Your guide to expat life in South Africa

Working in South Africa

An emerging market, South Africa’s economy is one of the best in Africa, but still fairly volatile. Although the country is battling with high unemployment rates, inefficient governance and corruption, skills shortages in sectors such as engineering and education are creating job opportunities for expats.

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Doing business

While some parts of South Africa’s economy function as they would in Western countries such as the UK and USA, other sectors are still developing. It’s important to understand the complexities of the local socio-political situation. And be aware that the country is undergoing rapid change, so there may be inconsistencies in the way things are done.

There’s a strong entrepreneurial spirit, paying taxes is relatively easy and investors are well protected.

One of the legacies of apartheid is that unions are influential, and labour unrest is often cited as one of the barriers to investment in the country.

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Business culture

South African business culture is defined by the country’s diversity, and there are striking differences in ethnicity and language. The work environment may be more relaxed and personable than you’re used to, with the exception of some bigger corporations and more established financial institutions. While South Africans value hard work, they tend to put family and friendship first.

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Many South Africans prefer to do business with people they've met before, but they’re also warm and welcoming towards strangers. Building long-term relationships makes doing business in the country much easier.

Management style

A clear management hierarchy exists, and showing respect for senior colleagues is important. Despite this, decisions are often made in an egalitarian way.

Communication style

South Africans are fairly direct, and they prefer to use simple language. They value politeness and strive for consensus, often using humour as an icebreaker or to diffuse tension. They’re also open and tactile, so handshakes are firm and there’s occasional backslapping between men. People tend to use first names and prefer face-to-face meetings to email or phone calls.

Cross-cultural teams

It’s important to understand the racial divisions that can still cause tension and make teamwork difficult, despite the changing landscape.


Punctuality is important in the corporate world, but this doesn’t extend to all areas of business, so you may have to wait patiently for people to arrive for an appointment.

Affirmative action

During apartheid, power was concentrated in the hands of a small minority of white males. While the politics of race still influence business today, government policies aim to redress the imbalance by appointing non-whites and women to senior positions. Management teams are becoming more representative, but affirmative action remains a sensitive subject.

Fast facts

Business language

English is widely spoken in business circles. It’s useful, but not essential, to know Afrikaans, Xhosa or Zulu.

Business hours

Usually 8:30am or 9am to 5pm, Monday to Friday.


Men and women tend to dress conservatively and smartly in corporate sectors such as finance and banking, but many businesses allow their employees to wear more casual outfits such as open-collared shirts and jeans.


A handshake is the standard business greeting.


Gifts aren’t expected, but they’re usually appreciated. If you receive a gift, you should open it in front of the person who gave it to you.

Gender equality

Women in South Africa are entitled to the same opportunities as men. An increasing number of women are being appointed to senior positions, but they tend to have lower salaries than their male counterparts.

Expat salaries

Expats salaries in South Africa are generally lower than in most Western countries. If you’re paid in a currency that’s stronger than the rand, your money will go further. But even if you’re paid in rands, the relatively low cost of living means you should have a comfortable lifestyle.

I've experienced a very enjoyable life experience that has also enhanced my career prospects and personal wealth.

Expat Explorer Survey respondent

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All other content is provided by, Globe Media Ltd and was last updated in October 2020. HSBC accepts no responsibility for the accuracy of this information.

This information does not constitute advice and no liability is accepted to recipients acting independently on its contents. The views expressed are subject to change.

Always remember to ensure you are aware of and comply with any laws in your host country or country of origin that apply to gift giving and bribery.

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