Doing Business in South Africa

Central Business District in Cape TownAn African economic powerhouse, expats will find that doing business in South Africa varies greatly. Its rich cultural diversity means that expats will be exposed to different practices and customs, but nonetheless, a few generalities do exist.

South Africa is internationally recognised as one of the world's foremost emerging markets, with the World Bank ranking it at 43 out of 189 countries in its Ease of Doing Business Survey for 2015. The best performing African country, South Africa is not far behind European economies like Belgium and Bulgaria, and is ahead of struggling Eurozone countries like Italy and Greece.

The country's high ranking is well founded. Starting a business in South Africa is done in five procedures and takes less than a month, and the country is particularly known for protecting its investors. 

It won't take long for expats to fit in with a local populace which has learned that the most direct path to success is the one that people carve out for themselves. 
 

Business culture in South Africa


South African business culture is marked by striking differences in ethnicity, language, and even geographic space.

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 more insular.

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.

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.

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.

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.

Dress is conservative, but not formal. Suits are the exception to the rule, not the norm – although looking smart and stylish is always favourable. 

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.

Doing Business in South Africa: Fast Facts


Business language: English is widely spoken. It is beneficial but not necessary to know some Afrikaans, Xhosa or Zulu.

Hours of business: Generally Monday to Friday, 8.30am or 9am to 5pm. South Africans rarely work on Saturdays and Sundays.

Greetings: Handshakes are the norm in professional settings.  

Dress: Conservative but casual; suits are required in the most serious corporate environments.

Gifts: Not expected, but generally welcome. Gifts are often opened in front of the giver. Cultural differences should be kept in consideration.

Gender equality: Women in South Africa are entitled to the same opportunities as men but female representation in senior management remains relatively low.

Racial equality: Black Economic Empowerment (BEE) 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. Businesses have to consider this in their recruitment practices.

Dos and don'ts of business in South Africa

  • Do schedule appointments a fair amount of time in advance and confirm the day before meeting

  • Do be punctual, even if you expect 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 method of team-building  

  • Do dress conservatively when initially joining an office, cementing relationships with clients or associates, or attending an interview, even in casual offices

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