South Africa presents the visitor with a world of contradictory impressions and emotions. It is industrialised and agrarian; affluent and impoverished – all within a few miles of each other.
South Africa is by far the wealthiest country in Africa. It is rich by African terms but poor when compared with regional superpowers on other continents.
Trying to describe South Africa is a daunting task as it has many varying constituent parts, all of which are undergoing periods of rapid change and development. What is true today will probably not be true tomorrow.
The country’s current relatively peaceful internal political situation is viewed by many observers as, at best, fragile. The transition from an apartheid system to a more representative democracy is a slow transformation. Do not arrive in South Africa expecting that this process is complete and well established.
There are many cultures within South Africa with ethnic tensions existing both within the black community and the white community. Exactly who are you dealing with? Do extensive homework before embarking on any project.
The corporate structure, management style, levels of sophistication etc. found within a contact organisation will vary enormously depending upon the type of company you are dealing with. Is your contact company a well established organisation or a more recently established outfit?
If you are dealing with a recently privatised company expect high levels of bureaucracy and a slow rate of progress.
Management power has traditionally been held in the hands of a few (usually white) senior managers. Decisions tend to be made at the top.
Although a great deal of pressure is being put on managers to be more consultative and delegate authority, it has been noted that a great deal of resistance to such change has been felt in many organisations.
The best advice for any manager is to strive to be authoritative but not overly authoritarian. Be in charge of the facts and speak with conviction.
South Africans expect you to have a good knowledge of the situation on the ground in the country at the time you arrive. They are not there to give you a history lesson or explain the intricacies of the system. If you want to do business in the country, the onus is on you to do the research.
Affirmative action policies which promote the development of black talent are in force throughout South African industry. You need to be knowledgeable about this issue and have policies in place to deal with the issue.
One commonality amongst the myriad sections of the South African business community is that they all prize the importance of good, long term relationships. Stress your commitment to a long term involvement in the country. Do not risk being seen as fair weather friends.
Teams can be difficult to build across ethnic divides. This is not only an issue between black and white co-workers but also between, for example, Zulu and Xhosa.
Although a host of different languages and dialects are spoken in South Africa, the common business language is English which is generally spoken to a high standard.
Humour is used by most elements of society as a tension release mechanism and can be used in the most serious of situations to diffuse anxiety.
Punctuality varies across the cultures but can be very elastic.
Women have tended to play a minimal role in business life and although there are signs that progress is being made in this area, it is still unusual to find women in senior management positions.
Dress code still tends towards the formal and it is best to wear conservative, business-formal attire – this applies to both men and women.
Most business entertaining will be done at local restaurants. It is unusual to be invited to the home of a business colleague for a meal.
Written and Produced by Keith Warburton
This country profile has been produced to give a short overview of some of the key concepts to bear in mind when doing business with contacts in South Africa. It is intended to be an aid to business people who have commercial dealings with counterparties in the country but should not be seen as an exhaustive guide to this topic or as a substitute for more substantial research should there be a need.
With this in mind, we have covered the areas which are key to a better understanding of the cultural mindset underpinning business dealings in South Africa and which are, quite often, extremely different from the approach and thought processes associated with business in other parts of the world.
Therefore this briefing note is broken into short, bite-sized sections on the following topics: