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With a famous reputation of cultural diversity, doing business in South Africa is an eye-opening experience. The myriad different practices and customs expats may come across can be daunting, but nonetheless, a few generalities do exist and Western expats shouldn't experience too much of a culture shock in the South African business world.
South Africa is internationally recognised as one of the world's foremost emerging markets, with the World Bank ranking it 84th out of 190 countries in its Ease of Doing Business Survey for 2020. The country ranked highly for protecting minority investors (13th), but fell short in trading across borders (145th).
When opting to do business in 'Mzansi', it won't take long for expats to fit in with a local populace that has learned that the most direct path to success is the one that people carve out for themselves.
Generally, Monday to Friday, from 8.30am or 9am to 5pm.
English is widely spoken. It's beneficial but not necessary to know some isiXhosa, isiZulu or Afrikaans.
Dress is conservative, but not formal. Suits are the exception to the rule, not the norm, and reserved for more corporate environments.
Not expected, but generally welcome. Gifts are often opened in front of the giver.
Women in South Africa are entitled to the same opportunities as men but female representation in senior management remains relatively low.
Handshakes are the norm in professional settings.
Broad-Based Black Economic Empowerment (BBBEE) is an affirmative action policy that aims to redress the socio-economic imbalances caused by apartheid through helping to bring the black majority into the economic mainstream. This has an effect on hiring processes, as certain population groups are given preference for BBBEEE jobs. Though the programme is not compulsory, BBBEE-certified businesses are given certain benefits.
Business culture in South Africa
South African business culture is marked by striking differences in ethnicity, language and customs. The most important thing for expats doing business in the country is to try and understand the complexities of business culture in South Africa. Over time, a few common practices will emerge.
The working world of one urban centre contrasts with rural counterparts but also with other cities. South Africans love stereotyping Johannesburg as being hard working and full of opportunity, while Cape Town is said to be more relaxed but also more insular.
South Africans tend to prefer doing business with people they've met before. They are also known for being warm and inviting, and a bit of relationship-building will go a long way to cementing business arrangements. South Africans value hard work and applaud those who have succeeded – but they tend to prioritise other aspects of life such as family, good living and friendship.
Punctuality is also important; however, depending on the client's culture, it may be necessary to wait patiently. Government figures, for instance, are often late.
The South African work environment tends to be more relaxed and personable than expats may be used to, with the possible exception of some of the larger corporations and more established financial institutions. That said, a clear management hierarchy still exists, and showing respect for senior executives and colleagues is important. In exchange, decisions are often made in a somewhat egalitarian manner.
Dos and don'ts of business in South Africa
Do schedule appointments a fair amount of time in advance and confirm the day before the meeting
Do be punctual, even if expecting to wait
Don't be surprised if local colleagues ask personal questions or discuss their personal lives. South Africans are friendly by nature and this is common.
Don't be afraid to join colleagues for an after-work event. This is rarely seen as an obligation but instead as a fun way to get to know one another.
Do dress conservatively when initially joining an office, cementing relationships with clients or associates, or attending an interview, even in casual offices