South African Culture

Etiquette

It is important to be aware of the diversity of traditions and practices regarding etiquette in South Africa. Norms and etiquette can vary between different ethnicities, linguistic groups and religions. If unsure of the correct etiquette in certain circumstances, do not hesitate to ask your South African counterpart or at least observe the people around you for guidance.


Basic Etiquette

  • It is polite to receive items with both hands together, held out as a cup. 
  • Some South African ethnic groups may find it impolite to make gestures with the left hand.
  • White and Asian South Africans tend to value punctuality more highly than black and mixed-race South Africans, who are more likely to follow ‘African time’. South Africans often use the phrases ‘now-now’ or ‘just now’. To do something ‘now-now’ is to do something shortly, whereas ‘just now’ means to do something in the near future, but not immediately.
  • It is polite to cover your mouth when you yawn.
  • It is rude to spit in public.
  • Show heightened respect to anyone older than you in all situations. 
  • It is common to tip about 10% of bills in South Africa, and tips are usually not included in the overall bill. If you have negotiated payment beforehand (such as for a taxi fare) the tip will be included. For all other exchanges, it is acceptable to tip in spare change.


Visiting

  • Visits to people’s houses are usually pre-arranged in South Africa, but unannounced visits from good friends or relatives are also common.
  • Guests are expected to greet everyone respectfully and immediately upon arrival. 
  • It is polite to remove your shoes before entering most South African homes.
  • Most South Africans will not expect you to bring a gift with you. However, it can be polite to bring something to drink with you (e.g. juice, wine, etc.) when visiting white South African houses. 
  • You will likely be offered refreshments upon arrival. Many South Africans will offer tea, particularly in the afternoon. 
  • In Indian homes, there is often an expectation that the guest will accept the food/drink offered. Flat refusals of refreshments can be misinterpreted as rudeness.
  • Respect your hosts’ privacy and do not explore their house unless invited to. Wait to be led into a new room by someone senior.
  • Try not to admire any of the objects in your South African host’s home too much. Be aware that complimenting an item in a South African’s house repeatedly can make them feel compelled to offer it to you as a gift. A South African is likely to offer the object out of politeness, even if the item is something they wished to keep. If they try to give it to you, insist that you appreciate their gesture but do not want to take it. 
  • South Africans often accompany their guests to the gate, car or street when it is time for them to leave.
  • If you are staying overnight at your host’s house, make an effort to keep your personal space tidy and offer to help with chores or cooking. Be aware that even if you are told to “stay as long as you like”, it is important to not overstay your welcome.


Eating

  • African cultures can vary in their expectations of dining etiquette – even between how to sit at a table. For example, in Zulu culture it is polite to announce your arrival by shouting from the gate, but you must be seated by the host. Alternatively, in Sotho culture you should immediately seat yourself. Generally, you can expect South Africans to be welcoming as long as you are making an attempt to understand the particular culture you are in.
  • While seated, do not point your feet towards others or the food.
  • White South Africans usually eat using a fork and knife (continental style). However, black and Indian South Africans often eat with spoons or fingers.
  • Some South African homes may follow a hierarchical sequence in the order of people served: guests first, followed by the eldest male, remaining men, children and, lastly, women. In some cases, other guests may be expected to wait until the eldest male has begun eating before starting their meal.
  • It is impolite to use your cutlery to point or gesture during a meal.
  • You may be encouraged to accept second helpings to a meal. Eating multiple helpings can be interpreted as a compliment to the host’s hospitality and cooking in Indian South African homes. 
  • Leaving uneaten food on your plate can be interpreted as a negative reflection on the food or host.
  • It is polite to make a small compliment towards the end of the meal on the hosts’ cooking and/or hospitality. While a host may dismiss this comment as unnecessary, it will be appreciated.
  • Dinner is the main meal of the day, and on weekends braai (barbeque) is often featured (see Braai below).
  • Adults generally do not eat on the streets/standing up unless it is ice cream or from a street-food stand.
  • If eating at a restaurant, generally the person who has invited the other out to the restaurant will pay the bill.


Braai

  • Braai vleis’ (literally cooked meat, but meaning barbeque) is a cultural institution and common weekend ritual for most South Africans. This form of backyard cookout is an important time for South Africans to chat, laugh, discuss everything (including politics) and, eventually, eat.
  • Steaks, chops and 'boerewors' (a spiced sausage) are commonly served. Other meats include lamb, beef, venison, goat – as well as game meats, such as springbok, warthog and ostrich.
  • When attending a ‘braai’, confirm with your host about what you are expected to bring. Some will require you to bring your own meat and drinks. It is polite to bring a bottle of wine or liquor for your host and chocolate or flowers for the hostess as a small gesture of thanks.


Gift Giving 

  • Approaches to gift giving and what is considered appropriate depends on the ethnic group of the person who you are planning to give the gift.
  • Gift giving is often centered around religious holidays, such as Christmas. In these circumstances, presents are often practical and conservative.
  • Generally, well-wrapped and nicely presented gifts are likely to make good impressions on a South African.
  • Receivers generally open gifts as soon as they are presented. However, there are no defined customs surrounding this.
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