South Africa cultural insights
The following cultural insights are intended to provide snapshots of the overall social and cultural norms as well as the workplace environment that a Canadian might face working in a specific country. The content in no way reflects official policy or opinions of the Government of Canada, Global Affairs Canada or the Centre for Intercultural Learning.
On this page
Local and Canadian perspectives for the following subjects:
- Communication styles
- Display of emotion
- Dress, punctuality & formality
- Preferred managerial qualities
- Hierarchy and decision-making
- Religion, class, ethnicity, & gender
- Privileges and favouritism
- Conflicts in the workplace
- Motivating local colleagues
- Recommended books, films & foods
- In-country activities
- National heroes
- Shared historical events with Canada
- About the cultural interpreters
- Related information
When meeting someone for the first time it is good to start with a brief introduction, including who you are and where you are from. It is helpful to have some knowledge about South Africa, its tourist destinations and various ethnic groups.
Asking a person about their ethnicity might be helpful in determining how to say hello in the local dialect. This act in itself could convey a sincere interest in the person and their culture. For someone with an interest in sports, popular local sports to talk about include soccer, NBA (basketball), rugby and cricket. Consider telling them about the weather in Canada –describe the Canadian winter/sports e.g. hockey and how much Canadians enjoy it. Other topics to include about Canada are the culture, the geography, the tourist destinations and the Canadian dishes (also show an interest in their local dishes).
Just like starting a conversation with a Canadian about hockey, or an American about baseball, South Africans – men and women – love to talk about their local sports teams. To generalize, many white South Africans follow Rugby, both the national team the Springboks and the provincial rivalry’s. Broaching soccer with black South Africans can enter you into a lively debate. Following the long history of British colonialism, Africans of Indian and British origin follow cricket. Grab a newspaper, open the sports section, and be ready to ask some questions related to current sports events. Of course love for sports crosses racial boundaries, so don’t only assume the person follows the sports based on their heritage as outlined above.
Verbally, speak confidently and respectfully. Be gentle and helpful to elders and learn to address them appropriately, e.g. Xhosa, Bhuti – Big Brother, Sisi – Elder Sister, Mama – Mom, Dad – Tata. Note that respect for elders/superior is very important. Swear words should be avoided as they are not considered polite. Remember that to the locals Canadians have an accent and should therefore annunciate words clearly.
In the area of non-verbal communication, avoid looking a person directly in the eye in an informal setting. This includes your supervisor (manager) in the workplace. Eye contact becomes more relaxed as you get to know the person.
Black South Africans will use a much more indirect style of communications than Canadians. Listen for passage of air through the mouth for indications of disagreement or as an indication that that person wants to add a thought. Black South Africans are also less likely to make direct eye contact with you; however, you will find this more with the older generation than the young.
You will find many Indian styles of body language with Indian Africans, such as head nodding or bobbing. It would be good to familiarize yourself with traditionally Indian communication styles as well.
Men and women avoid touching more than we would in Canada. As a woman, wait to have a man offer to shake your hand before extending it. Hugging should be reserved for once you have built a strong relationship with the person.
Hierarchy is still important, and if you are senior to the person with whom you are interacting, be sure to actively seek input, as people will wait patiently to add their thoughts, and in a heated discussion you may miss important insights.
Display of emotion
Public displays of affection are Taboo and Canadians are encouraged to do this privately. People are expected to receive work-related constructive criticism without being overly sensitive about it.
Emotions like anger are acceptable but people are expected to conduct themselves appropriately and not let it get out of control. Crying when someone dies is an acceptable display of emotion.
One of the many beautiful things about South Africa is how quickly people spring to outburst of joy and happiness. You may seek young people dance in the street if a great song is overhead. When the conversation turns to current events related to politics, people will become very passionate, often verbally loud and with the use of many hand gestures. However, when interacting with interracial groups, especially in a business context, displays of emotion are kept more in line with what is expected in the Canadian workplace.
Dress, punctuality & formality
Dress code differs from place to place but the locals have adopted the western dress code i.e. fashionable English and Italian suits in the workplace. Dressing appropriately in the workplace is very important and can help one create a good first impression. Non-western dressing of a simple nature are also acceptable given South Africa’s diverse population, with some of these coming from disadvantaged backgrounds.
South African workplace culture has become very westernized and as such deadlines are taken seriously and must be met. Punctuality is taken seriously and people are expected to arrive on time for work meetings.
The business setting is formal in most private sector companies and government departments. People are expected to be serious, be prepared and knowledgeable about their topic of interest.
