South African Etiquette & Customs

south africa etiquette and customs
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Because South Africa was a British colony (1806-1910), many elements of South African etiquette and customs are taken from the British.  It is that, plus the Dutch and African influence that makes up South African etiquette and customs.

As you plan your trip to South Africa, it is also important to understand what kind of country it is. South Africans are friendly, open, caring, giving. They love seeing foreigners, and they particularly love to see foreigners having a good time.

How to behave and what to expect

South Africa is a multi-racial, multi-cultural country, so norms and etiquette will vary between the different ethnicities, groups and religions. If you are ever unsure about how to behave, see how others are behaving, and follow them. If that’s not an option, ask someone—they’ll be happy to help.

Punctuality (or lack thereof)

Unless you’re catching a flight, don’t expect punctuality. This is particularly the case in Cape Town, and not so much in Johannesburg. In some parts of the country, time is not taken as seriously because they are on “African time”.

White and Asian South Africans tend to value time and punctuality more than black South Africans.

Tipping
tipping in south africa etiquette and customs

It is common to tip approximately 10% in restaurants because tips are usually not included in the overall bill. It is acceptable to tip in spare change.

It is also customary to tip your tour guides, hotel porters, petrol attendants and parking attendants.

You may be wondering why you have to tip parking lot attendants. Cars do get stolen in South Africa, and the attendants are there to watch your car. They usually wear brightly colored vests over their clothes. Most of these workers are honest and reliable, but they are not employed in an official capacity. This means their only means of income is from the tips they earn. Tip them with spare change (R1-R5). (Do not overtip—if it seems like you’re tipping too much, you may become a target for the dishonest, unscrupulous parking attendant.)

Yes, there is a lot of tipping in South Africa but keep in mind, the South African currency is weak compared to other global currencies like the US Dollar, Euro, Pound, etc. (At the time of this writing, a $2 tip is only US $0.14).

Being respectful of the elderly

In general, South African etiquette and customs dictate that we be very respectful of older people. You will see this across many cultures and races.  For example, in the Xhosa culture, older men will be addressed respectfully as Tata (Xhosa for father). In the white community, older men may be referred to as “oom” (Afrikaans for uncle).

The same applies to older women. In Xhosa, she may be addressed as Mama (Xhosa for mom) or Tannie (Afrikaans for aunt).

Being invited to dinner

If this is your first time visiting with a family, do not have expectations. Yes, there are customs, but the customs of one group can be vastly different from another. 

You can generally expect South Africans to be inviting and welcoming. For your part, make an attempt to understand the particular culture you are visiting.

One thing that is important to note is that many South Africans may not understand vegetarianism or veganism. Meat is a big part of South African cuisine (and the culture for that matter). If this is you, it is best not to accept the dinner invitation, or to fully explain to the host that you cannot eat meat. (Older South Africans may not get it, and they may try to convince you to eat the meat.)

But there’s more! Dinner expectations (and South African etiquette) differ vastly, depending on where you go. For example:

  • In the Zulu culture, it is considered polite to announce your arrival by shouting from the gate. You must then wait to be seated by the host. 
  • In the Sotho culture, you should seat yourself immediately.  While you are seated, do not point your feet towards others or to the food.
  • White and Colored (mixed-race) South Africans usually eat using a fork and knife.
  • Black and Indian South Africans often eat with fingers or spoons.
  • You may be encouraged to accept second helpings. This is common. Eating more than one helping may be interpreted as a compliment to the chef/ host.
  • Leaving food on the plate can be negatively construed by the cook/ host.
  • It is always polite to compliment the cook/ host for the meal. Chances are good that your compliment will be dismissed as being unnecessary, but it will be appreciated.
  • In some homes, there may be a hierarchical sequence in the order of people served.
  • In some homes, guests may be expected to wait until the oldest male has started eating before starting their meal.
  • For the most part, it is impolite to use your cutlery (silverware) to point or gesture during a meal.
  • If you are eating at a restaurant, the person who has invited the other will usually pay the bill. If friends are meeting in a restaurant, they may split the bill evenly. For example, if the bill comes to R900 and there are 3 people, each will pay R300.
Being invited to a Braai
south african braai

A Braai is South African’s version of a barbeque. To braai is not to grill. A braai is to cook food over wood.

Braai is a cultural thing in South Africa. It can be seen as a  ritual for most South Africans. This is where friends, families, and communities get together to watch rugby/ cricket/ soccer, talk, laugh, drink beer, etc. and eventually eat.

Steaks, boerewors (sausage), lamb chops, and “braai broodtjies (braai bread) are usually served. Sometimes there may even be a potjie (a stew cooked outdoors.)

The host of the braai is not expected to buy all the food. Usually, South Africans will have a “bring ‘n braai” where you bring your own food and drinks, it is cooked for you, and everyone enjoys their own food together.

If you’ve been invited to a braai, check with your host about what you are expected to bring. They’re likely to say that you don’t need to bring anything. Nonetheless, it is always polite to bring a bottle of wine. flowers, or a small gift for the host. 

General South Africa Etiquette

  • If you have been invited to someone’s house and food/ drinks are offered, you will be expected to accept. A refusal can be misinterpreted as rudeness;
  • Do not explore people’s houses unless you are invited to do so. Wait to be led into a new room by your host.
  • South Africans may be overly polite. If you are in someone’s home, feel free to compliment their home and their belongings, but do not do it repeatedly. A South African may feel compelled to give it to you out of politeness. If this happens, insist that you appreciate the gesture but do not want to take it.
  • Do not be surprised when your South African hosts accompany you to the gate/ car/ street when it’s time to leave. They are even likely to wave you off. This is customary. 
  • Your South African hosts may invite you to stay as long as you want. They are being polite. Do not overstay your welcome. 
  • It is considered rude to spit in public;
  • It is polite to cover your mouth when you yawn, cough, etc.
  • It is polite to receive items with both hands cupped together—this is particularly evident in the black community;
  • Some ethnic groups may consider it impolite to make gestures with the left hand.
  • In some South African homes, it is polite to take off your shoes before entering the home;
  • Visits to people’s homes are usually pre-arranged; Unannounced visits are usually from relatives or old friends;
  • As the guest, you will be expected to greet everyone respectfully upon arrival;
  • You may not be expected to bring a gift if you have been invited. However, it is polite to bring a bottle of wine or refreshments.
  • For the most part, the South African society (as a whole) is very liberal. For example, gay marriage was nationally legalized way back in 2006—gay or straight, everyone’s rights are protected under the constitution. Having said that, conservative ideas still hold strong in some rural communities.
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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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