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Working in South Africa

Your guide to expat life in South Africa

Want to work in South Africa?

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

While some parts of South Africa’s economy function similarly to the UK and USA, other sectors are still developing. It’s important to understand the complexities of the local socio-political situation. The country is changing rapidly, 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. Labour unrest is often cited as one of the barriers to investment in the country.

Business in South Africa

South African business culture is defined by its diversity, with striking differences in ethnicity and language. It may be more relaxed and personable than you’re used to, except in bigger corporations and financial institutions. While South Africans value hard work, they tend to put family and friendship first.

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.

A clear management hierarchy exists and showing respect for senior colleagues is important. Despite this, decisions are often made in an egalitarian way. Women in South Africa are entitled to the same opportunities as men.

It’s important to understand racial divisions can still cause tension, despite the changing landscape. During apartheid, power was concentrated in the hands of a small minority of white males. 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.

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. People tend to use first names and prefer face-to-face meetings to email or phone calls.

Practical details

English is widely spoken in business circles. It’s useful but not essential to know Afrikaans, Xhosa or Zulu. Business hours are usually 08:00 or 09:00 to 17:00, Monday to Friday. A handshake is the standard business greeting.

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

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

Expat salaries in South Africa

Expat salaries in South Africa are generally lower than in most Western countries. If you’re paid in a currency stronger than the rand, your money will go much further. However, the relatively low cost of living means you should have a comfortable lifestyle.

Top tips for working in South Africa

See what people responding to our Expat Explorer Survey think about living in South Africa.

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

All Expat Explorer survey data and all tips (in quotation marks) are provided by HSBC.

All other content is provided by, Globe Media Ltd and was last updated in September 2021. HSBC accepts no responsibility for the accuracy of this information.

This information is purely for orientation and to inspire further research, it 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're 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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