If you are setting up, doing business, or dealing with partners from that country in South Africa, it is imperative to understand the basics of corporate culture in this particular area. Business meetings and negotiations often start with both parties having unspoken assumptions and certain expectations of their partners. In-depth knowledge of South African business culture can make all the difference between a successful business meeting and a lost business.
Practical advice on business etiquette in South Africa
Below is our list of pieces of advice to keep in mind when dealing with South African partners:
South Africans are unlikely to do business with people they haven't met personally. It is advisable to have a friend introduce you in order to build successful business relationships. If possible, try to draw the partner's attention to South African business references that you already have in your portfolio.
It is highly recommended that you receive letters of recommendation in case you have done business with mutual contacts of the company or entrepreneur with whom you wish to develop a relationship.
Most of the time, a first business meeting is more about personal contact and getting to know one another than a direct discussion of business issues. The chances that South Africans will do business with you are much higher if they trust you as a person.
Keep in mind that almost everything is closed from mid-December to mid-January, as well as during the Easter and most Jewish holidays. Therefore, do not plan your business trips and meetings on these dates.
Working hours in South Africa are almost the same as in Western countries, including the fact that most of South African companies are closed during weekends. Major exceptions are banks and state office employees, because banks and state authorities are often open in until noon on Saturdays.
You may face quite a challenge to locate a certain address in South Africa. This may happen because of the way in which the address system works. In case you are driving to a meeting with clients/partners, you better leave early to make sure you have some extra time to find your destination address and to park your car safely. We would recommend taking a cab rather than driving yourself.
Remember that acceptable business clothes are suits and ties. Shirts preferably in light colours. If you aren’t wearing a jacket, make sure to put on a long sleeved-shirt. In case you are invited to a dinner at someone’s house, a dinner jacket is normally expected. It is advised for women to put on dresses and skirts instead of pantsuits and the former should not be sleeveless, too tight, or very short, as it is considered a bad taste. Keep in mind that winter in South Africa starts in June and lasts until August, so do not forget to dress something warm in case you are visiting during these months.
Most locals speak English quite well, therefore, it is not required for you to translate documents or materials into any of the African languages.
South Africans are quite friendly and open, meaning they often express emotions openly. It is a quite common situation when your business partner slaps you on the shoulder, shakes your hand tight, or even holds your hand as a gesture of trust and friendship.
It is considered polite to offer small gifts to your partners. If you are invited to a house for dinner, do not forget to bring some gift: a box of chocolate, wine, or something similar – it is considered a good gesture and it shows respect for the hosts.
Always show respect to elders, even in situations when they are not actually a part of the company. Elders are widely respected and usually considered to be extremely wise and experienced; those who disrespect elders openly are often end up being classified as undesirable business partners.
Speaking of table etiquette and cutlery, the knife should always be kept in the right hand and the fork in left — never switch hands and never wave your hands around while holding cutlery. It is also considered a minor insult to leave food uneaten – so it is advised to plan prior to ordering dishes. Smoking is generally accepted, but only after all the guests has finished their food. Never chat or talk with waiters during the meal.
It is generally considered impolite to point your finger at anyone, also the V for victory gesture is considered offensive. Remember not have a dialogue while having hands in your pockets.