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Country Profile South Africa

by: Erika Visser - Associate Partner, Hofstede Insights


In this profile our experts have compiled the most important information for you to start doing business in South Africa. The country profiles are meant as general introduction and are linked to other documents from the platform that go much more into the details of each culture.


Currency: South African Rand (ZAR)                                     
Capital: Cape Town is the legislative capital, Pretoria the administrative capital and Bloemfontein the judicial capital                                       
Time Zone: GMT+2
Official Languages: 11 official languages including English and Afrikaans
Religion: Christianity (80%), no religion (15%), Islam (1.5%), Hinduism (1.2%) African traditional belief (0.3%), Judaism (0.2%) and other beliefs
Ethnic Groups:  Black African (76.4%), White (9.1%), Coloured at (8.9%), Asian at (2.5%), and Other/Unspecified at (0.5%). Major black Africa ethnic groups include Zulu, Xhosa, Basotho, Bapedi, Venda, Tswana, Tsonga, Swazi, Khoisan, San Khoi, Khoikhkhoi and Ndebele




South Africa is a country located at the most southern tip of the African continent. Bordering countries include Namibia, Botswana, Zimbabwe, Mozambique, Swaziland and Lesotho. South Africa is known as the rainbow nation and one of the most diverse, multicultural countries in the world. Different groups in South Africa can be categorised as indigenous black, white Afrikaans and English groups from European decent, Indians, Indo-Malay groups, Chinese and many more. Thus it can be challenging when dealing with different groups and tribes to understand the different cultural norms.


Some cornerstones of South African culture


As a majority collectivist or group culture, South Africans are centred around a family unit that extends to the ethnic tribe. Within each tribe one son can have many ‘mothers’ taking care and providing support. Each member also contributes to the family unit emotionally, by performing household tasks or financially. Tribes have very strong loyalty to their members and function as separate groups within South Africa. Each tribe also contributes to the individuals that form part of the tribe like a big family.


When in South Africa


Good to know


  • South Africa is one of the most diverse nations in the world! With 11 official languages and numerous ethnic groups or tribes
  • Different cultural groups communicate differently. Black South Africans tend to be indirect communicators and white South Africans communicate in a direct manner
  • Know whom you are dealing with and the traditional customs that are important to that group or tribe
  • Building trust is key!


Body Language


Generally expressing affection through hugging or patting on the back is accepted among parties that are familiar with one another. Do not put your hands in your pocket as this can be seen as a sign of disrespect. Black South Africans can be very animated through using their facial features to express their emotions. Usually maintaining good eye contact is a sign of respect, unless you are dealing with a much older South African and depending on their heritage. Personal space is usually quite ‘cramped’ and people tend to stand or sit very close to one another.


Dress Code


Initial business meetings are more formal and more formal business wear is appropriate. Some cities like Johannesburg also tends to be more formal.


Key words to describe South African culture: Family / Trust / Harmony / Hierarchy / Relationships / Diversity



Expert's Recommendation


South Africa has a complicated history and it has great potential as a culturally diverse nation. Understanding different cultural groups or tribes and their specific traditions, ways to communicate or ways in showing respect are important when doing business in South Africa. Make sure that a reputable mutual connection can introduce you to potential partners in South Africa and research what are the cultural requirements for each group you are dealing with.




Many South Africans have a traditional approach and thus long standing relationships are not always needed in order to conduct business. However for long-term business success relationships and networking are important aspects. Although the country has a mix of egalitarian and hierarchical views, many elders and senior employees are respected. Communication styles can also differ depending on cultural heritage. Black Africans tend to have a more indirect high context approach, whereas South Africans from European descent tend to be more direct and low context. This is why it’s crucial to understand who you are dealing with and what their expectations are of foreign counterparts. Face to face dealings are always preferred regardless of cultural heritage.


Meeting and Greeting


There are various ways to meet and greet a South African business counterpart depending on their heritage, however shaking hands and making eye contact with foreigners is generally the way to meet and greet. Men should not shake hands with a woman unless they extend their hand for a greeting. White South Africans will in general spend less time on small talk. Your Black South African counterpart might ask numerous questions about your family and health as per their African tradition.


Introducing Yourself


Professional titles are important. Traditionally only close friends and family members use first names, however once your South African counterpart introduces him or herself by using their first name, you can use this name throughout business dealings. Black South Africans are more hierarchical and thus could have a more formal approach than White South Africans.



South Africa in Hofstede's Cultural Dimensions


NOTE: The scores on the model are only available for the white population of South Africa. The majority of the population is Black African, and their scores may be very different from those presented above, we have added notes on some of these differences.


Power Distance (PDI)


South Africa scores 49 on this dimension showing that most South Africans follow an hierarchical order with centralization at the top and top-down management. Subordinates usually expect to be told what to do and the ideal boss is a benevolent autocrat. Black South Africans usually have a higher score of PDI compared to white South Africans due to their cultural heritage as a group culture versus European South Africans that have a more egalitarian outlook.




South Africa, with a middle to high score of 65 and is a mix of highly Individual and also Collectivist cultures. The main difference can be seen between white and black South Africans. White South Africans tend to be more Individualistic with a smaller family unit where they take care of themselves and their direct family, whereas black South Africans tend to be more collectivist with a larger group or tribe mentality where each member of the tribe or group contribute emotionally or financially.




South Africa scores 63 on this dimension, showing that people tend to ‘live to work’.


Uncertainty Avoidance


South Africa scores 49 on this dimension and thus has a mid-low preference for avoiding uncertainty. Low UAI societies maintain a more relaxed attitude in which practice counts more than principles and deviance from the norm is more easily tolerated. People believe there should be no more rules than are necessary and if they are ambiguous or do not work they should be abandoned or changed. Schedules are flexible, hard work is undertaken when necessary but not for its own sake, precision and punctuality do not come naturally, innovation is not seen as threatening.


Long-Term Orientation


A low score of 34 on this dimension means that in South Africa the culture is more short-term oriented. People exhibit great respect for traditions, a relatively small propensity to save for the future, and a focus on achieving quick results.




With a high score of 63 it is clear that South Africa has a culture of Indulgence. People in societies classified by a high score in Indulgence generally exhibit a willingness to realise their impulses and desires with regard to enjoying life and having fun. They possess a positive attitude and have a tendency towards optimism. In addition, they place a higher degree of importance on leisure time, act as they please and spend money as they wish.