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South Africa: Etiquette, Customs, Facts and Vital Information

by Lizbeth Pereira |

South Africa



map1Location: Southern tip of African continent.

Capital: Pretoria.

Climate: Semi-arid, Sub-tropical.

Population: 48,782,756 according to July 2008 estimates. Nearly half the population, 50%, live under the poverty line with an unemployment rate of 24.3%. The presence of a considerable percentage of disadvantaged sections left over from the apartheid period, aging infrastructure, lack of investments, and other related issues have kept the South African economy from soaring in spite of abundant natural resources such as gold and diamonds. Steady growth has been recorded in recent times since 2004, but it is still an uphill task against considerable odds.

Ethnic Make-up: Black 79%, White 9.6%, Indian 2.5%, Others 8.9%.

boyReligions: Christianity (various denominations) 80%, Muslim 1.5%, Others 3.3%, Non-believers 15%. The government actively encourages Christianity, as a result of which much evangelization is carried out by various Christian denominations such as Protestants, Lutherans, Presbyterians, Baptists, Seventh Day Adventists, Mormons, and the Dutch Reformed Church.

Language: IsiZulu 23.8%, IsiXhosa 17.6%, Afrikaans 13.3%, Sepedi 9.4%, English 8.2%, Sesotho 7.9%, Xitsonga 4.4%, Others 7.2%.

Government: Republic.

cityTravel Issues: Travel to South Africa requires a valid passport with at least two blank pages, a valid visa, proof of adequate funds, and documents proving onward or return journey. If passing through regions affected by yellow fever, you need to produce a certificate stating you have been immunised. Some countries are exempt from the need for a visa and you’ll have to inquire at your nearest embassy to ascertain your specific requirements.

Health & Safety: No vaccinations are mandatory unless arriving from a yellow fever zone, in which case you need to provide certification of vaccination. Immunization against hepatitis B, tetanus, and measles may be considered. Sun protection may be required and it advised to bring along sunglasses, sunscreen and a wide-brimmed hat. If traveling to National Parks, malaria prophylaxis is recommended.



girls1The People

The South African population is predominantly black followed by a small minority of white and Asian people. The concept of Apartheid or Apartness was practiced to keep the racial divide intact in favor of the white minority. Though the practice has been abandoned, racial inequality is very pronounced in society.

The Religion

There is no state religion in South Africa, but Christianity in its various denominations is practiced widely. Over 2.5 million are Roman Catholics, followed closely by about 1.8 million Methodists, and 1.2 million Anglicans. Other faiths have a presence with about 350,000 Hindus, 100,000 Jews, and roughly 400,000 Muslims. In remote areas traditional faiths are still practiced by certain tribes.


Role of Family

Family roles differ according to socio-economic status and ethnic background of the people. Families coming under the high class section with ample economic security have more stability when compared to the low income or unemployed sections of society. Traditionally, obedience and respect for parents is inculcated in the culture but a stressed socioeconomic status brings about unwanted pregnancies, desertion, living together, street violence, unemployment and other related ills that throw family life out of kilter. Generally speaking, people of ethnic backgrounds value their extended family members and communal living while the European background South Africans appear content with the nuclear family structure.


Ancestors are revered more in tribal communities where they are considered conduits with the spirit world.

Recreational Activities

Recreational activities for the Europeandescent South Africans differ slightly from that of the African descent South Africans. The former love their cricket, rugby, and football, while the latter lean towards athletics, boxing, and football in less well maintained facilities. The National Parks are favorite haunts for trekking, hiking, and other outdoor sports.

Anything else important for this culture

Depending on who you are with you have to make adjustments to your social behaviour. Racial prejudice and violence are a fact of life, and travelers have to be on the watch out.

south african elephants


Meetings & Greetings

Among South Africans of European descent, normal western conduct is all it takes where greeting and introductions are concerned. This can also be adopted in urban contexts. In rural areas greeting modes differ with the ethnic heritage of the person you’re interacting with and so it is best to seek the advice of local friends.


It shows good form to keep your appointments on time and to be punctual for meetings and formal dinners. A lot depends on the good will you generate among the South African community. Members of the white community in rural areas are said to have Calvinists roots and to hold rather conservative views. It would pay to be extra vigilant with the manner of dressing and conduct when meeting them.

Gift Giving

Generally gifts are exchanged around Christmas time and presented for birthdays. If visiting a home, flowers, chocolates, or a bottle of wine is well received. It is alright to immediately open a gift and show appreciation upon receiving it.

lady2Dress Code

Although dress codes are getting more relaxed these days, it would be a good idea to stick to formal suits on first meetings. Women still face an uphill task when making their presence felt in the world of business, and dressing sensibly might ease the task a bit. Casual clothing is acceptable almost anywhere.

Dining Etiquette

Dining in urban cities follows western etiquette and does not call for any formal moves. When dining with other ethnic groups it is proper to be culture sensitive and follow cues.

Visiting a home

If invited to a home, arrive on time, well dressed, and bearing a token gift for the hostess. Casual clothing is acceptable if you’re not meeting for the first time.

Communication Style

The form of English spoken in South Africa may appear strange at first due to the strong Afrikaans influence. However you soon make sense of it and start using the same sentence constructions quite naturally. If something does not make sense, it is perfectly alright to ask again until you’ve understood.

Dos and Don’ts

The South African community has nuances of racial prejudice perhaps never experienced in other parts of the world. It would be advisable to not rush headlong into unknown territory where social behaviour is concerned but take caution as a watchword. Cities such as Johannesburg and Cape Town have their share of daylight robberies and bold pick pockets. Take care to keep your valuables out of sight and keep duplicates of all important documents separately. Always be courteous regardless of the ethnic origin of the person you’re interacting with.


Boys, shanty, lady, and boy photos by thomas_sly
Soccer photo by Celso Flores
Elephant photo by exfordy
Girls in pink photo by borderlys
Johannesburg by austinevan
Mandela book photo by maureen lunn

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