South Africans have a much more fluid notion of timeliness than Canadians. I’ve found that one of the best things I learned in spending time in South African is to relax and trust that things will happen, just on a longer schedule than I am used to. There is no point in rushing things, you cannot change the African time. A more practical tip though is - when you are booking a meeting or arraigning to meet someone listen carefully for when they say, now, just now, or now now.
If you hear someone say they will meet you ‘now’, or do something now – DO NOT assume that it means it will get done soon, if ever. This more is an acknowledgement of how important that request is to you, not how soon the person will respond or act. Now could mean sometime, maybe, eventually.
When you hear someone say they will do something ‘just now’, it means it will get done, probably in the next few hours. As a Canadian I interpreted this initially to mean that it is urgent or top priority, but this is certainly not the case. It’s closer to meaning it will get done after the person completes some other things that are more important in their schedule, then will get back to you.
When you hear someone say they will do something or meet you ‘now now’, don’t jump up and rush to the meeting. This could mean 15 minutes to one hour, or whenever they finish what they are currently doing and can arrange to get to the task or meeting you have set. It sooner than just now, but it still doesn’t mean immediately.
In the workplace, dress is slightly more formal than in government offices in Canada, more akin to formality of dress expected on Bay St. in Toronto. Men with seniority wear suit jackets to the offices, and nice dress shirts (no tie) when out in the evening for dinner. Women also wear professional attire, often with skirts. However, women tend to wear more bright colours and vibrant accessories than typical in the Canadian office. It is uncommon to see men or women wearing traditional cultural dress at work. This unwritten dress code stretches throughout the work week, i.e. there is no jeans on Fridays.
Preferred managerial qualities
Managers are often seen as masters of their trade with all the answers. People prefer managers that are approachable and those who value teamwork to individual performance. A manager should be able to give constructive criticism, feedback and to share experience with subordinates. A manager should never be perceived as having favourites amongst colleagues (all are equal). Given the collectivist culture of South Africa, information sharing is encouraged with/within a team. One on one feedback with staff on projects/deliverable is important.
Having technical knowledge is highly valued, and a good way to garner respect. Be prepared with your facts, figures and background information when you enter a meeting or presentation.
Relationships are very important to South Africans, and at the same time it can be very hard to build those relationships as they can be suspicious of foreigners– this applies to your staff as well. It will take time to get to know your staff and how they view you, so be patient. You will know you are included when you get invited to a sporting event, drinks or dinner after work – don’t turn these offers down.
Hierarchy and decision-making
The new South African economy is predominantly in the hands of large corporations and the landscape has dramatically changed since the end of the Apartheid Regime. The Small Medium Enterprises sector (SMEs) is still undeveloped but government is putting support structures to assist it to thrive. More and more companies are being encouraged to be inclusive and adopt a type of management style that is democratic and equal. Globalisation has made a huge impact in the South African business sector resulting in a decentralized decision making and organizations placing more responsibility at the lower levels.
Most Managers have an open door policy, but varies from manager to manager. Personality and cultural background of the supervisor can be a factor. South Africans have a strong cultural influence and they enjoy team effort, approachability, informality and open communication In large , it is a collectivist culture that tends to share work information, ideas and celebrate success as a team rather than an individual being at the centre of the success. Important to be aware that as a residue of the Apartheid era, from time to time racial tensions could arise between various groups particularly between blacks and whites. Foreigners sometimes are taken aback when they observe that people are still censoring one another based on race.
Managers are under legal obligation and have been encouraged to adapt to new global trends of having a more representative workforce and transparency. As such, Managers are being forced to be much less authoritarian.
Conflict still occurs between the old guard of White Afrikaners and the new emerging Black South Africans youth who are being geared to move up the ranks and succeed the old guard. Skills and experience are a big factor. The corporate ladder though in most South African organisations is becoming more flat.
Decision-making in South Africa is very hierarchical with senior executive managers making most decisions. However, it is advised for people on the top to always include inputs of their team when making decisions. Due to the chain of approvals to go through with some requiring consultation in a management meeting, decisions can take longer than what a foreigner is used to.
Meetings in South Africa are slightly less formal than in Canada, where we would expect to have an agenda which we keep to and we need to end on time. This is a reflection of the importance of people and relationships, and less importance being placed on timeliness. However, the manager will make a decision and everyone will then accept it. The boss has the final word.
Your manager is the only person you should go to for answers on a business decision, and this relationship is a key one to having a positive workplace experience.
Religion, class, ethnicity, & gender
Men are still dominating more than women in the South African workplace setup but business and government are working hard to make changes and adapt to equality and fairness. Men are still the more dominant figures in leadership positions which have been the case historically. Men are still considered the heads of families and breadwinners.
