The Fundamental Principles of Business CultureSouth African business culture is marked by entrepreneurship, personal achievement and cultural sensitivity. Since the society is multi-ethnic, values and behaviours of individuals differ strongly depending on the micro-cultural groups to which they belong. But patience, tolerance and creativity are prevailing values for many South Africans. The business culture of the population is similar to Western culture: efficiency and competitiveness oriented. This cultural diversity can make effective team building complex.
The type of hierarchy may be different depending on the type of company you are dealing with: it tends to be vertical in traditional businesses and multinationals while power is more shared in start-up companies. More and more middle managers are looking proactively to become involved in decision-making. In all cases, respect for elders and rank is essential. When decisions involve consultation with subordinates, processes can be slower and more protracted.
Regardless of cultural background, a good personal relationship often forms the basis of successful business. This relationship is developed with face-to-face meetings, rather than by email or phone. Initial appointments should be about getting to know your partners on a personal level.
South Africans are often reluctant to deal with people they do not know. Building a business relationship often requires an intermediary to send a formal letter of introduction in order to win the trust of potential partners. It is often necessary to make contact one or two months in advance to obtain an appointment, and to confirm it by calling the day before. Summer holidays are to be avoided (mid-December to mid-January). It may be difficult to arrange meetings with senior level managers at first; you may have to meet with lower-level managers to begin with. To communicate South Africans rely on the telephone and email. The use of fax is also still common.
In general, South Africans value punctuality, while black South Africans have a more flexible attitude towards time. You should always arrive in advance as many companies and public buildings require visitors to pass through security checks. Formal meetings and appointments usually begin and end on time. The South African approach to deadlines is generally flexible, so it is recommended to include strict deadlines in contracts.
Greetings and Titles
You should give a firm hand shake (often quite lengthy), with direct eye-contact with your South African colleagues. Some women do not shake hands and just nod, thus wait for the woman to extend her hand first. South Africans can be quite tactile and back slapping and hugs are common. Greetings are quite informal and include time for social discussions. In general, when meeting someone for the first time, South Africans use “Mr” or “Mrs”, except in the academic sector where professional titles are important. When addressing a woman, it is advised to avoid using the term “Miss”. First names are often used but it is advised to wait until you are invited to do so.
The exchange of gifts is not a business habit but it is not unheard of. Gifts are not considered as bribery; thus, you should always accept them. They are usually opened when received. People from the Xhosa tribe tend to give and receive gifts with both hands.
Even if business attire is becoming more casual in many companies, you are expected to be conservative: dark coloured business suits for men and business suits or dresses for women. When business meetings are held on a social basis, it is possible to dress more casually, while remaining quite formal.
In South Africa, exchanging business cards is a usual practice, takes place during introductions and must be treated with respect. It is polite to compliment your South African contact’s business card. Personal e-mail address, a cell phone and a fax number must be indicated, and the card should be in English.
This is all that you need to know about the South African Business Culture.