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The Working Environment

For most expats, the working environment may not be all that different from the one they are used to in their country of origin

Some culture shocks may initially knock the unsuspecting newcomer off balance. The country is home to a vast array of cultural backgrounds, with differing social structures between the urban and rural environments, and from area to area. It’s fair to say that while there are general standards of business behaviour commonly accepted in the office, the foreigner would do well to carefully assess how things are done, to fit in and not cause offence.

Hours of operation are Monday to Friday, 8.30 am or 9 am to 5 pm and it's not usual to work into the weekend. The language most commonly spoken in the office and meetings is English but knowledge of Afrikaans, Xhosa, or Zulu would put you at an advantage and help you to settle in a little better with your colleagues.

Dress code

While in many countries the suit is considered the norm, in South Africa, it is often saved for more formal, corporate environments — but this will depend on the city and the sector you’re working in. Keep clothing smart and modest and you may find yourself reserving the finery for special occasions. Although more common at evening events, it’s likely that some of your colleagues choose to wear traditional African dress to the office. The advice is to find out about the company’s dress code in advance so that you give the right first impression.


Arrange business meetings well in advance and phone or email to confirm the day before. It's good practice and polite to arrive early and call ahead if you’re likely to be held up. Face-to-face meetings are important in an environment that places personal relationships in high regard, so if you call or email, do it with the intention of making an appointment to meet. Allow enough time between meetings to avoid being late and make sure you engage in a little getting-to-know-you chat before getting down to discuss business.

There are many types of greeting, depending on where someone is from and with whom they are meeting but, for the newcomer, a handshake is usual. Maintain eye contact, smile and engage in a little informal conversation. South Africans are a friendly people and relationships are important in the office. Your colleagues may be eager to discuss their home life with you, so be friendly and don't be afraid to reciprocate.

Although women now have the same workplace rights and access to opportunities as men, like many areas in the world, there is still sparse representation in high-end corporate roles. Some women may be happy to shake hands when you meet them at first, others will politely nod — the advice is to wait for a female to offer you her hand first. Be prepared: there may be some environments where male co-workers are not as progressive regarding women as most Western countries, and you may need to handle their comments with tact.

Sealing the deal

Be prepared to establish a good working relationship before doing business, as trust is everything. In the boardroom, do not interrupt while someone else is talking but make sure your opinion is heard. South Africans try to avoid confrontation, and it's okay to find common ground and a win-win solution to problems. If you’re negotiating a contract, ensure dates and other details are hammered out and written down, but remember these are often considered flexible and open to negotiation. Expect things to take a while — decisions are often made at the top but only after collaboration with others, sometimes from the ground level up. This takes time.

Relationships in the workplace

Whether you find yourself in a relaxed working environment or a more formal, fast-paced corporate structure, personal relationships are really important — friendship and social time outside of work are an integral part of life in a country that holds family and the wider community in high regard. That said, hard work and ingenuity are as prized as a strong relationship. As a newcomer, being prompt and meeting deadlines is a must, but also learn to wait patiently for others.

Management structure may vary considerably from place to place but generally speaking, there will be a strong hierarchical system, and it is good practice to show respect for senior management and colleagues. Decision-making is likely to be a team activity, so be prepared to air your opinions if necessary.

Your rights

Put in place by the South African government in 2002, the Basic Conditions of Employment Amended Act was designed to protect the health and wellbeing of workers in the country.

Working hours

In a typical week, an employee cannot be expected to work more than 45 hours. If they work five days or fewer in a week, the day cannot be longer than nine hours. If more than five days, it cannot be longer than eight hours.

Overtime can only be worked by agreement with the employee; they are entitled to 1.5 times their normal rate, and the working day cannot be extended by more than three hours or the working week by more than ten hours.

There is some allowance for condensing the week or averaging hours out over the week to add flexibility for those with other commitments — like parents and migrant workers who may need to travel home.

Conditions apply for those who are expected to work nights, including extra pay and medical check-ups if requested, and an obligation to move them to day shifts if health problems develop.


Administered by the South African Revenue Service (SARS), the tax system can be complicated. A temporary resident becomes liable to pay on income earned in the country when they have spent 183 days there. Someone who has been in the country for five years is considered a permanent resident for tax purposes — and they'll pay tax on income earned abroad as well. Some expats choose not to become tax residents in South Africa and those that do are advised to make adequate plans.

Capital gains tax is 18% for individuals, with income tax rates ranging from 18-45%.

The advice to those thinking of relocating to South Africa permanently is to seek guidance from a trusted tax advisor first.

Leave and public holidays

There are 14 public holidays in South Africa (as listed on the South African government website for 2019).

  • 1st January – New Year’s Day
  • 21st March – Human Rights Day
  • 19th April – Good Friday
  • 22nd April – Family Day
  • 27th April – Freedom Day
  • 1st May – Workers Day
  • 16th June – Youth Day
  • 17th June - Public holiday
  • 9th August – National Women’s Day
  • 23rd September – School holiday
  • 24th September – Heritage Day
  • 16th December – Day of Reconciliation
  • 25th December – Christmas Day
  • 26th December – Day of Goodwill

Easter holiday dates will vary from year to year as they are determined internationally according to a lunar calendar, but will always fall during March or April. When a holiday happens during a weekend, the following Monday becomes a public holiday.

Celebrating South Africa’s recent moves to overcome a turbulent past, there are a number other holidays throughout the year. Human Rights Day in March, for example, commemorates the instigation of the initiative considered to be the cornerstone to South African democracy. The South African government website has more information about public holidays and their significance here.

Entitled to 21 days’ annual leave, a worker can also have up to six weeks' paid sick leave in a 36- month period, but there are controls on this, and the employer will need to see the correct evidence.

There is also legislation in place to protect maternity and family leave.

The South African government website is the ideal place to find out more about the rights and responsibilities of working in the country.

Unions and B-BBEE

Recognised as a major force in establishing job equality and democracy in South Africa, the labour unions still play a major role in the country. A quarter of the workforce belongs to a union (the biggest being Congress of South African Trade Unions and the Independent Labour Caucus), and they have been vital in levelling the playing field in recent years.

It’s recognised there is some way to go regarding the opportunities and life choices open to those from different ethnic backgrounds, but the Broad-Based Black Economic Empowerment legislation issued and updated by the South African government was put in place to help employers make positive decisions in-line with the country’s new ethos. Designed to help those from previously disadvantaged communities (including people of different races, women, and disabled people), the government hopes to use B-BBEE to increase the number of individuals of diverse backgrounds who own and run businesses. Enriching the workforce through skills development, the intention is to increase diversity in the workplace and give disadvantaged groups better opportunities for a brighter economic future.

With a code of conduct for best practice and targets to meet, businesses need to be abreast of recent legislation, so if you’re thinking about setting up an enterprise in the country, you will do well to find out what is required of you first. Learn more from the government's department of trade and industry’s website.

Make sure you’re fit for work. Health care insurance is a must for those moving to South Africa, so talk to our experts today about the kind of cover you’ll need for you and your family.

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