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Business Culture

South Africa - Business Culture

Business protocol in South Africa is similar to that in Western Europe and the United States. However, you should always be sensitive to local political issues when in discussion with South Africans.

Business is transactional in nature in South Africa, and it is not necessary to spend a long time building up personal relationships. However, networking is important, and it will help your credibility to be introduced by an existing South African contact. Face to face meetings are generally preferred.

There are eleven official languages in South Africa, but English is most commonly used in business. All written materials should be provided in both English and Afrikaans.

You should make appointments in advance and be sure to arrive on time, as South Africans are very punctual. Normal office hours are 8.30 a.m. to 5 p.m. Avoid scheduling meetings between mid-December and mid-January, or the Easter period, as many South Africans take holidays at these times.

Although business attire is fairly informal in some companies, you should dress smartly and conservatively for initial meetings. Dark trousers, long-sleeved shirts and ties, or tropical lightweight suits, are appropriate for men, and smart blouses and skirts, or dresses, for women.

Although greeting styles differ between ethnic groups, it is most common for South Africans to shake hands with foreign visitors. People should be addressed by Mr or Ms/Mrs and their surname. Good eye contact is important as this indicates sincerity.

Business cards are used but are usually quite simple, focusing on contact details, and there is no special protocol for their exchange.

Meetings are fairly relaxed, with considerable time allowed for initial small talk. Refreshments are normally provided. Initial meetings are often just for the purpose of getting to know one another. Business lunches and dinners are also commonly held.

Communication and negotiation styles are quite informal and relaxed. South Africans often try to avoid confrontation or bargaining, preferring to arrive at a position of mutual advantage. Avoid high-pressure sales tactics, as these are disliked in South Africa. Never raise your voice, as this will be perceived as aggressive, or interrupt anyone while they are speaking.

It is normal practice to confirm agreements and action points in writing after the meeting.

The decision-making process can be quite lengthy; decisions are usually made at senior levels of the company, but in consultation with others as necessary.

It is not normal practice to give gifts in South African business, but you should take a small gift of flowers, chocolates or wine if invited to someone's home.

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