Managing in South Africa

Doing Business in a Changing Culture

Managing in South Africa - Doing Business in a Changing Culture

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Thrive working and managing in South Africa.

When you think of South Africa, a flood of images will probably come to mind.

The country's struggle to dismantle apartheid was extensively covered in the international media, and most of us know the inspiring story of Nelson Mandela's rise to the presidency.

However, South Africa is like a complex, beautiful tapestry: the more you look at it, the more unique and varied it is. With an incredibly diverse population, vibrant cities, beautiful scenery, and wildlife including lions, elephants, and giraffes, South Africa is a country with a lot to offer.

South Africa has gone through dramatic changes in the past 20 years. The country is still learning a new way of living and working, and this will affect your experience of it. It also means that, whether you're moving to the country full-time to work, visiting a South African office temporarily, or managing a South African team from abroad, you should find out as much as you can about the cultures of your co-workers before you begin.

This article will give you a start. We'll look at language and politics, employment law, business etiquette, and much more besides. However, make sure that you get good local advice on the detail of these things when you arrive.


Keep in mind that South Africa has an incredibly diverse workforce. Different people have different expectations, customs, and working styles: this is what makes the country so unique. So, it's important to use your own best judgment, depending on your particular situation.

Language and Politics

South Africa has 11 official languages, with 14 additional languages in use. Almost 25 percent of people speak Zulu as their primary language.

However, more than 57 percent of the population speaks English. Therefore, you should be able to communicate fairly easily using English, especially in the major cities. Even so, you might want to spend some time learning key phrases in the primary language of the area you'll be working in.

South Africa is a wonderfully diverse country.

The Republic of South Africa is a democracy, albeit a young one. South Africa upholds and enforces many of the rights that Westerners, for example, take for granted.

Employment Law

South Africa has stringent employment rules, which we'll outline below. Certain groups are excluded from some of these conditions, including government military workers, sales staff (who make their own hours), and senior managers, among others. If you fall into any of these groups, then different employment rules may apply to you.

According to South African law, most employees may not work more than 45 hours per week, or more than five days per week, unless they have reached a specific, written agreement with their employer.

South African legislation is also strict on how and when employers can terminate employment. People who have been employed for 12 months or more require four weeks' advance notice. The employer must provide notice in writing and cannot give notice while an employee is on leave of any kind.

The government's goal is to make discrimination illegal, and it has come a long way toward realizing this objective. This includes discrimination because of race, gender, pregnancy, marital status, family responsibility, ethnic or social origin, sexual orientation, age, disability, religion, health, and more.

The government has also put together what's known as an affirmative action policy for South African companies in an attempt to increase diversity, especially in middle and upper management. Keep in mind that this is a sensitive issue for South Africans, and it's a conversation topic best avoided. If you do any recruiting, you'll likely have to abide by these policies, so get advice from your HR department or from a suitably qualified employment law professional first.

Vacations, Public Holidays, and Sick Leave

South African legislation states that most people must receive a minimum of 21 consecutive days off each year. (This can include usual "non-work days" like weekends, so it equates to 15 consecutive working days per year if a person works five days a week.) The timing of this annual leave is agreed by the employer and the employee.

Employers may not pay an employee in lieu of annual leave unless the worker's employment is being terminated. If you're not prepared for it, this consecutive leave arrangement can cause issues for projects and productivity, so make sure that you plan appropriately.

In addition to annual leave, workers are also granted public holidays off, and these holidays are paid. If employees do agree to work on these days, then they must be paid at double their regular daily or hourly rate.

South African public holidays are:

  • New Year's Day – January 1.
  • Human Rights Day – March 21.
  • Good Friday - Date changes each year (April 19 in 2019; April 10 in 2020.)
  • Family Day – Date changes each year (April 22 in 2019; April 13 in 2020.)
  • Freedom Day – April 27.
  • Workers' Day – May 1.
  • Youth Day – June 16.
  • National Women's Day – August 9.
  • Heritage Day – September 24.
  • Day of Reconciliation – December 16.
  • Christmas Day – December 25.
  • Day of Goodwill – December 26.

