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Excerpted from the South Africa Career Guide

Daily Life

Some 25 years ago, racial discrimination and segregation were accepted and rampant in South Africa. Prejudice was widespread and laws were unjust. With the election of President Nelson Mandela in 1994 — the result of the country’s first democratic election — things started to change. South Africa today, though still facing challenges, is a land full of opportunity and potential, with promising prospects in business, trade and tourism.

One of the strong beliefs held by many in the country is the importance of Ubuntu, or compassion toward one another. In the business setting, this means respecting one another and displaying acceptance and openness to differing perspectives and opinions.


The San people settled South Africa around 40,000 BC. The oldest surviving indigenous group of people in South Africa are members of the Khoisan language group, but most of South Africa's Black population is descended from the Bantu-speakers of central Africa, who migrated south around 100 AD. The Zulu and Xhosa settled the eastern coast by 1500 AD.

The Portuguese were the first Europeans to reach the Cape of Good Hope, arriving in 1488. Permanent settlement began when the Dutch East India Company founded Cape Town in 1652 as a stop on the Spice Route between the Netherlands and the Far East. In 1806, the British claimed the colony. Thirty years later, the Boers (the original Dutch, French and German settlers, later known as Afrikaners) began to move north in a migration known as the 'Great Trek.' They sought to escape British rule and the recent abolition of slavery. In the North they encountered native peoples, mainly the powerful Zulu. In 1838, the Voortrekkers (migrating Boers) defeated and deported the Zulu leader Dingane. The Boers eventually set up independent republics in the North.


South Africans are not afraid of physical contact. They often pat each other on the back or give long handshakes, and may hug in more familiar circumstances. Those who back away from this may be seen as cold and unapproachable. Westernized South Africans use a firm handshake, while culturally native South Africans tend to shake hands more gently and, as a sign of respect, may not look someone directly in the eye. Western ways have, however, replaced many of the tribal traditions. It is common to ask a person how he or she is, even if one has never before met the other person. It also is common practice to inquire after the person's health or that of his or her family, particularly with older or rural South Africans.

If You Want to Act Like a Local...

  • South Africans are typically early risers, so evening entertainment during the week usually ends before midnight.
  • Dinner often begins at about 7 pm. Everyone is expected to arrive on time. If the dinner is at someone’s home, a small gift of chocolates or a bottle of wine will be appreciated by the host. It is only necessary to take shoes off if the host’s religion requires it or if the host requests shoes be removed.

Office Protocol

Because of the great diversity present in the South African workplace, there are many differing views and contributions, and a wide range of existing skills and experiences. In the typical workplace, it is not rare to find people of different religions, cultures, languages, talents, lifestyles or family norms. South Africans are quickly adjusting to this workplace diversity.

Many South Africans dress formally and conservatively, but it is becoming more acceptable to dress informally in some companies. You should, however, always dress conservatively for a first meeting.

Management Styles

Post-apartheid programs have focused on balancing management teams to ensure racial diversity and representation of all races. As a result, black professionals have been sought after and introduced into most companies. This, on occasion, has been known to create tension among the workforce, as questions of fairness come into play. A manager must act professionally and competently to demonstrate that his or her promotion was based on knowledge and ability, not skin color.

Conducting a Meeting

A formal meeting in South Africa is very orderly. A designated chairperson typically supplies an agenda and minutes from the previous meeting. The chairperson determines the structure of the meeting and anybody who wishes to say something must ask him or her for permission first.

Negotiation Styles

Hard bargaining in negotiations is not part of the South African business culture. Indeed, South Africans like to take their time and negotiate casually. Negotiators should avoid acting pushy. It is critical that one build solid, long-term, win-win relationships. This means demonstrating a strong commitment to long-term involvement in the country. Negotiators should have a good grasp of the current social and political atmosphere in South Africa; business people do not like having to explain it. This also allows negotiators to tailor their proposals to the local conditions.

This is just a short sample of what you’ll find in over 100 pages of information in the complete South Africa Guide.

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