Open menu
Back Page Back
South African Work Culture – Practical Tips for Doing Business in South Africa
18 November, 2019
Copyright Roberto De Riccardis SouthAfrica

The cultural landscape of South Africa is a complex maze, and understanding how it shapes and forms the businessworld is integral to building successful professional relationships there.

Here we present practical guidance on how best to navigate the local work environment and communicate effectively with South African colleagues and clients.

Tip 1. Be on time, be prepared, be flexible 

South Africans are some of the hardest workers in the world – with 12% of the country working more than 60 hours a week! Due to this serious work ethic, arriving on time is crucial.

Time is definitely money in the current South African economic climate. Unforeseen circumstances can arise at any moment so local businesses plan extensively for a variety of scenarios. This means you need to come prepared but equally ready for change and compromise. 

Be clear about what is negotiable and what isn’t. Failing to do so will create the impression that you are self-serving and that may damage negotiations or collaborations before they even get started.

Tip 2. Emphasise trust at the negotiating table

For South Africans the focus when doing business is to establish long-term partnerships as it is generally seen as more profitable. You’ll find that during business dealings the aim is to create a win-win situation for all the parties involved.

Subsequently, it’s crucial that you establish trust with your South African colleagues and prospective clients – they tend to be wary of doing business with people that they don’t trust.

What does that look like in practical terms? Take advantage of any opportunities to show that you are eager to establish stronger working relations. Communicate warmly and openly, being mindful of the tone in which you speak and the body language that you exhibit.

Tip 3. Deal directly with the decision makers but respect your elders

South African companies tend to function with strong hierarchical structures. So if you want to avoid unnecessary delays in finalising business matters, it’s best to negotiate directly with the person who has the authority to make that decision. Identify the key players and deal with them from the get-go.

At the same, you need to bear in mind that South African culture places a lot of emphasis on showing respect towards elders. That means that even though the most important person in the meeting may not necessarily be the oldest, you should still make a clear demonstration of respect to the older people present.

 Tip 4. Work hard, play hard

Outside of work South Africans certainly know how to have fun and enjoy their country to the fullest. The climate lends itself to outdoor activities and sports, of which there are many to enjoy!

It’s likely that you’ll be invited to social gatherings and sporting events by your South African colleagues – and you musn’t side-step these invitations. They represent the perfect opportunity for you to foster and establish a more stable relationship. As already mentioned: they prefer collaborating with people they can trust.

Tip 5. Mind the culture gap and keep Small Talk conservative

South Africa is a melting pot of a variety of cultures and given its recent history it’s important  to avoid mentioning politics, racism, Apartheid or similar issues when engaging in Small Talk.

You may believe that you are educated in your opinion, but a South African is likely to assure you that you don’t know or understand the situation until you’ve lived there. Thus, trying to voice your opinion about these sensitive topics is a sure-fire way of damaging a business relationship.

If you’re specifically asked to give your opinion, err on the side of caution and limit yourself to short but neutral answers.

Tip 6. When in doubt, ask

Communication style and body language can differ significantly depending on a person’s cultural heritage, luckily most South Africans are aware that it can be confusing to a foreigner. So if someone exhibits behaviour that you find confusing, you can politely ask for some clarification – they want to make sure that you are comfortable around them.


At The Language Grid we understand that it’s daunting to navigate the complexities of an environment that is fraught with cultural nuances and cultural complexity. Follow these tips and you can trust that you’re communicating with an appropriate level of awareness. 

Zoe Flaherty, Founding Director of The Language Grid

We have a team of native-English trainers from a broad range of English-speaking countries, so we can always meet your business needs. Contact us to find out more

Image: © Roberto De Riccardis 

Companies we've helped
Deloitte Consulting Italy
Triberti, Colombo & Associati
SEA Milano
Ferrovie dello Stato