So you’ve been offered a posting to South Africa and all your friends and family are asking if you’ll be safe there. You might wonder if you’ll be able to fit into such a different cultural context. Will you make new friends or will you just feel isolated and different? Have you been given a huge challenge – for example to make South Africa the key market on the African continent or is your target continental – how to make the African continent the rock star of future opportunities for your organisation?

South Africa is one of the richest countries in the world in many aspects.

It offers the best weather, great human capital, breath-taking scenery, an exceptional lifestyle, big opportunities for those who are smart enough to navigate the business environment skilfully and the challenge of an extremely diverse population.

While safety and security are concerns in a country with a relatively high crime rate, you will very quickly learn from the local people how to manage this and how to feel safe and secure in your new environment. You’ll be walking your dogs or having an early morning run or cycle, which are all typical activities in the South African environment.

South Africans are very friendly people. It’s the kind of environment in which strangers still smile and greet each other. Good ways to make friends include involvement in the school that your children attend, joining one of the many sporting clubs or joining a special interest group – of which there are an enormous number of diverse options.

White South Africans are now less than 5% of the working population.

The black community is made up of local people from more than 9 different African tribes in addition to Indian and Coloured (mixed race) people, all of whom range from sophisticated and well educated to those who have suffered from an inadequate education system, which doesn’t prepare them appropriately for the world of work. Add to this the huge number of immigrants and refugees from all over Africa who stream to South Africa believing it is a potential source of a better life. Each African country has a distinct culture and value system.


The first lesson to learn as an expat in South Africa is never to generalise.

South Africa is probably the most complex African country because of the legacy of apartheid. That system has had a profound and lasting impact on the neurology, socialisation, values, expectations, education and on family histories.


Be sensible for conditionings in the past

From a neurological perspective, black South Africans were conditioned for decades to the fact that they were second class citizens and that white people were better from every aspect. This can lead to even the most successful, sophisticated and well-educated black business executives still secretly asking themselves if white people aren’t better than they are. It shows up in all kinds of ways, most often in a reduced ability to challenge authority or to demand what others take for granted.
Another neurological effect is found in the outcome on brain development of poor nutrition in childhood. The human brain triples in size from birth to 3 years. Malnourishment means that this growth is not fully realised. Those who suffer from this outcome of malnutrition, have permanently lost their full potential to excel as adults.


Black people have to commute very long distances to work

From a socialisation perspective, South Africans were forced to live separately until 1994. Black people were relegated to townships far from their places of work. This means still, that many black workers have to rise in the very early hours of the morning to use public transport to reach their place of work. The journey home is equally long and tortuous, so they spend only a small number of hours at home each week night, which may result in chronic fatigue. The cost of transport uses a significant percentage of their salaries.


Youth unemployment is a ticking time bomb in South Africa and requires urgent attention.

During South Africa’s miraculously peaceful transition to democracy in 1994, many unrealistic hopes were created. Black people believed that they would now enjoy all of the privileges and the comfortable lives that they observed white people enjoying. The slow pace of progress towards offering black people homes and basic services and the fact that the economy has failed to keep up with the demand for jobs has led to a great deal of dissatisfaction, anger and resentment. This is exacerbated by the fact that the ANC (African National Congress) was strongly supported in its election campaigns by the trade unions and the South African Communist Party. The socialist policies they have promoted for labour legislation have resulted in a tough economy and in extremely high unemployment rates. This situation is aggravated by the poor standard of basic education offered in many Government schools, resulting in an unskilled youth workforce, where unemployment is well above 50%.

The apartheid system included a policy of ‘job reservation’, a system which reserved skilled work exclusively for white people. This resulted in the current situation in which many black people in business are the offspring of labourers and domestic workers because black people were only allowed to have menial jobs. This meant that they didn’t learn the basics of business behaviour from their parents.


Many black people in corporate employment are the first in their families to have a university education and the first to own a car.

Black people who are employed are often subjected to what is commonly called the “back tax”. This describes the phenomenon that employed black people are expected to support and/or pay for the education of family members who aren’t employed. South Africans, still bearing the wounds inflicted by the apartheid system, are very sensitive to race issues and any discussion related to race or which could be perceived to be related to race must be handled with extreme sensitivity.

This is a challenge well worth accepting. As we grow in our leadership ability, being able to deal with greater complexity is an important requirement.

South Africa will give you ‘complexity on steroids’ as you grow in this exciting environment.

We are specialists in coaching German Expats in South Africa.

Contact our author Pat Roberts
BWC Senior Coach and Country Manager for South Africa Johannesburg