South African Management Style

Traditional South African business tended towards the accumulation of power and decision-making in the hands of a few senior managers (usually white) with middle managers waiting in line to move up the corporate ladder over time.

Post-apartheid, things have started to change – especially under the influence of the myriad of MNCs which have flocked into the country. Hierarchies are breaking down somewhat and younger middle-managers are looking to become more proactively involved in decision-making.

Thus the best advice to give is for a manager to be seen to be in command of the facts and the subject matter but to ask for input and opinions from the team. Be authoritative but not authoritarian.

The biggest change to have impacted at middle management level over the last few years has been the introduction of a new cadre of black professionals into most companies. This new breed of managers has been enabled to make corporate progress through the use of affirmative action programmes, where companies have actively sought to develop a more representative and racially diverse management team.

It would, again, be very naive to pretend that these policies of affirmative action have been universally well-received amongst existing white management teams and many whites will complain about inappropriate individuals being selected for a particular position simply because of skin colour, rather than ability, knowledge or aptitude. The issue of affirmative action is one of the flash points of modern South African business and must be approached with great caution and sensitivity.

A brief overview of some key concepts to consider when doing business in South Africa

Written and Produced by Keith Warburton

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If central Africa is poised to take off from an economic perspective then South Africa should be seen as the continent’s engine. South Africa takes on super-power qualities when looked at from an African perspective. South Africa is far and away the largest economy in Africa and the economic health of so many of its neighbours are intrinsically linked with the robustness of South Africa’s commercial sector.

The transition from the previous apartheid-led policies to a fully functioning democracy, offering equal opportunity for all, was never going to be an easy one. The birth pangs of the new rainbow nation are still being felt and political corruption and in-fighting have not helped the process. Nonetheless, South Africa has made significant progress in most areas and, critically, has not descended towards social chaos and economic meltdown as many predicted. South Africa survives and South Africa grows. Its future will be fascinating to watch and its future could, to a large measure, determine the future of Africa.

If you are considering doing business in Africa (and more and more companies are moving into Africa), then it is probably a good idea to do business in South Africa first as a stepping stone to the rest of the continent.

However, South Africa is complex. It is a complex mix of cultures, races, languages and differing approaches to business. You need to be flexible in South Africa and you need to be observant. You need to know that there is no ‘one size fits all’ process that will work in such a complicated environment. Learn about the country before you go on a business trip to – it makes commercial sense to do so (and its fascinating at the same time.)

This country profile provides an overview of some of the key aspects of South African business culture in a concise, easy to follow-format. The document includes information on:

  • Background to business
  • Business Structures
  • Management style
  • Meetings
  • Teamwork
  • Communication
  • Women in business
  • Entertaining
  • Top tips