Located on the southern tip of Africa and with a history of European colonization including Dutch, British and Portuguese settlers, South Africa is home to an endless diversity of cultures, races, languages, climates and cuisines. Despite its present multiculturalism, this “Rainbow Nation” has had quite the turbulent past. For over 40 years, the Apartheid policy ruled South Africa, separating the white from the black South Africans. The white population, even though in minority, were in power and ruled during Apartheid, leaving black South Africans with lower paid jobs, so-called ‘black spots’, and fewer privileges. Apartheid was abolished thanks to Nelson Mandela, who got elected the first president post-Apartheid and turned into a national figure of reconciliation after his release from 27 years of imprisonment for alleged terrorism.
South Africa is a country with endless possibilities. It is a place where you can overlook the ocean whilst being overshadowed by high mountains. It is home to the largest and still growing township in the world, to 11 official languages. It is a country surrounded by endless flora and fauna and a place where business attire for some men consists of a rugby jersey or a cricket bat. Since the Football World Cup in 2010, South Africa’s tourist industry experienced tremendous growth and thus more foreign business encounters. As one of the most multicultural countries worldwide, it is important to take all the different ethnic groups into consideration and to expect the unexpected when planning to host a business meeting in South Africa.
Black South Africans tend to be relaxed when it comes to keeping time and sticking to agendas, while white South Africans tend to be less easy on this. However, your South African counterparts will expect you to arrive on time for a scheduled meeting. When hosting a business meeting for the first time in South Africa, it is crucial to schedule your meeting a few months in advance. However, cancellations are not unusual in South Africa, thus be sure to confirm a day prior to the meeting.
In both rural and urban areas, respect for seniority and relationships is valued dearly. It is therefore important to greet your South African counterparts and participate in conversations with them in the right manner in order to impress them. Meetings usually start with an introduction. You may use the titles if they are present but this is not needed in South Africa. However, do avoid calling a woman “Miss” if you do not know her marital status. Because of the wide variety of ethnic backgrounds, greeting styles vary. However, in a formal setting, South African men usually greet a male counterpart with a handshake and a female counterpart with just a simple nod if not offered a hand. Always keep eye contact to build the necessary trust. Keep in mind that South Africans are seen as warm and welcoming people, thus personal questions regarding family/personal life may be asked, although this rarely happens in a formal setting. During small talk, South Africans will respect you if you show an interest in sports, politics and the South African culture. Humour is used quite often in South Africa thus be prepared if your style of humour is different. Business cards are usually exchanged at the end of a meeting.
The initial business presentation is expected to be short, concise and informative. It is advised to hand out the materials prior to the presentation. The preferred language used in the materials is English. White South Africans tend to be more direct than black South Africans thus you may expect them to show disagreement and voice their opinion during the meeting.
In conclusion, always be friendly, keep eye contact, show interest in the South African culture, become acquainted with the cultural differences, use humour and keep in mind that establishing relationships with your South African counterpart is the key to hosting a successful business meeting in South Africa.