There is a lot of new money (nouveau riche) and as such there are various classes within South Africa. These include:
- Old money – these are people that received inheritance from advantaged parents.
- Wealthy – Entrepreneurs and successful business people who have taken advantage of the New South Africa, growth and prosperity.
- Rich – Those that have acquired wealth through hard work and mere discipline.
- Upper middle class – Educated individuals that want to have status and consider themselves advantaged.
- Middle Class – New Graduates with about 3-5years of experience that have acquired latest skills and want to be a force to be reckoned with in the workplace and business settings.
- Poor - This class unfortunately constitutes more than 60% of the population of South Africa
Is valued by all different ethnic groups and people respect the various ethnicity. South has diverse religious groups for example – Catholics, Presbyterians, Methodists, Zion, Jehovah’s Witness, Muslim Hindu, Buddhist and various ancestral religions and belief systems.
Ethnic groups in South Africa include Zulu, Xhosa, Pedi, Tswana, Sotho, Tsonga, Swazi, Venda and Ndebele. Different ethnic groups follow different religions and respect each other. In the workplace religion and Ethnicity are topics that are highly avoided to avoid conflict because of the belief system and different backgrounds.
Gender roles and expectations in South Africa are not as far along in the journey towards equality as in Canada. Traditional roles of men as leaders and providers, and women as caregivers are typical. Consider that things Canadian women now consider the norm such as maternity leave, or flexible work arrangements for child care are non-existent. Successful South African business men and women have staff and nanny’s much more frequently than in Canada, so household tasks should not impact performance in the workplace. Women will need to work hard to demonstrate her competence to male peers and bosses.
South Africa is the Rainbow Nation – due to the wide diversity of people who live there. Ethnicity includes the original San peoples, the many tribes, the Dutch and English colonialists, Indian and Chinese immigrants who now all make up modern day South Africans. Currently, there is some backlash from South Africans on illegal immigrants from other African nations, and this comes out in terms of negative comments towards other African ethnicities - but ethnicity doesn’t have as an apparent impact on the local culture as race.
Class divides are entirely along racial lines in South Africa, due to the design of apartheid. In post-apartheid South Africa, race relations are always just below the surface in nearly all your workplace interactions. Make sure that you understand the history of what happened, and start assuming that the legacy is playing out in every interaction you have – because it is. You will need to actively need to seek to build trust and relationships with people of another race. I found that I had to sometimes gently remind my black colleagues that I was not a white South African, but rather a white Canadian, and that I didn’t immediately have the same learned stereotypes or unconscious biases. When racial conflict occurred (either as a participant or observed), I would often ask later for an explanation of why that interaction occurred, and I found this was a good way to learn about the cultural norms in South Africa, from a variety of perspectives. South Africans are very willing to speak about the impact of apartheid on their lives, as long as you approach the conversation with curiosity, compassion and an open mind. To understand race and ethnicity in South Africa is to understand South Africa.
Religious diversity in South Africa is very well accommodated in practice, often in my experience more so than in Canada. You will find a prayer room in nearly every office and public building, and it’s very normal to avoid scheduling much on Friday afternoons when things could conflict with Mosque or Synagogue.
It is very important to establish a working relationship with colleagues or clients before getting down to business. Know who they are, their ethnicity and a brief background of the person. Show interests and be knowledgeable about their products/services. Small talk about sports, interesting local tourist attractions, and local dishes is a great way of breaking the ice and building relationships prior to a business transaction.
It is very important that you get to know your colleagues and clients. Relationships are key to being introduced to the right people for making business deals, and when you are invited for a coffee or meal, it’s probably best not to turn it down. Some people characterize the business culture of South Africa as full of cliques, or in the older generation an old boys club, which you can only get into by having the right university degree and building the right relationships while attending those schools. It’s important then to work hard at building relationships.
You will find that once you get to know people, when you walk about your building people will stop to say hi and greet you – it’s important to stop and chat. This is much more important than in Canada where we nod and smile as we pass each other – that would be considered rude in South Africa.
Privileges and favouritism
To prevent any insinuations of racism (from South Africa‘s past Apartheid) avoid having favourites or giving privileges to employees by association /friendship. Professionalism is the best approach, this way one can avoid unrealistic expectations from people. It is best to be inclusive and treat people equally.
Nepotism is a frequently cited challenge in the South African workplace. However, this is the practical reflection of the collectivist culture in South Africa. People with whom you have a good relationship may expect you to introduce them to your connections, and expand their network. South African businesses have much less corruptions and steer away from ‘facilitation’ payments as compared to other nations in Africa.
