The landscape of business in South Africa has changed dramatically since the 1990s. Nowadays, business culture in South Africa is much more inclusive and organisations have been encouraged to adopt an equal and democratic management style. However, it is important to remember that although a great deal of progress has been made in equal opportunities, there is still a way to go.
South Africa has a number of large global corporations and medium-sized and small enterprises. The country's principal trading partners are Germany, USA, Japan, China, UK, Spain and the rest of the African continent. Business and management culture is not dissimilar to Europe and the USA, with open communication between workers and informal management techniques.
South African management style has changed considerably and companies are now under legal obligation to be more representative and adaptable in the management of their workforce. Managers are much less authoritarian than they were previously and business is seen as a ‘hands-on’ team effort with transparency between managers and workers. Generally speaking, South Africans are strong communicators and love to talk so management teams tend to be informal and approachable.
How formal a workplace culture is depends on the type of company, but South Africans are known for being laid back and like to use humour to break the ice. However, although South African business can be a relaxed affair - sloppy dressing, not showing respect to elders and touching (apart from a handshake) would be considered unacceptable. South African people are very direct communicators and like to get straight to the point so try not to take offence if a business associate says what is on his/her mind straightaway.
Networking and relationship-building are essential if you wish to be successful in business in South Africa. South Africans like to establish a certain level of trust before they commit to business contracts and negotiations. Initial meetings should be more about getting to know one another on a personal level before business is discussed.
South Africans place great emphasis on family groups and friendship networks and this culture influences overall business practice. Co-workers often become friends and socialise together, or know each other from previous walks of life. South Africans generally like to do business face-to-face and are reluctant to deal with people they don't know or have not met before in person. Although mixing business with personal or intimate relationships is inevitable in the workplace, it is best avoided.
Business attire in South Africa is generally a suit, tie and shirt for men and a trouser or skirt suit for women. Revealing or outlandish clothing is frowned upon and South Africans place great importance on presentation, so clothing should be ironed and shoes polished at all times. Warmer business clothing is needed in winter (between June and August), whereas short-sleeved shirts and blouses are acceptable in the summer months (November to January).
The accepted business greeting in South Africa is a firm handshake. Some women will nod in greeting and you should only shake hands with a woman if she extends her hand first. Business associates who know each other rarely use titles but addressing a woman as 'miss' without knowing her marital status may cause offence. In a university, legal or healthcare setting, titles such as 'professor,' 'judge,' or 'doctor' are used as a sign of respect.
South African punctuality depends on cultural heritage and varies between those who like to be on time, particularly English-speaking business people, and those who are more time-flexible. Be prepared to wait for people to turn up to meetings - it is wise to make sure everyone knows the exact time and place well in advance. Sometimes lateness is often unavoidable in South Africa as serious traffic congestion in the larger cities can pose an impediment to getting somewhere on time, despite best intentions.
South Africans prefer to do business face-to-face rather than by phone or video conferencing. Meetings tend to be informal with some degree of small talk permitted before getting down to business. South Africans are warm and gregarious people and dispensing with social niceties, even in business meetings, would be considered ill-mannered and over-aggressive. It is often difficult to schedule business meetings between mid-December and mid-January as this is when most South Africans take their holidays.
South Africa’s turbulent history is a sensitive subject which is discussed but not dwelled on today. Foreigners are advised against bringing race or politics up in a business setting as South Africans can become touchy about the issue.
In terms of communication style in meetings, this can differ significantly depending on a person’s cultural heritage. For example, there are differences between the way a black South African communicates to that of a white South African (and further differences between different cultural backgrounds). You should not generalise according to race when dealing with South Africans in business.
Although South Africa has 11 official languages, business is generally carried out in English. Most South Africans will switch to English when there is someone present who doesn't speak their language. Most people involved in business speak a good degree of English, sometimes with a heavy accent. In these circumstances it is acceptable to politely ask the speaker to repeat anything not understood.