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“At 23:56 on 23rd October 1963, Zambians rose in reverence of the Union Jack, the de facto national flag of the United Kingdom, for the last time as it lowered, signifying the end of British rule in Zambia.”

― Precious Mwansa-Chisa

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Its’ three hours till the plane take’s off. You go through your checklist one final time to make sure you have everything you need;

  • Passport
  • Travel Insurance
  • Business Proposal
  • Comprehension of the country’s business culture and rules of etiquette?

As the global market becomes increasingly accessible and opportunities across country borderlines spring up, for businesses large and small alike, it is imperative to be cognizant of a country’s corporate culture and etiquette practices. Your comprehension of these various nuances may be the deciding factor between getting that career changing business deal or making an absolute laughing stock of you and your organisation. So the next time you’re travelling to South Africa it might be important for you to remember the following;

Greetings and Communication

The South African government recognizes a whopping 11 official languages: Hello (English), Sanibonani (isiZulu), Hallo (Afrikaans), Dumela (Setswana), Molo (isiXhosa); Thobela (Sepedi); Lumela (Sesotho); Abusheni (Xitsonga); Sanibona (SiSwati); Avuwani (Tshivenda); and Salibonani (isiNdebele). This shouldn’t worry you too much about doing business in English since most people in the country speak English as a first, second or even third language. However, it is important to note that you might need to pay close attention in your conversations as English may be spoken with a strong but audible accent.

The accepted greeting is a firm handshake. You should keep eye contact when shaking a person’s hand. Make a mental note to not point at people while talking or talk with your hands in your pockets as both will be received in poor taste. However, be ready for some backslapping and hand holding from your South African associates, it’s all part of the business process there.


Many people joke about how everything moves more slowly and at a relaxed pace in Africa, this has brought forth the infamous perceived cultural tendency of “African-time”. However, you will be amiss in assuming this relaxed pace in your South African business dealings as everyone is expected to be punctual and on time.

Dress code

The dress code for business meetings in South Africa, as in most parts of the world, is highly dependent on what the business is and the type of company you are meeting with. If you’re meeting investment bankers in an office complex in Sandton City Johannesburg, by all means adorn your best suit and tie. However, if your meeting is at a sheep farm in Gauteng, you might want to err on the side of a smart yet casual attire. Whatever the occasion is, you should keep your clothes conservative but stylish and avoid wearing too tight or too revealing clothes.

Titles, Gifts and Business Card Etiquette

South African business culture is moderately conservative, thus use honorific titles such as Mr. Mrs. Ms. or Dr. until invited to do otherwise. Calling someone by their first name without being asked to, may risk being perceived as discourteous and leaving a bad impression.

Gift giving or exchanging during business meetings is not expected, however it is not unheard of and may actually be greatly appreciated as gifts are not considered bribes. If you are invited to diner at the house of a business partner, an appropriate gift is a bottle of good South African wine, chocolates, or flowers for the host.

Exchange of business cards is relatively expected. It is best to wait until the end of the meeting to give your business card to your associates. Ensure that you do not hand out your business card to every single person in the room without actually connecting with them. It may be perceived as irritating and ensure that as soon as you walk out of the door, your card finds itself in a disposal bin as quickly as it found its way into the recipients’ hands. If you are offered a business card, show appreciation by thanking the person, look at it and store it carefully. It could mean that the other party is not only hinting at but actually encouraging further communication.


South Africa is often called the ‘Rainbow Nation’, a term which was coined by the former South African Archbishop, Desmond Tutu, and neatly describes the country’s multicultural diversity. This entails that the country consists of a multitude of ancestry, races, tribes and cultures. Thus, a one size fits all formula for ‘do’s and don’ts’ when conducting business in South Africa does not exist or is at least as vast as the countries numerous cultural norms. But if you follow these guidelines and err on the side of thoughtfulness, you should definitely be able to make it, close the deal and hopefully form lifelong relationships.

Goodbye (English); Totsiens (Afrikaans); Hamba Kahle (Zulu/ Siswati).


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