South Africa is an incredibly popular backpacker destination, welcoming hundreds of thousands of travellers from all over the world every year, visiting to experience the lively cities of Cape Town and Johannesburg, go on safari, and for some as a jumping off point for a longer African trip.
South Africa will feel largely familiar to anyone from a western culture, so as long as you use common sense and behave as you would while visiting any country, you needn’t worry too much about breaking social norms. However, South Africa’s turbulent history and ongoing issues means there are a few things to be aware of.
Here are a few social customs in South Africa to keep in mind during your visit.
Race in South Africa
South Africa has a long history of difficult race relations, and while the situation today is markedly improved, saying the wrong thing could cause upset or offence. Generally speaking it is best to avoid talking about race or referring to anyone by their skin colour, especially if you have limited knowledge of South African history.
Apartheid ended in 1990, meaning many South Africans lived through it, so it remains a sensitive subject. Many are happy to talk about their experiences, but always be respectful, listen, and don’t push anybody who isn’t willing to discuss it.
You may still hear overt racism both in conversation and on the street, from both white and black South Africans, particularly of an older generation. The best thing you can do is ignore it. Similarly, it’s best to avoid political discussion, as politics in South Africa is still divided by racial fault lines.
Money in South Africa
The currency in South Africa is the South African rand. This is accepted everywhere, and it’s rare to find anywhere taking US dollars or euros.
Tipping in South Africa is very similar to the USA; it’s generally expected whenever somebody has performed a service for you.
In restaurants and bars a 10-15% tip is considered standard. For other services it can be difficult to know how much to tip. Parking attendants and petrol station attendants expect from R2 and up, while porters at airports and hotels expect around R10, depending how much luggage you have.
Tour guides, taxi drivers, hairdressers etc. can be tipped whatever you think is appropriate for the time they’ve spent with you and the quality of service given.
Social etiquette in South Africa
Same sex relationships
Marriage between same-sex partners is legal in South Africa, and in many cities displays of affection between same-sex partners is unlikely to gain much attention. However, some areas of cities are more LGBT friendly than others, so it’s worth researching ahead of time.
Outside of cities and tourist hubs displays of affection might gain unwanted attention.
Interracial relationships are becoming increasingly common in South Africa, particularly among younger people. Like same-sex relationships, it’s worth being cautious if travelling outside of big cities and tourist areas.
Greetings and conversation
Generally speaking, South Africans are friendly, polite, and accommodating to tourists.
Men generally greet each other with a handshake, while many women will go for a kiss on the cheek. If you’re not sure, a handshake is the safe bet.
South African people are often confident and straight-talking. They’re likely to tell you exactly what they think, which can be disconcerting at first. If you’ve done something to offend a South African they’ll usually tell you about it!