Top tips for exporting to South Africa

Given South Africa’s huge racial diversity and big differences between rural and urban life, business etiquette depends largely on who you are dealing with. And although English is widely spoken in commercial circles there are a dozen other major languages spoken including Afrikaans.

Generally, South Africans are fairly laid back but also direct in their communication. By and large they love to talk. Sport is usually a good ice-breaker. At business meetings it’s advisable to engage in small talk initially. Getting straight down to business is viewed as ill-mannered. Initial meetings are often just to establish the relationship.

Making appointments can prove difficult during the main vacation periods of mid-December to mid-January and the fortnight around Easter. If possible send an agenda ahead of the meeting. Keep presentations tight and make sure you’re armed with facts and figures since South Africans base business decisions on these rather than intuition. If working with Afrikaans companies in such places as Pretoria or Bloemfontein it may be worthwhile to have materials translated.  

Building business on common ground

With South Africa continuing to expand, it offers openings to an increasingly wide spectrum of UK companies, according to a leading official with UK Trade & Investment who has spent considerable time in the country.

Graham Percival, the deputy regional director of UKTI in Yorkshire and Humber, was formerly the organisation’s deputy trade commissioner in South Africa. He says there is much common ground with the UK

“It’s a market which is still growing at a reasonable rate and that provides a number of opportunities,” he says. “There’s substantial bilateral trade. English is still the preferred business language. Their financial and legal systems are based on those of the UK. And there are minimal time differences.”

There are, however, things you need to know, says Mr Percival.

“Doing business and getting an end result can be slow. Like other places South Africa starts with relationships. They need to trust you and you need to do due diligence with companies with whom you’re dealing.

“It’s easy to do business once you have made the connections. You don’t see significant delays as in other markets, although some of the container orts can be relatively slow because of capacity.”

Spurred on by continuing international trade and the success of hosting the 2010 football World Cup, South Africa has embarked on major upgrades of its infrastructure, offering further opportunities for British firms and promising faster delivery.

“There’s a lot of work going on to build capacity in Ports,” adds Mr Percival. “They upgraded the airports for the World Cup. There are also a lot of developments on the rail network and they’re looking at further expansion. Unlike the UK, more than 70 per cent of rail transport is taken up with commercial traffic as opposed to carrying passengers.”


UK Trade & Investment
Enquiry Service
Tel: 0207 215 8000

Dunkeld Corner
275 Jan Smuts Avenue
Dunkeld West
Tel: 0027 11 537 7000
Fax: 0027 11 537 7257

Cape Town
15th Floor
Southern Life Centre
8 Riebeek Street
Cape Town
Tel: 0027 21 405 2400
Fax: 0027 21 405 2460

FWJK Court
86 Amstrong Avenue
La Lucia Ridge
Tel: 0027 31 562 7900
Fax: 0027 31 572 3703

South African Chamber of Commerce and Industry
Chamber House
24 Sturdee Avenue
South Africa