Understanding The South Africa Culture

south africa culture
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South Africa, "The Rainbow Nation"

South Africa is a melting pot of different cultures.  It is home to 59 million (2020, Statistics South Africa). There are 11 official languages, different races, and traditions. The South Africa culture is also very complex. It is truly a study in contrast.

As a visitor to South Africa, chances are excellent that you will love it.  However, it is when you stay a little longer than a 2-week vacation, that you really notice things.

For one thing, you may be amazed to find that within a short distance of one another, there are the gorgeous beach houses of South Africa’s white elite. Not too far away are the shacks that most Black South Africans live in.  Or you’ll find the upscale, sophisticated electronic wiring in one home or business, compared to the one-room houses that have no electricity.

Apartheid was abolished in 1994 and decades later there still exists a great gulf between the white minority and the Black majority. This gulf exists everywhere, including education and economic opportunities.

Having said that, South Africa is slowly but surely making progress in erasing some of the historic disparities and their consequences. Daily life is better for most South Africans as they flourish in a post-apartheid era.

The South African society remains divided on several levels based on social status, education, and income. It is, therefore, hard to describe the South Africa culture from a national perspective.

The South Africa culture as a whole differs strongly from one cultural group to another. To get an idea about the South Africa culture, it’s best to look at the different cultural groups in the country.

Having said that, if you are visiting South Africa, it is important to understand that some people take offense to being identified by their race. As South Africans, we feel like we’ve spent our entire lives being labeled—we don’t want to be labeled anymore. Instead, people want to be called “South African,” or labeled by their tribal affiliation, like Zulu, Xhosa, etc.

Interesting facts about the South Africa Culture

  • South Africa is a multi-cultural, multi-racial country, multi-lingual country.
  • There are 11 official languages in South Africa, but most people can speak English fluently.
  • The South African culture has been influenced by it being a Dutch and British colony, and also immigration from India, Malaysia, China, Madagascar, the East Indies, and East Africa.
  • South Africans are generally very friendly and open. They will offer you food if you visit their home. Accept it because not doing so may seem insulting. Also, if your visit was pre-planned, they may have borrowed money to entertain you.
  • Most South African households consist of the parent(s) and children. However, sometimes grandparents and other relatives may also live in the same house if the financial situation is dire.
  • It is not uncommon for men to hold hands. This does not automatically imply that they are gay. Rather, in many black cultures, men will hold hands with other male friends who they trust deeply.
  • It is common for the father of the family to be the primary breadwinner. However, it is not uncommon for the mother to be the main authoritative figure when it comes to household decisions.
  • It is not uncommon for upper-class and even middle-class families to have a domestic helper. This is someone who helps with the cleaning, cooking, and other household chores.
  • Many South African families have pets like cats and dogs. However, unlike in the USA, pets are not considered to be part of the family, and they may not be allowed inside the house.
  • Despite the abject poverty in much of the country, South Africa is a rich country. It is the richest African country. South Africa is rich in minerals (diamonds and gold), reserves of iron ore, platinum, silver, beryllium, manganese, chromium, copper, uranium, and titanium.
  • Mining remains the largest industry in South Africa (2021). However, the wine industry and others are beginning to grow in popularity.
greeting with both hands

Greeting in South Africa

  • To show respect, you need to greet people immediately when you them.
  • It is essential to always be respectful, particularly of elders.
  • To greet someone, you may offer a handshake, make eye contact, and smile. 
  • South Africans from rural villages may use two hands to shake your hand.
  • Black men will usually wait for a woman to extend her hand first.
  • If you know someone, it may not be uncommon for them to greet you with a hug. 
  • It is polite to address someone by his/her title and surname (last name) until they have indicated that it is okay for you to call them by their first name.
  • In the Black community, elders are often addressed with titles for father, mother, uncle, or aunt. This is also common in the rest of the country where you would call someone “Aunty Francess,” even if she is not your aunt, but rather because she is your elder.
  • South Africans like to engage in social discussions after greetings. In many countries, asking “how are you?” is a figure of speech. South Africans will not only take you literally and respond, but they will also appreciate it.
  • Interactions will change based on where you are. For example, in a rural setting, people may greet each other in a traditional way. 
  • In rural villages, it is respectful to greet everyone you pass by. For example, a Xhosa woman may politely greet everyone she passes in a small village, but not acknowledge strangers in a large city.
South African braai

Socializing in South Africa

  • South Africa’s most popular sports include rugby, cricket, and soccer. Other sports like hockey, boxing,  swimming, tennis, golf, and netball are also enjoyed.
  • Compared to other nations, South African cuisine relies heavily on meat. South Africans love to braai! It’s the South African version of a barbeque.
  • South Africans love to socialize. You may be invited over to watch the rugby and have a braai.
  • South Africans love boerewors, (sausage) biltong (dried meat, similar to jerky), and droewors (dried sausage).
  • South African music is very diverse. Hugh Masekela, Ladysmith Black Mambazo, Chris McGregor. Johnny Clegg and other bands and musicians are a few that have become internationally recognized.
zulu nation south africa culture

Ethnic tribes in South Africa

  • The Zulu culture is known for being warriors bearing shields. They also have beehive huts and do bead and basket work. The Zulus are the biggest in the country.
  • The Xhosa culture is famous for its complicated dress code. It demonstrates an individual’s social status.
  • The Ndebeles are known for the vibrant geometric designs in their homes, and their beadwork and blankets.
  • The Sothos are known for building villages and marrying cousins from the mother’s side.
  • The Ngunis are organized into clans. They do not believe in marrying close relatives.
  • The Shangaan people are known for their found huts and thatched roofs.  They enjoy eating crocodiles and wild game, which is in abundance where they live.
  • In the Venda culture, people believe that water is sacred. The Vendas are the smallest culture in South Africa.
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About The Author

Hi! We’re the Cheltens’. We visit South Africa 1-2 times per year. We want to share our experiences with you so that you may make educated decisions when you plan your next trip to the rainbow nation.

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