A Look at South African Language, Culture, Customs and Etiquette
Welcome to our guide to South Africa. This is useful for anyone researching South African culture, customs, manners, etiquette, values and wanting to understand the people better. You may be going to South African business, for a visit or even hosting South African colleagues or clients in your own country. Remember this is only a very basic level introduction and is not meant to stereotype all South Africans you may meet!
Facts and Statistics
Location: Southern most tip of Africa, bordering Botswana 1,840 km, Lesotho 909 km,
Mozambique 491 km, Namibia 967 km, Swaziland 430 km, Zimbabwe 225 km
Climate: mostly semiarid; subtropical along east coast; sunny days, cool nights
Population: 48,375,645 (2014 est.)
Ethnic Make-up: black 75.2%, white 13.6%, Coloured 8.6%, Indian 2.6%
Religions: Christian 68% (includes most whites and Coloreds, about 60% of blacks and about
40% of Indians), Muslim 2%, Hindu 1.5% (60% of Indians), indigenous beliefs and animist 28.5%
Languages in South Africa
South Africa has 11 official languages. English is the language of administration and is spoken throughout the country. The other official languages are: Afrikaans, Ndebele, Northern Sotho, Southern Sotho, Swazi, Tsongo, Tswana, Venda, Xhosa and Zulu.
South African Society & Culture
The Rainbow Nation
South Africa is one of the most multicultural countries in the world. In urban areas many different ethnic groups will make up the population. In addition to the indigenous black peoples of South Africa colonialism and immigration have brought in white Europeans, Indians, Indo-Malays, Chinese and many more.
As such it is difficult to generalise at all on South African etiquettes and culture due to the diversity.
The Family in South Africa
- The basic unit of South African society is the family, which includes the nuclear family and the extended family or tribe.
- In traditional African society, the tribe is the most important community as it is the equivalent of a nation. The tribe provides both emotional and financial security in much the same way the nuclear family does to white or coloured South Africans.
- The coloured and more traditional Afrikaans cultures consider their extended family to be almost as important as their nuclear family, while the English-speaking white community places more emphasis on the nuclear family.
- The nuclear family is the ultimate basis of the tribe. The tribal and family units are being disrupted by changes in the economic reorganization of the country
- As more people move into the urban areas, they attempt to maintain familial ties, including providing financial support to family members who have remained in the village.
The Rural/Urban Dichotomy
- There are vast differences between the values of the rural and urban dwellers.
- The majority of the whites living in rural areas are Afrikaner farmers who are descended from the Calvinists. Their views on the world are sometimes narrow. At the same time they value human decency over materialism.
- City dwellers live life in the fast lane, which affects their outlook.
- People from Johannesburg can quite often be regarded as having materialistic values, and being more interested in what you own rather than who you are. They prefer to see themselves as urbane and their country cousins as less sophisticated.
- People from Cape Town are very proud of their city, and often appear to have a superior attitude about their city versus the rest of the country. Family ties, long-term friendships and social standing are all important to Capetonians.
- The many rural black communities are still rooted in the traditions of their heritage, whereas the increasingly urban black community combines their roots with the urban environment and international influences that surround them.
Etiquette & Customs in South Africa
- There are several greeting styles in South Africa depending upon the ethnic heritage of the person you are meeting.
- When dealing with foreigners, most South Africans shake hands while maintaining eye contact and smiling.
- Some women do not shake hands and merely nod their head, so it is best to wait for a woman to extend her hand.
- Men may kiss a woman they know well on the cheek in place of a handshake.Greetings are leisurely and include time for social discussion and exchanging pleasantries.
Gift Giving Etiquette
- In general, South Africans give gifts for birthdays and Christmas.
- Two birthdays - 21 and 40 - are often celebrated with a large party in which a lavish gift is given. It is common for several friends to contribute to this gift to help defray the cost.
- If you are invited to a South African's home, bring flowers, good quality chocolates, or a bottle of good South African wine to the hostess.
- Wrapping a gift nicely shows extra effort.
- Gifts are opened when received.
If you are invited to a South African's house:
- Arrive on time if invited to dinner.
- Contact the hostess ahead of time to see if she would like you to bring a dish.
- Wear casual clothes. This may include jeans or pressed shorts. It is a good idea to check with the hosts in advance.
- In Johannesburg, casual is dressier than in other parts of the country. Do not wear jeans or shorts unless you have spoken to the hosts.
- Offer to help the hostess with the preparation or clearing up after a meal is served.
Business Etiquette and Protocol
Relationships & Communication
- South Africans are transactional and do not need to establish long-standing personal relationships before conducting business.
- If your company is not known in South Africa, a more formal introduction may help you gain access to decision-makers and not be shunted off to gatekeepers.
- Networking and relationship building are crucial for long-term business success.
- Relationships are built in the office.
- Most businessmen are looking for long-term business relationships.
- Although the country leans towards egalitarianism, businesspeople respect senior executives and those who have attained their position through hard work and perseverance.
- There are major differences in communication styles depending upon the individual's cultural heritage.
- For the most part, South Africans want to maintain harmonious working relationships, so they avoid confrontations.
- They often use metaphors and sports analogies to demonstrate a point.
- Most South Africans, regardless of ethnicity, prefer face-to-face meetings to more impersonal communication mediums such as email, letter, or telephone.
Business Meeting Etiquette
- Appointments are necessary and should be made as far in advance as possible.
- It may be difficult to arrange meetings with senior level managers on short notice, although you may be able to do so with lower-level managers.
- 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.
- Personal relationships are important. The initial meeting is often used to establish a personal rapport and to determine if you are trustworthy.
- After a meeting, send a letter summarizing what was decided and the next steps.
- It is imperative to develop mutual trust before negotiating.
- Women have yet to attain senior level positions. If you send a woman, she must expect to encounter some condescending behaviour and to be tested in ways that a male colleague would not.
- Do not interrupt a South African while they are speaking.
- South Africans strive for consensus and win-win situations.
- Include delivery dates in contracts. Deadlines are often viewed as fluid rather than firm commitments.
- Start negotiating with a realistic figure. South Africans do not like haggling over price.
- Decision-making may be concentrated at the top of the company and decisions are often made after consultation with subordinates, so the process can be slow and protracted.
- Business attire is becoming more informal in many companies. However, for the first meeting, it is best to dress more conservatively.
- Men should wear dark coloured conservative business suits.
- Women should wear elegant business suits or dresses.