Every country has its own set of etiquette rules, the same goes for South Africa. And this country has its own uniqueness since it’s considered as one of the world’s multicultural nations, hence it’s called “The Rainbow Nation.”
Those interested to do business in South Africa needs to understand how these cultures come together and how they affect the way people are doing business in this country.
While yes, some certain western business rules seem to apply in some South Africa business situations, but there are many of the country’s unique rules you need to understand before you visit this country for business.
Don’t worry. The country’s culture is quite interesting to learn — we guarantee it won’t bore you.
So, grab a cup of coffee, and let’s get started!
Welcome To South Africa — The Rainbow Of The African Continent
When you set your foot in this country, you’ll be greeted with its rich culture, varied topography and stunningly beautiful scenery, which made South Africa a favoured destination for tourists.
Back then, South Africa’s economy relied on its agricultural sector. But that changed in the 18th century when they discovered diamond mines and huge gold deposits.
As one of the busiest countries in the African continent, you’ll be surprised when you see there’s actually a lot of people who represent the western company doing business in this country. And chances are, many of these people have the same mission as you — to expand their business.
One place that you’re probably going to visit during your trip is Gauteng. It’s the smallest province in South Africa with only 1.5% of the country’s land area, yet it holds to more than a quarter of its population.
There are 3 major cities in this province: Johannesburg, Pretoria, and Vereeniging. These are the homes of conglomerates and big companies including the central bank and head offices of most major businesses.
South Africa’s legislative capital is Cape Town, which also acts as the business centre of the country.
South Africa’s Etiquette Rules
It is common to visit someone as good friends or relatives, but a visit from someone who is not very close is sometimes considered impolite. That said don’t even think to visit a prospective client at their house if you never meet them or haven’t made an appointment ahead.
And don’t forget this important rule: When you arrived at someone’s home, you must remove your shoes before entering the home and immediately greet anyone you meet inside.
Bringing a gift to the hostess like a bottle of wine or a pack of chocolate is considered politeness, though it is not mandatory, this can help you break the ice.
Once you’re inside, accept any refreshment they offer. They may offer you tea, especially for Indian South Africans. Don’t reject their offer otherwise you’d be seen as a rude person.
Do not explore their houses unless they allow it to.
Now, here’s something very interesting…
Although South African people like admiration, you shouldn’t admire any objects at the host’s home too much. Admiring too much may signal the host that you want the item. If they offer it, reject their offer by saying you appreciate their gesture but do not want to take it.
If you need to stay overnight, make sure to keep your personal space tidy and offer to help them with their chores.
Try not to overstay even if the host asks you to “stay as long as you want.”
Greet everyone respectfully and immediately upon seeing them. Handshake accompanied with eye contact and a smile is the most common greeting in the country.
If you are meeting with a woman, make sure to wait for her to extend her hand first before handshaking.
One thing that’s probably different from where you’re coming from is the fact that this country considers a hug is not appropriate unless you are a VERY CLOSE friend to them.
When you’re greeting someone, call them with their title and last name. Only call them by their first name if they allow it.
In this country, elders are often addressed as Mama, Father, or Uncle. So, make sure to keep that in mind.
When you greet a business colleague, ask them how about their health while exchanging presents. That’s the best thing to win their heart.
As mentioned, the country has a very diverse culture. In some cultures, you are expected to be welcomed and seated by the host. While in the others, you can go sit immediately after being welcomed.
The way people eat food is also different. Using a fork and knife is common for white South Africans, while Black and Indian South Africans prefer to use a spoon or fingers.
Some South African homes follow a hierarchical sequence in order of people who eat first:
- The guests first
- The eldest male
- The remaining men
- And lastly, women
But keep in mind that in a rare case, the guests may need to wait for the eldest male to eat first.
While eating, do NOT point or do any gesture with cutlery as it’s considered as impolite.
You may be offered an extra portion, and it will be polite if you can accept it. In some Indian South African cultures, accepting the extra portion shows a compliment to the host’s hospitality.
Do not leave any uneaten food on the plate. It’s considered impoliteness and a negative attitude.
One more important thing to remember: If you’re inviting someone to the restaurant, you’re expected to pay the bill.
When you’re going to a meeting, do whatever it takes to arrive on time, especially if you’re meeting with White or Asian South Africans.
When you enter the room, greet everyone individually — shake their hands and smile at them — no matter how large the group is.
When exchanging a business card, make a gesture of how you respect it with a look on the card before you put it away.
When it’s your time to speak during the meeting, try to get straight to the point. They respect the directness for the sake of mutual understanding.
If someone is speaking, pay attention to the person who is speaking and listen courteously.
Focus on the idea while commenting or criticizing, not the person who speaks. And never interrupt someone with heated emotion.
Business negotiations are usually going slowly in this country. So, don’t expect it to be rushed. It’s just the way they do their business.
Some Additional Things To Remember
- Build Trust When Approaching Potential Clients Or Partners. South Africa is a trust-oriented country. But don’t expect people to immediately trust you after the first meeting. A unique thing about this country is the fact that in business, you won’t earn trust by building a personal friendship. Instead, you must build a mutual understanding and show respect to everyone equally. Trust is still a common issue in South African. People will speak in a very direct and honest way during business negotiations. You should do the same, otherwise, you’ll never sign a deal.
- Hierarchical Workplaces Are Still Common. Those who are in higher positions are the ones who make the final decision.
- Employees Are Loyal To Their Company. As jobs and employment are scarce in the country, people are often working for one company in their lifetime. Remember that those who are in higher positions are working very hard to earn their positions — so you should show great respect to them.
- Businesses Always Aim For Long-Term Solutions. That said if you’re offering a business deal or thinking of partnering with a South African company, then make sure you also aim for long-term solutions.
- High-Pressure Tactics Will Ruin Your Plan. South Africans will avoid any confrontations in business at any cost. They don’t like being under pressure, either. So forget about high-pressure tactics your mentor taught you as it simply won’t work in this country.
As you’ve seen, there are many rules that are very unique to this country. What makes it even more complicated is the fact that the country itself has various cultures with a different sets of rules.
It’s better to prepare yourself before you visit this country for doing business, rather than going unprepared and risk losing a valuable business deal or business partnership.
If you have any questions regarding South African business etiquette, please write your question below. We’re always here to help.