Business Etiquette in South Africa

To learn some basics about the local business etiquette is imperative for being successful in doing business in a foreign country. Locals will appreciate your efforts and you will avoid cultural faux-pas.

It is common to shake hands with a firm handshake when meeting.

In general, South African business practices are similar to customs and etiquette of Western businesses. There are, however, local variations in customs noticeable and some African practices influence the South African business etiquette, especially in more rural regions. When a foreigner has made some effort to learn about the local business etiquette, local customs, some basics of the local language and shows a real interest in doing business with South Africa, South Africans will be very welcoming and more relaxed about doing business together.

Customs and Etiquette - Business Practices

  • Greetings: A handshake is common when meeting, although the African greetings might vary according to the respective cultural belonging. Know that there is a special African handshake, which is common with Black Africans and which you should learn from the locals. It is polite to always address the elder persons first. The presence of a woman is acknowledged but in traditional environments, the woman is not greeted by a handshake. Know that there is a special African handshake, which is common with Black Africans and which you should learn from the locals. Be aware of cultural differences when in contact with business partners of different heritage. It is usual to exchange business cards at the first meeting.
  • Meetings: Be punctual for meetings and when arranging appointments be aware that morning appointments rarely start before 8h30. It is often difficult to arrange meetings for Fridays. Always confirm your appointment the day before the meeting. Usually formal meetings start and end on the before set times.
  • Language: South Africans tend to be more informal and are more personal than in usual Western formal meetings. Use titles and surnames when addressing people you have not met before, but often business partners are already on first name basis right after the first meeting or introduction. South Africans are rather casual and transactional, meaning they do some small talk, but rather quickly come to the matter of the business. English and Afrikaans are the main languages in business. Mention to the other party if you do not understand Afrikaans and ask for the conversation to be held in English. It is always appreciated if you know some greetings or phrases of the local languages. Read more on South African Slang here.
  • Negotiations: South African want to close a deal right away but are generally open to negotiations. You should always come with realistic amounts in quotes, but should leave some space for discounts and you should be prepared to revise an offer slightly. Do not rush deals. In contracts, set fixed delivery dates and prices with payment regulations. Often price deductions for timely payment are granted and stated on invoices. Haggling is not customary.
  • Pace: The pace of business in Cape Town is certainly slower than in Johannesburg and in most instances, people tend to be more relaxed in Cape Town. In general, it is advisable to leave a bigger timeframe for things to get done than you would overseas. Do not expect to get things done on short notice without exercising quite a bit of pressure. Fridays are always bad days to start new projects.
  • Holiday season: Take notice that most of the businesses close down from mid of December until mid of January as this is the time, when people go on their annual holiday and many people travel back to their communities and visit their families. Also slow times occur around the South African school holidays and during April, when several public holidays take place.

Business Etiquette: Dress Code

In corporate offices or the financial services sector the dress code is quite conservative and a suit or dress is always a good option when meeting clients and business partners. Dress well in public and take care of your footwear. Most South Africans take pride in good and clean footwear and even people from the poorest backgrounds make a huge effort in dressing nicely when going for a meeting, be it for going to the bank, doctor or to meet their child's teacher. Even if South Africans are very casual in their attire during their leisure time, an appropriate business attire is mandatory when going for official occasions or business meetings. In smaller companies the dress code is more casual, still shorts and flip-flops are not accepted as business attire! As the summer in South Africa tends to be very warm, men often wear short sleeved shirts or long-sleeved shirts, sometimes without suit jackets. Ties are often taken off if not in a formal business meeting. 

General Customs and Etiquette in South Africa

  • Smoking is prohibited in public places, in public transport and offices. When invited to a home, always ask your host if you are allowed to smoke on the balcony or verandah. In restaurants and bars, sometimes there are separate enclosures for smokers.
  • Business Etiquette - Gifts: It is common to present a small token of appreciation when invited. Gifts are usually opened when received. Make sure if your hosts drink alcohol, if you want to present them some special wine, whiskey or alcoholic drink. Beware that Cape Town muslims do not drink alcohol! When visiting somebody at home, take a small gift, such as flowers or chocolates. Xhosa people tend to give and receive with both hands.
  • Tipping: Some guidelines are provided for referral in our special Tipping Guide for South Africa here.

Business Etiquette: Business and Banking Hours

  • Business hours are usually weekdays from 8h00 until 17h00. Most offices will close earlier on Friday afternoons, sometimes even around midday. Some businesses and offices operate on Saturday mornings, depending on the service provided.
  • Shopping hours are mostly from 9h00 to 17h00 from Monday to Friday and on Saturdays from 9.00 until 13.00h. These times however do vary according to the location of the shops. In Cape Town's bigger shopping malls opening hours are extended, usually from 9h00 to 20h00, and shops often are open on Sundays in bigger shopping centres too, but be advised to check beforehand. More on Shopping here.
  • Banking hours are usually from 8h30 to 16h30 from Monday to Friday and on Saturdays banks are open from 8h30 to 11h30. Also be prepared for longer queues in South African banks at the end of month or on Saturdays, when there will often be more people trying to get their banking done outside their work hours. - Read more on South African business etiquette in our expat guide book 'Living in South Africa'.

Need more info on Expat Life in South Africa?

Our comprehensive South Africa expat guide, offers valuable insights into the country's people and cultures, customs and business etiquette. Our visual guide to greetings, tipping and culture shock will help you to understand cultural traditions and to avoid faux-pas.

Living in South Africa - Expat Guide Book by Regina Graeff and Derryn Campbell

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