South Africa’s workforce is known for its entrepreneurial spirit, resilience, and warmth, attracting business professionals and investors alike. South Africa’s economy is the second largest on the African continent after Nigeria. It is home to thriving tourism, industrial and mining sectors as well as developing technological industries. In fact, South Africa is the world’s largest producer of platinum, gold and chromium, with other successful industries including automobile assembly, metalworking, and iron and steel production.

While commercial centers such as Cape Town and Johannesburg have become international business hotspots, the country’s unique national culture has a prominent influence in the business arena. Cultural sensitivity is crucial considering South Africa’s long struggle with race relations, complicated by its history of colonialism and ethnic tensions.

For visiting business professionals, taking the time to appreciate the local culture and understanding communication nuances is crucial for building successful business relationships founded on trust and goodwill.

  1. Initiating Introductions: South Africans are known for their friendliness, and as international visitors we experienced very warm and welcoming greetings, and introductions. Nevertheless, our research and experience proved that South Africans tend to be cautious, even wary, of engaging in business with people they don’t know personally. According to analysis by the Hofstede Centre, South Africans tend to avoid uncertainty and ambiguity, preferring a sure and certain plan of action. Our meetings were prearranged. Our network was built through a mutual contact; and we highly recommend doing the same. Our U.S. client provided an email introduction to her business associate. She explained our company role, credentials, and upcoming visit. We set up a Skype call to allow the three of us to become comfortable. Then we set up a meeting in Cape Town – success! Scheduling business discussions after mutual trust is established is worth the wait.
  2. Maximize Your Time: Similar to the US, South Africa is a masculine culture with emphasis on competition, success, and decision making. It is therefore wise for international business professionals to make the most of every meeting by arriving punctually and equipped with an action plan. While appointment times are  historically flexible, our meetings in South Africa began on time, with productive discussions of each item of the agenda. We recommend following suit by being on time and ready to discuss the deal at hand, with less time consecrated to small talk after trust has been established- especially if your time in the country is limited.
  3. Team Up: While South Africa is still considered an individualistic culture by global standards, it scores significantly lower than the US on this cultural dimension. This means that South Africans tends to demonstrate a higher level of interdependence than their US counterparts, and projects may be more collaborative than that to which US business people are accustomed. Visiting business professionals should be ready to work closely with their South African associates, and resist any urge to “go it alone” or commandeer what should be a collaborative process.

South Africa is a flourishing cultural melting pot offering numerous economic opportunities for expansion, investment, and growth of international businesses. If you want to navigate the country’s boundless cultural diversity, these three cross-cultural tips will help you make a positive impression on your South African associates.

Sharon Schweitzer and Amanda Alden co-wrote this post. Sharon Schweitzer, J.D., is a cross-cultural trainer, modern manners expert, and the founder of Access to Culture. In addition to her accreditation in intercultural management from the HOFSTEDE centre, she serves as a Chinese Ceremonial Dining Etiquette Specialist in the documentary series Confucius was a Foodie, on Nat Geo People. She is the resident etiquette expert on two popular lifestyle shows: ABC Tampa Bay’s Morning Blend and CBS Austin’s We Are Austin. She is regularly quoted by BBC Capital, Investor’s Business Daily, Fortune, and the National Business Journals. Her Amazon #1 Best Selling book in International Business,  Access to Asia: Your Multicultural Business Guide, now in its third printing, was named to Kirkus Reviews’ Best Books of 2015. She’s a winner of the British Airways International Trade Award at the 2016 Greater Austin Business Awards and the 2017 New York City Big Book Award for Multicultural Nonfiction.

Amanda Alden is an intercultural research assistant with Access to Culture. She graduated with honors from St. Edward’s University with a major in Global Studies and a minor in French, and is currently pursuing a master’s degree in Intercultural Mediations at l’Université de Lille III. Feel free to connect with Amanda at on LinkedIn.

Photo: Sharon Schweitzer