Conflicts in the workplace
Conflict should be dealt with privately with the affected employee to avoid shame, blame, and gossip and protect their self-esteem.
An important concept that permeates South African culture and interactions, both positive and negative, is the concept of Ubuntu. It is a difficult concept to understand, but once you are in South Africa, you can begin to see it in action if you are looking for it. Desmond Tutu explains it this way “It speaks of the very essence of being human. When we want to give high praise to someone we say, ‘Yu, u nobuntu’; ‘Hey so-and-so has ubuntu.’ Then you are generous, you are hospitable, you are friendly and caring and compassionate. You share what you have. It is to say, ‘My humanity is inextricably bound up in yours.’ We belong in a bundle of life.”Footnote 1
So when you are trying to resolve a conflict, you much value and ensure you hold respect for that person’s human value. A public confrontation would not be considered skillful management. If you have built trust with your colleague, having a personal private conversation to discuss your concerns would be appropriate.
Motivating local colleagues
People value an inclusive environment where they work well with other employees. Other motivators to consider are occasional team building exercises and socials (e.g. barbeques); increment in salary, leave time, work responsibility, and personal development opportunities (e.g. seminars, conferences ,etc.); tickets to soccer/rugby/cricket games.
Technical knowledge and education are highly valued in managers, and thus providing formal development opportunities to staff would be a great way to motivate people.
Recommended books, films & foods
South Africa’s cultural diversity (black 79.2%, White 8.9%, Colored 8.9%, Indian Asian 0.5 and Others) influences local culture.
Long Walk to Freedom by Nelson Mandela, Indaba My Children by Credo Mutwa, Beyond the Miracle by Alister Spark, Walter and Albertina Sisulu: In our lifetime by Elinor Sisulu, Sobukwe and Apartheid by Benjamin Progrund, Voices of Liberation Volume 1 by Albert Luthuli.
Sarafina, Cry Freedom, Tsotsi, Invictus, Gangster’s Paradise, District 9, Mr Bones, There is a Zulu on my step, The Bang Bang Club, Mapantsula and White Wedding.
Generations, Muvhango, Isidingo, Rhythm city, Big Brother South Africa, Top Billing and Carte Blanche.
Mirriam Makeba, Hugh Masekela, Zim Ngqawana, Ladysmith Black Mambazo,Brenda Fassie, Juluka, Johhny Clegg,Vusi Mahlasela, Cassper Nyovest, Freshly Ground, Zahara, Mandoza, Sipho Mabuse, Tandiswa Mazwai, Nkqo , Mxo and Sliq Angel.
Umgqusho, Pap&Vleis, Mugodu, Boerewors,Biltong, Chaka-laka,Malva Pudding, Brayani and Samoosa.
- Long Walk to Freedom by Nelson Mandela
- Personal growth, African style by Nussbaum, Palsule, Mkhize
- Freshlyground (music). A great band who’s sound and membership reflects the trust vibrance and diversity of south Africa.
- Food – try bunny chow, pap, biltong, bobotie, and the many beautify wines produced in RSA
- Invictus, District 9 (movie)
Consider attending events such as, a traditional wedding, a circumcision ceremony, the Imbeleko ceremony, a local funeral of a prominent person, a school concert, a soccer/rugby or a cricket game at a stadium.
- Travel to Robbin Island
- Visit Cape Malay quarter in Cape Town
- Each province will have a predominant tribe. They will host cultural events, attend them.
- Tour a Township (very safe during daylight hours)
- Franschhoek Bastille Festival
Nelson Mandela: was an anti-apartheid activist to become the first black president of South Africa serving from 1999 – 1994. He is known for his national and global advocacy for peace. He has won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1993. His book Long Walk to Freedom is read all over the world.
Oliver Tambo: was an anti-apartheid activist, strategist, and partner in crime and friend of Nelson Mandela. He lived most of his life in exile until his return to be elected as the Chairperson of the AFrican National Congress.
Walter Sisulu: a mentor of Nelson Mandela, Walter Sisulu was also an anti-apartheid activist and moving spirit behind all the great campaigns of the 50s and 60s for the underground work and armed struggle.
Robert Sobukwe: was an anti-apartheid activist, who was also a teacher, lawyer, Fort Hare University SRC President, Secretary of the ANC branch in Standerton and founding member of the Pan Africanist Congress (PAC) and a Robben Island prisoner. He was a strong Africanist who believed in that the future of South Africa should be in the hands of Black South Africans. As a result of his scepticism towards the multi-racial path of the African National Congress (ANC) he was following, Sobukwe was instrumental in initiating the African breakaway from the ANC in 1958 and this led to the birth of the Pan Africanist Congress (PAC).
