Local Customs

Countries  »  South Africa  »  Local Customs

Local Customs and Culture in South Africa

South Africans are generally polite, friendly and accommodating to tourists.

Public behaviour is very similar to what you might find in Europe. Heterosexual displays of affection in public are not frowned upon unless you overdo it. Homosexual displays of affection may generate unwelcome attention although they will be tolerated and respected in the more gay-friendly and cosmopolitan areas of Johannesburg (Sandton, Rosebank and Parkhurst), Cape Town (Greenpoint, Clifton and De Waterkant) and Durban. South Africa is the first and only African nation where the government recognizes same-sex relationships and homosexual marriages are recognized by law.

Men generally greet with a firm handshake, while women will do the continental kiss on the cheek.

Except for designated beaches, nude sunbathing is illegal, although topless sunbathing for women is sometimes acceptable along Cape Town's Clifton and Camps Bay beaches. Thong bikinis for ladies and swimming trunks for men (speedos if you really must) are acceptable. Eating places are casual except when otherwise indicated.

Eating is generally done the British way with the fork in their left hand and the tines pointed downward. Burgers, pizzas, bunny chows and any other fast foods are eaten by hand. It is generally also acceptable to steal a piece of boerewors from the braai with your hands. Depending on which cultural group you find yourself with, these rules might change. Indians often eat breyani dishes with their hands, a white person from British descent might insist on eating his pizza with a knife and fork or a black person might eat pap-and-stew with a spoon. Be adaptable, but don't be afraid to also do your own thing; if really unacceptable, people will generally tell you so rather than take offence.

South Africans are proud of their country and what they have achieved. Although they themselves are quick to point out and complain to each other about the problems and shortcomings that still exist, they will harshly defend against any outsider doing so.

One thing you need to understand is that South African people are very straight-forward. If you do or say something that offends a South African, they will tell you so, in a very straight-forward manner. So, you must not be offended if this happens, but just apologise and change the manner in which you do things so that you don't offend any other people.


Those who are practised in North American racial terminology should understand that familiar words have different meanings in South Africa, and the rules for what terms are polite or not are different. Also note that there are many South Africans that think classification according to skin colour or appearance in general, whether for political or social reasons, is inappropriate and would prefer to be referred to as simply South African irrespective of what you think they look like.

  • If you wish to refer to South Africans of solely African ancestry, "black" (the term used under apartheid) is still considered appropriate by some. It might help to practice thinking of identifying particular language groups-Zulu, Xhosa, Sotho,etc...
  • The term "coloured" refers to a mixed race cultural group with white and African ancestors from the early colonial period - and who typically speak Afrikaans and dwell chiefly in the Western Cape, although some of these people oppose the term, and simply call themselves black. 'Coloured' can be used incorrectly to describe people who would consider themselves as either black or white and thus should be used with caution.
  • White South Africans can quite simply be called "white" or "white South African". The mother-tongue of white South Africans is either Afrikaans (derived from Dutch) or English, so we have Afrikaans and English speaking white South Africans. Almost all white South Africans can speak English, even if their mother-tongue is Afrikaans since commerce is predominantly English and English is a mandatory subject in school. Typical white South Africans consider themselves as "African" as those born in the United States consider themselves "American"; most have family who have lived in South Africa for centuries, and the only continent they can call home is Africa. Do not call an Afrikaans speaking person a "Dutchman" as it is considered a derogatory term and an insult; it will almost certainly evoke a very hostile response. Avoid referring to Afrikaans as "Dutch" as they are fiercely independent and proud of their language, and do not consider themselves Dutch. The Afrikaans speaking community consists of two sub-groups, namely Afrikaners and Boers. Boers are the decedents of the citizens of the former Boer republics who fought two wars against the British and they are very proud of their ancestry. It is acceptable to call someone a Boer if you are certain of their ancestry; they consider it a title of extreme honor. English speaking whites will most likely take offense if you call them Boers. It is common and acceptable to refer to both Afrikaans speaking groups simply as Afrikaners.
  • The fourth racial category left over from the apartheid system is "Indian" (from India), referring to people whose ancestors came from India during the British colonial period. The largest Indian populations are in KwaZulu Natal, in particular around Durban.

In summary:

  • Black - the majority of South Africans - of bantu origin. The three most populous groups are Xhosa (Eastern & Western Cape), Zulu (KwaZulu Natal) and Sotho (Free State).
  • White - can be subdivided into Afrikaans speakers (the majority), and English speakers
  • Coloured - of mixed heritage - Afrikaans speaking, and concentrated in the Western Cape.
  • Indian - concentrated around Durban

It is wise to avoid racial or political remarks while in South Africa if you don't have a good understanding of South African history because the country's very diverse cultural disposition means that "putting your foot in it" is easy. However, you will encounter many South Africans who lived through the apartheid period, and who are willing to talk about their experiences of the time. It can be very interesting to speak with them about their experiences, and if you have an open mind and willingness to listen, you can avoid offence.

South Africa is now in its second decade since the end of apartheid (a very sensitive issue for everyone) in 1990, but it is always easier to change laws than people. You will occasionally still hear overtly racist remarks, from any race group in South Africa, not only from white South Africans. This is more common from the older generation than the younger ones. The best thing to do is simply ignore it; leave the responsibility for enlightening lectures to other South Africans, who know the subject better than any foreign traveller as they have lived it. South Africans of different races generally treat each other politely at a personal level. Political movements are another matter, and political parties have been aligned along the racial fault lines of the society although there is starting to be a move toward better integration. The majority of black South Africans vote for the African National Congress, and the majority of white and coloured South Africans vote for the liberal centrist Democratic Alliance. Politics in South Africa is a touchy issue, and its best to talk about it with care.

Interracial marriages are becoming quite common, and, except for possibly some of the older generation, people no longer take offense if you and your partner are not the same colour.

The content on this page is available under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 license. It has been written by the users of WikiTravel and gapyear.com cannot not accept any responsibility for its accuracy. For any critical information you require, please be sure to check with the relevant embassy for the most up to date information before you travel.