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Around the World

Doing Business in South Africa


RaeAnn Slaybaugh

May/June 2009, eSide Supply Management Vol. 2, No. 3

As Africa's industrial center, South Africa is the largest and best developed economy. Its GDP per capita ranks it as one of the 50 wealthiest nations in the world. And, with abundant mineral resources, the largest rail and airline cargo operations in Africa, and strong government support of exporting efforts — especially in the automotive, chemical and pharmaceutical sectors — South Africa is one of the world's most vibrant emerging market economies.

Frequently referred to as the "Rainbow Nation," its ever-expanding multicultural diversity makes it difficult to generalize about its business culture. Even so, the majority of experts agree on a handful of common etiquette tips.

Meeting Preparation

Meetings with executives can be difficult to obtain. For this reason, formal letters of introduction from known or third parties can help you reach key decision-makers and speed up the business process. Also, be ready to outline the nature of your business, share your qualifications (and your company's) and list any references which your South American counterparts might recognize.

Cape Town, South Africa
Cape Town, South Africa

Make inroads early. Business appointments should be scheduled as far in advance as possible — preferably a month or two before the intended visit. Always call the day before to confirm.

Windows of opportunity. Avoid mid-December to mid-January, most Jewish holidays and the week of Easter as meeting dates; virtually every office shuts down during these times. On the whole, office hours are 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday through Friday.

Allow extra time in case you get lost. The South African address system can be confusing, so make sure you have very accurate directions to the location. Or — because finding safe, convenient parking in cities is a challenge — take a cab.

Plan to wait. Depending on who you are meeting, formal appointments might begin and end on time or they might get postponed. Either way, arrive promptly at the designated time and schedule plenty of time between appointments.

Don't get too serious, too fast. Avoid the "all business" approach to meetings — at least at first. South Africans regard the first meeting as a chance to get to know one another, and they are more likely to conduct business with people they like and trust.

Keep it simple. Short, targeted, to-the-point presentations are best. Do not spend too much time on fancy visuals; usually, these will not impress your South African associates.

Business Attire

For men: For business meetings, business wear should be lightweight and conservative. Light-colored or white long-sleeved shirts, worn with ties and jackets, are standard.

For women: Opt for a dress or skirt versus pants. Also, anything sleeveless, tight or short might invite scrutiny. Although times are slowly changing, women in the South African business world are, for the most part, still regarded as inferior to men. To combat this, experts advise foreign businesswoman to know their subject matter, avoid appearing too aggressive, and take objectionable or condescending comments in stride.

Winter happens between June and August. Plan your wardrobe accordingly.

Introductions, Farewells and Everything in Between

Practice your firm handshake. It is likely your South African associates will be physical people: Firm handshakes and back-slapping are signs of friendship and familiarity.

When meeting a businesswoman, however, wait for her to extend her hand first; she might prefer to simply nod in welcome. And, regardless of gender, be sure to smile often and maintain eye contact at all times.

South Africa Flag

Business card etiquette. Typically, business cards are exchanged upon first meeting. There is no need to translate your cards and materials to English as it is commonly spoken in South Africa. However, your cards should state your position in the company and list any key credentials you hold.

Titles need not apply. Unless your counterpoint has a doctorate or other high-level degree, titles typically are not used in South African business settings.

Don't call her "miss." If your female counterpart's marital status is unknown, avoid calling her "miss" as it might cause offense.

Take your place at the table. Do not sit down at the table until invited. If offered something to drink, it is considered impolite to refuse.

Respect your elders. South African culture regards the elderly as wise and deserving of the utmost respect. If an older individual is in the room, be kind, respectful and helpful regardless of whether or not that person has anything to do with the business at hand.

Never, ever point. Pointing at anyone with your index finger is considered a personal challenge or threat. Also, keep your hands out of your pockets and avoid the "V for victory" sign — South Africans view it as lewd.

Social Etiquette

Dinner-party do's. If you are invited to your South African associate's home for dinner, bring flowers, chocolates or a good South African wine for the host or hostess. Token gifts are always appreciated and are usually opened right away.

Be prepared to take a chance on your food. Often, visitors are offered rare meats such as hippo, ostrich and crocodile. Vegetarians might face ridicule because many South Africans are very fond of meat dishes.

Utensil rules. During dinner, hold the knife in your right hand and the fork in your left. Never reverse this order. Also, avoid gesturing while holding silverware.

Clean your plate. It is considered somewhat rude to leave uneaten food on your plate.

Keep your attention on the people at the table. Striking up conversations with the serving staff is frowned upon. Instead, devote your attention to whoever is conversing, and nod in agreement often. This sends the message that you are a good listener.

A Done Deal

Consider cultural ancestry when negotiating. Most English-speaking South Africans are more reserved and conservative in their communication styles, and they like to avoid conflict. In comparison, those of an Afrikaner background are often described as more direct and explicit in their communication style. Typically, the latter group is not afraid to say no to others in public.

Exercise your patience. Forcing deadlines or rushing transactions might prove counterproductive. South Africans conduct business at a comparatively slow, protracted pace.

Win-win is the order of the day. For the most part, South Africans take a fair approach to negotiating; Their overall aim is to reach a general consensus in which both sides gain something from the transaction. For this reason, you should avoid confrontation and aggressive bartering over price.

Deadlines are a must. Be explicit regarding delivery dates. Despite their efficiency, South Africans often approach deadlines in a very relaxed fashion.

RaeAnn Slaybaugh is a senior writer for the Institute for Supply Management™. She can be reached by e-mail.

For more articles and resources on doing business internationally, visit the ISM articles database.

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