How to Master Business Etiquette in South Africa

South Africa is a very attractive market for business. The economy combines the stability of an established infrastructure with the opportunity for growth normally found only in a developing market. Here’s what you need to know to make your business efforts successful:

The people

South Africa has been dubbed the “rainbow nation” due to its rich blend of cultures, ethnicities, and languages. The primary cultural groups include white Afrikaners, black Africans, Indians, and Cape-Malay. In addition to the cultural differences among these groups, there are notable differences between urban and rural areas, with the rural areas typically being far more conservative. This diversity makes mastering South African etiquette challenging in that there is no one “typical” South African.


While there are 11 recognized national languages in South Africa, English is the language of business, so it’s unlikely you’ll need a translator. South Africans tend to be open and direct in their speech, and their inherent enthusiasm may sometimes make them come across as being “loud.” However, communication will usually start off in a formal tone and relax as you get to know each other. In addition, South Africans’ concept of personal space is similar to that of most Europeans, which means they keep a comfortable distance away and eschew touching.


South Africans like to do business with people whom they know and trust. However, they balance the desire for firm relationships with a strong sense of business. You can take advantage of both aspects by asking for an introduction from a mutual acquaintance then making your case with facts and figures. 


While many of the cultural groups have their own traditional greetings, a simple handshake is acceptable almost everywhere. Some women will choose to nod instead of shaking hands; in that case, just smile and nod in return. Address your hosts by titles and surnames unless you’re invited to do otherwise.

Business meetings

Business meetings should always be scheduled in advance. Be aware that you may not accomplish much at the first meeting other than establishing rapport. While South Africans are quite willing to do business without establishing a good relationship, things go better when you take the time to do so. And always start with some small talk – for instance, inquiring about your host’s health, family, hobbies, etc. (However, stay away from politics and race relations.)

There is no special ceremony surrounding business cards, but it’s still good manners to treat them with respect and put them in a proper container instead of in your pocket. Additionally, your hosts will appreciate it if you send an agenda ahead of time so that they’ll know what you want to talk about, but it’s not necessary to strictly adhere to it.


South Africans value being on time and view tardiness as being very rude. Try to arrive at least five minutes before your scheduled meeting time. Make sure to allow plenty of time for your commute as South African addresses are known for being difficult to find.

Dress Code

Always dress conservatively for an initial meeting. For men, that means a dark business suit. Women should either wear a suit or modestly-cut dress. If your hosts dress more casually, feel free to follow their lead for future meetings.


There is no ceremonial gift-giving in South Africa. However, if you’re invited to your host’s home, you should bring a small (no more than around US$50) hostess gift. Chocolates, flowers, or South African wine are good choices. And be sure to present all gifts with either both hands or your right hand only; never present a gift with just your left hand.  If you receive a gift, open it immediately.

South Africa is a sophisticated, burgeoning market that offers tremendous business opportunities. Stack the odds in your favor – and show respect to your hosts – by following these tips on business etiquette.


Image: charmingasiatours