South Africans have a generous sick leave policy: people are granted up to six weeks of paid sick leave every 36 months. People are also entitled to three paid days of leave for family responsibilities every 12 months.

Business Etiquette

South Africa is known as the Rainbow Nation for a reason! The country is vibrant and unique because of the diversity of its people.

This diversity can present a challenge when it comes to business etiquette. Different groups have different customs and expectations. Additionally, there are marked differences between people in rural areas and urban areas. Learning the ins and outs of this country won't be dull!

In addition, each culture and group in South Africa has its own traditions and sometimes its own form of greeting. For example, most people in South Africa shake hands as a greeting. However, some women may not extend their hand; instead, they will nod their head and smile.

In some South African groups, men precede women through doorways. This is relatively common and expected. Although South Africa is still a male-dominated society, progress is slowly being made to accept women as equals. However, some male professionals might address a woman as "girl" or "dear," regardless of her position or age. Women might also be treated with less respect than their male counterparts. If this occurs, try to remain calm and professional.

Many South Africans will often start doing business after a short introduction. Others may spend more time socializing and getting to know you before beginning the meeting or negotiation.

If you're negotiating or selling, then steer clear of the "hard sell" approach. Most South Africans will be put off by this, as they don't like to be rushed or pressured. Be patient, and keep your emotions in check.

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Managing People

Your South African team is going to look to you, as their manager, for leadership. But South Africans of any culture will likely balk under an authoritarian leadership style. You'll get along best with your new team members if you demonstrate your knowledge and experience, but also look to them for their advice and opinions.

It's important to realize that the diversity of South Africa's ethnic groups can make creating a cohesive team a challenge. Racial tension has a long history here; approach these issues with sensitivity.

You will likely alienate yourself from your team if you arrive in South Africa without a good understanding of its history and its current political and economic climate. Demonstrate that you care about your team members and their country by learning as much about South Africa as possible before and after your arrival.

Additionally, stress your commitment to your team. As a foreigner, you could be seen as a fair-weather friend; do your best to communicate that you'll stick by your team members through good times and bad.

Additional Tips

  • Violent crime is common in some areas. Make sure that you're aware of areas you should avoid – if you're uncertain, ask your colleagues or a trusted local person.
  • Many South Africans consider feet unclean. Don't move things with your feet or touch anything with your feet, and don't show the soles of your feet. This includes when you cross your legs (people generally cross their legs at the ankle instead of at the knee). And don't prop your feet up on anything that could reveal your soles.
  • If you venture into the countryside of South Africa for a tour, do your homework first, since malaria and yellow fever could pose a risk. Additionally, animals such as baboons may look innocuous, but they are strong and can be dangerous. South Africa is also home to many poisonous spiders, snakes, and insects. So use caution.
  • Don't discuss politics or race relations with South Africans; they may take offense at a foreigner's interference. Safer topics include sports, outdoor interests, food, and music.
  • Many South Africans entertain in their home, especially for business. Always bring a small gift, such as wine, candy, or flowers, to these events. Avoid complimenting your host on the cooking unless you know for sure that he or she cooked it. Many South Africans employ other people to work in their homes.
  • South Africa generally follows Western countries in terms of personal space. However, some people in South Africa come from homes where people live in very close quarters with one another. So be prepared for people entering your personal space without thinking it's out of the ordinary.
  • Business dress in South Africa is fairly conservative. Men should usually wear a jacket or coat and tie, and women should wear conservative business suits or skirts when at work. However, social events are casual; and many business professionals entertain outside, where shorts are acceptable, for example.

Key Points

South Africa is a wonderfully diverse country, and it has a lot to offer foreign workers. Although the country is a democracy, it's a relatively new one. Given its history, there is still a great deal of racial and cultural tension within the country: as a foreigner, it's vital that you approach these issues with sensitivity.

When working with your South African team members, you'll likely get on best if you demonstrate your expertise and then turn to them for their input. Avoid discussing sensitive political issues, and make sure that you have a good understanding of employment law if you'll be managing people.