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
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: