Rainbow Nation: Learning the Culture and Customs of South Africa

Desmond Tutu, the renowned social activist and Nobel Peace Prize winner, called SouthMap of South Africa Africa the “Rainbow Nation” to describe its ethnic diversity. In fact, the republic located at the southern-most tip of Africa is considered one of the most multi-cultural countries in the world. Its history of colonialism and immigration has created a nation whose ethnic makeup includes indigenous black peoples, white Europeans, Indians, Indo-Malays and Chinese, among others. It is a popular destination for anyone pursuing business or leisure interests. If you fall into either of those groups, here’s a brief overview of the country’s customs and culture that will help in planning your visit.
Language & Communication
South Africa has 11 official languages! Although English is spoken throughout the country, it is not the most common language. The two leading languages are isiZulu and isiXhosa, which about 40 percent of the population speaks. Afrikaans, which traces back to Dutch, is another major language you’ll hear. Despite the diverse languages, English is commonly spoken in the business world as well as in the major communities, hotels, banks and government agencies.
South African society is very family-centered, whether it’s the traditional nuclear family unit or the extended community family, often referred to as a tribe. There remains some differences between the rural and urban populations as the country continues to grow economically. The rural communities, generally speaking, hold strongly to their historical roots and traditions, while the growing number of urban dwellers enjoy the eclectic international flavor found more readily in cities. Even then, people living in urban areas maintain strong ties to their families in rural villages.

Image of Cape Town
Cape Town, South Africa

Business Relations
South Africa boasts the continent’s most developed and diverse economy. With its subtropical location, 1,800 miles of coastline, mountains, warm climate and convergence of two oceans (Indian and Atlantic), the country is a popular destination for tourists and businesses alike. Pretoria is the capital of the country, but other well-known business centers include Cape Town and Johannesburg. Formal introductions are helpful if your company is not already known to prospective business partners. Long-term business success is typically built through networking and nurturing relationships. Personal, face-to-face meetings are preferred over written communications. Create trusting, personal relationships to increase the likelihood of a long-term business deal. Business dress is becoming increasingly casual, but the “suit and tie” style is recommended for initial meetings and events.
Social Etiquette
The diverse cultural composition of the country makes greetings a little different depending on where you are. Generally, men and women greet each other by shaking hands, although some women prefer a nod and smile instead. Feel free to engage in small talk before moving on to any more serious conversations. For social events, gift-giving is common and clothing can be rather casual. Good gifts include flowers, chocolates, and South African wine.
If you want to really impress your new South African friends and colleagues, remember that the point at the most southern tip of the continent, where the Indian and Atlantic Oceans officially meet, is not Cape Point, as many think. Instead, that distinction belongs to Cape Agulhas, about 100 miles further south.
Whether for business or leisure purposes, if you’d like to learn more about the culture and customs of South Africa, give us a call. We’re happy to assist.
For more than 30 years, ASIST Translation Services, Inc. has worked with business, government, educational and non-profit clients around the world. We improve foreign language communications through a full menu of translation and interpreting services, including content localization, studio voice recording & audio-visual production, transcreation, proofreading, website content, page layout & design, cultural training, and other specialized language support. To learn more about how we can assist you, visit our LinkedInTwitter or Facebook pages or our Website!