South African Business Etiquette

In South Africa business people sometimes shy away from dealings with others they’ve never met. Making arrangements to be introduced by a mutual business associate is your best way in to the South African business world. Be prepared to outline the exact nature of your business, qualifications of yourself and your company, and list any references the South African business partner may recognize.

If your company has done business with some of the same people as the South African company, letters of introduction could be extremely helpful. Make your first meeting about getting to know one another rather than strictly business. South Africans are more likely to do business with you after they’ve decided whether or not they like and trust you.

From mid-December to mid-January is a bad time to schedule a business meeting since virtually everything shuts down during this period. Avoid the week of Easter and most Jewish holidays as well. Addresses are difficult to find because of the addressing system so allow extra time to get to your destination. Try to have very accurate directions to the location. Locating safe parking in big cities can be very challenging so consider taking a cab rather than driving yourself.

Office hours are comparable to American business hours but most South African business people do not work on weekends. Some banks and government offices are open for half a day on Saturday.

Suits and ties are appropriate business wear with shirts being light in color. When going without a jacket wear a long sleeve shirt. When invited to a home for dinner jackets are usually required. For women dresses and skirts are preferable to pantsuits. Dresses should not be sleeveless, too tight or really short. Winter is between June and August so pack accordingly.

English is a second language to most South Africans. There’s no need to translate business cards and materials to African languages. Business cards should state your position in the company and important credentials of the company.

Speak in mild tones when in this region. Raising your voice will make you seem pushy. As in most countries, it’s rude to interrupt someone while they are speaking. Avoid using the term “Miss” since you may offend a female associate. Avoid the title altogether if you don’t know the woman’s marital status.

In South Africa it’s not unusual for people to slap you on the back, shake hands or even hold hands as a sign of friendship. South Africans are usually very friendly and openly affectionate to a certain extent. Small gifts, when presented to an associate or friend, are appreciated. Always bring a token gift, such as chocolates or good wine, when invited to a home for dinner.

Be kind and helpful to elders while in South Africa. Elderly people are viewed as wise and deserving of the utmost respect. Failure to show proper respect could be your downfall in business even if the elder has nothing to do with your business. If you’re seen disrespecting an old person you are seen as someone not desirable for business dealings.

Although times are slowly changing in South Africa women in the business world are still seen as inferior to the men. Prove yourself by knowing your subject matter well and not being aggressive. Let any sour comments roll off of you and take it in stride. Hopefully, and eventually, you’ll be seen as strong and determined.

When invited to dinner you may be ridiculed if you are a vegetarian since most South Africans are fond of meat dishes. Some rare meats may be offered to you including hippo, ostrich or crocodile. During dinner the knife is kept in the right hand, the fork in the left. Never switch this order. Do not point or wave hands around, during conversation, while holding silverware.

In some cultures it’s proper etiquette to leave some food on your plate to show that you have been served plenty. In South Africa it is a slight insult to leave food uneaten. Smoking is usually permitted just about everywhere but wait until after everyone has finished eating.

Never point your index finger at anyone, for any reason. Do not hold conversations with your hands in your pocket – an extremely rude gesture. Do not give someone the “V” for victory sign – which is lewd. During dinner do not strike up conversations with the servants. Make frequent eye contact with those conversing and nod in agreement often to come across as a good listener.

South Africans are, for the most part, friendly people once they know you. You will make a good impression if you appear to be more interested in friendship than business. You’ll also do well if you give the relationship plenty of time before moving on to business matters.

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