Steve Bantubonke Biko: is known internationally as the founder of the South African Students Organization (SASO) and a leading force in the South African Black Conscious Movement. He fought against the separation of between black and whites (apartheid) the Afrikaans term for separateness. His childhood experiences and character, led him to become a powerful lead.
Steve Biko died violently in the hands of apartheid policemen in 1977 whilst being transported from Port Elizabeth to Pretoria prison naked at the back of a police van. A book with a compilation of his writing has been published in honour of his life titled ‘I write what I like’.
Chis Hani: was a South African anti-apartheid activist who was assassinated in 1993 for political reasons. He was a leader of the Communist Party and was considered such a threat to both the extreme right wing in South Africa and the new, moderate leadership of the African National congress. A book has been published in honour of his life titled ‘A life too short by Janet Smith’.
Albert Luthuli: was a Zulu Chief, teacher and religious leader, and president of the African National Congress (1952-60) in South Africa. Albert Luthuli was the African to be awarded a Nobel Prize for Peace in (1960) in recognition of his non-violent struggle against discrimination. A book has been published in honour of his life titled ‘Let my people go by Albert Luthuli’.
Nelson Mandela - Nelson Rolihlahla Mandela was a South African anti-apartheid revolutionary, politician, and philanthropist, who served as President of South Africa from 1994 to 1999.
Desmond Tutu - Desmond Mpilo Tutu is a South African social rights activist and retired Anglican bishop who rose to worldwide fame during the 1980s as an opponent of apartheid.
Francois Pienaar - Francois Pienaar led the Springboks, South Africa’s rugby team, to victory in the 1995 World Cup, helping Nelson Mandela unite South Africa.
Stephen Biko - Stephen Bantu Biko was an anti-apartheid activist in South Africa in the 1960s and 1970s. A student leader, he later founded the Black Consciousness Movement which would empower and mobilize much of the urban black population.
Shared historical events with Canada
Canada is amongst some of the countries that actively encouraged South Africa to end Apartheid. The South African constitution has its inspiration from Canada’s Charter of Rights and Freedoms. Nelson Mandela was made an honorary citizen of Canada during his visit in September 1998.
South Africa has an employment equity act based on Canada’s employment equity system.
Canada’s recent truth and reconciliation commission and report on the experiences and actions as related to Indian Residential Schools was based on the post-apartheid truth and reconciliation commission of South Africa.
Some stereotypes about South Africans include: not being fluent in English, not being punctual, not being well travelled, being unsophisticated, being traditional, being polygamist and Atheist.
Do not assume that all black people are poor. There is an affluent and growing black middle class.
About the cultural interpreters
The Author has varied background which includes Construction Management/Business Development/International Trade, Export and Import, Intercultural Training and Community Building. He completed an Advanced Diploma in Construction at the University of Johannesburg in 2001, Followed by a Project Management Certification from IAPM International Academy in 2010. In Canada he also completed two post graduate diplomas in International Business Management and International Trade with the Algonquin School of Business in 2013.
He is currently working for one of the Embassies in Ottawa liaising with Canadian businesses looking to do business with African companies. He maintains a comprehensive database of all Canadian business sectors of interest to Africa. He also helps in preparing economic and political reports for Diplomats.
Prior to this he worked with a South African company involved in looking for investors to expand their businesses and invest in South Africa. He also worked for the largest Bank in South Africa managing a property portfolio for the Banks’s assets.
The author has also travelled extensively across South Africa, including other regions (Zambia, Zimbabwe, Botswana, Namibia, Mozambique and Kenya).
When the author is not working he is playing in the Ottawa Men’s Soccer competitive league and coaching Table Tennis.
SME has an undergraduate degree in International development from a Canadian university. She studied business at the University of Cape Town and lived in Cape Town. Consulting projects in Africa have included IT and logistics firms. She has travelled extensively across Southern Africa.
Intercultural Issues are intended to provide snapshots of the overall social and cultural norms as well as the workplace environment that a Canadian might face working in a specific country. For each country, two perspectives are provided: one by a Canadian and the other by a person born in the selected country. By comparing the "local point of view" with the "Canadian point of view", you will begin to form a picture of that country's culture. We encourage you to continue your research using a variety of other sources and to use Triangulation as an evaluation process. Although cultural informants were asked to draw on as broad a base of experience as possible in formulating their answers, these should be understood as one perspective that reflects the particular context and life experiences of that person; they are not intended to be a comment on any particular group or society.
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The content of Country Insights in no way reflects official policy or opinions of the Government of Canada, Global Affairs Canada or the Centre for Intercultural Learning.