrikaans is the first language of many residents.
  • Do not cancel your appointment or show up late – first impressions are important!

Dining Decorum

  • Be on time for all dinner engagements, whether at a restaurant or at a host’s home.
  • It is acceptable to wear casual clothing to dinner engagements.
  • If you are invited to a South African’s home, it is considered polite to help the hostess prepare or set the table.
  • Dinners are relaxed, much like Western functions.

Giving and Getting Gifts

  • It is not typical to exchange gifts in the business setting.
  • If you are invited to the home of a South African, gifts are acceptable. Appropriate gifts include: chocolate, flowers, or wine.
  • If you wrap the gift nicely, it goes a long way to show that you put in effort and thought.
  • Present gifts with your right hand – never the left.
  • Gifts are opened upon receipt.

Down to Business

  • South Africans are laid-back and relaxed in business negotiations.
  • All senior-level positions will typically be held by men – so business women visiting from another country may face some discrimination.
  • Do not rush/pressure your South African business contacts or interrupt while they are speaking; these actions are seen as disrespectful.
  • When the South African party feels that mutual trust has developed between parties, then a decision will be made.
  • South Africans like to come to satisfactory, “win-win” outcomes – and who doesn’t love that!

Now that you’re well prepared for your next jet-setting business trip to South Africa, don’t forget to stay tuned for our next Business Etiquette blurb! 

Totsiens! (“Goodbye!” in Afrikaans)