South Africa is a relatively large country, and is home to several cultural groups, deriving from various different sources. There are families descended from European settlers, indigenous tribal groupings, and also descendants of former slaves, as well as a significant Chinese presence. However, the post-liberation growth and globalisation of the economy has led to a situation in which cultures are intermingled and it is illegal to discriminate against anyone on the basis of their cultural identity or origin.
The country has a population of roughly 50 million people, and there are eleven official languages. These are English, Afrikaans, isiNdebele, isiXhosa, isiZulu, Sepedi, Sesotho, Setswana, Siswati, Tshivenda and Xitsonga. However, you should be able to get by in all situations by speaking English, which is most prevalent and which is also the language of business, although isiZulu is spoken by the largest numerical group of people, mainly in the province of KwaZulu-Natal. The predominant religion is Christianity, but there is also a large Islamic following, particularly in the Western Cape, and there are also Hindu and Jewish communities, as well as traditional African belief systems.
With so many cultures in the country, you may be forgiven for thinking that social and commercial operation is a daunting prospect. However, it is not. There are certain basic norms that apply, as they do in any country, and you should soon master the distinctly South African variation.
To begin with, then, smoking is illegal in public buildings and in all forms of public transport. The legal age for purchasing alcohol is 18, and 18 is also the age at which majority is attained. The age of majority is very important in South Africa, because under South African law there are certain legal acts that a minor cannot undertake, such as voting, buying land, and obtaining a driver’s licence.
If you attend a job interview, do not try to help your application by repeated follow-up calls. You may contact the prospective employer once, to thank them for the interview, but anything more than that will be seen as rude. They will let you know the outcome in due course.
Lastly, the shaking of hands has several variations in South Africa, from the conventional palm-to-palm method, to an overhand grip with the thumbs interlocking. It is a source of amusement to the locals to teach a foreigner the latter method, and you should have some fun learning it. And that should be the emphasis – enjoyment. You may find that people in South Africa are more than willing to accommodate someone who is not familiar with local customs.