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South Africa Culture, Traditions, and History (FSF Guide)

South Africa Overview

South Africa is a country on the southernmost tip of the African continent, bordering Namibia, Botswana, Zimbabwe, Mozambique, Eswatini and Lesotho. There were many social consequences of colonization, including systematized inequality throughout society. This led the white Afrikaner and English minorities to be politically, socially and economically privileged over the black, mixed-race, and Asian populations for years. Since the end of apartheid, the ruling African National Congress (ANC) has attempted to overcome this legacy and create unified national loyalties.

South Africa’s History

Bantu-speaking tribes settled in the northern areas of what is now South Africa during the 5th century BC, gradually moving southward over the next 1,500 years. In 1652, Dutch colonist Jan van Riebeeck set up an outpost at the Cape of Good Hope, present day Cape Town. The pioneers clashed with Bantu-speaking Xhosa tribes as they tried to claim territory eastward. British Armed Forces took advantage of the instability and claimed Cape Town in 1806. When the British abolished slavery in 1834, the pattern of white legal dominance was entrenched. To resist colonial expansion, African rulers founded sizable kingdoms and nations by incorporating neighboring chieftaincies. Tensions between these groups and with Europeans led to a series of conflicts from which modern South Africa emerged.

The ultimate unification of the country came in 1902 from the end of the South African War between the British and the two Afrikaner republics, which reduced it to ruin at the beginning of the twentieth century. Even after union, the Afrikaners never forgot their defeat and cruel treatment by the British. This resentment led to the consolidation of Afrikaner nationalism and political dominance by the mid-century. In 1948, the Afrikaner National Party, running on apartheid, a platform of racial segregation and suppression of the black majority, came to power in a whites-only election.

This set the stage for Nelson Mandela to become the most important figure in South Africa’s recent history. The militant anti-apartheid activist was jailed in 1962 and became a rallying symbol for the national and global anti-apartheid movements. He spent 27 years of a life sentence in Johannesburg Number Four and Robben Island. After his release in 1990, Mandela led African National Congress negotiations which resulted in South Africa adopting a democracy in 1994. Subsequent elections saw Mandela installed as the first president of the country, a position he retained until stepping down in 1999.

South African Culture

Societal Values

Recognition of lengthy family lines and extended family relationships are common to all the population groups, most formally among Indians and blacks. For Africans, the clan, a group of people descended from a single remote male ancestor, symbolized by a totemic animal and organized politically around a chiefly title, is the largest kinship unit. These clans often include hundreds of thousands of people and apply their names to branches extending across ethnic boundaries, so that a blood relationship is not an organizing feature of clanship. Extended families are the most effective kin units of mutual obligation and assistance and are based on the most recent generations of familial relationships.

South Africans also share an adventurous, entrepreneurial streak that frequently sees them be opportunistic and open to taking risks. One gets the sense that it is important to them that they make something of themselves and their time. Accordingly, hard work and cooperation are highly valued. They are often quite driven people, realistic and pragmatic in their rationalizations. The country’s social turbulence fuels an ambition to be economically independent, self-sustainable and competent in order to escape the crippling condition of unemployment.


  • Human Rights Day marks the shooting to death of sixty-one black pass-law protesters by the police in Sharpeville on 21 March 1961

  • Afrikaners gather at weekends and special occasions at multifamily barbecues called braais to strengthen community bonds

  • The country has a long history of artistic expression ranging from clothing, to breadwork, to geometric house painting


South Africa is traditionally a deeply religious country with high rates of participation in religious life among all groups. The population is overwhelmingly Christian with only very small Jewish, Muslim, and Hindu minorities. Among Christian denominations, the Calvinist Dutch Reformed Church is by far the largest, with most Afrikaners belonging to it. Other important denominations include Roman Catholics, Methodists, Lutherans, Presbyterians, and Anglicans.

Indigenous Black African religion persists in the country. It is centered on veneration of and guidance from the ancestors, belief in various minor spirits, spiritual modes of healing, and seasonal agricultural rites. Rituals are communal and involve the drinking of cereal beer and the slaughter of livestock accompanied by feasting. The most important ceremonies involved rites of the life cycle such as births, initiation, marriage, and funerals.

Language and Communication Style

South Africa has eleven official languages, a measure that was included in the 1994 constitution to equalize the status of Bantu languages with Afrikaans, which was the official language under the white minority government. Afrikaans is still the most widely used language in everyday conversation, while English dominates in commerce, education, law, government, formal communication, and the media. English is becoming a lingua franca of the country, but strong attachments to ethnic, regional, and community linguistic traditions remain. Linguistic subnationalism among ethnic groups such as the Afrikaners remains an important feature of political life.


Basic Etiquette

  • South Africans are typically polite and circumspect in speech

  • There is a strong tipping culture, with 10% tips being expected on most bills

  • It is rude to spit in public

  • Show heightened respect towards those older than you

  • Each distinct cultural group has its own forms of social propriety and respect beyond those listed


  • Guests are expected to respectfully greet everyone when arriving

  • When visiting for the first time it is expected to bring a gift such as chocolate, flowers, or wine

  • It is polite to bring something to drink with you but not expected

  • The host typically offers refreshments upon arrival, especially tea

  • Do not explore any rooms of the house you are not led into by a senior member of the family

  • South Africans typically accompany the guest out of the home when it is time to leave


  • Do not point your feet towards others or to their food when seated

  • It is impolite to point or gesture with cutlery during a meal

  • Leaving uneaten food is seen as a negative reflection on the food or the host

  • It is polite to make a small compliment towards the host’s cooking at the end of a meal

  • Generally at restaurants, the person who invited the other pays the bill

Gift Giving

  • Gift giving is often centered around religious holidays, such as Christmas with presents being practical and conservative

  • Generally, well-wrapped and nicely presented gifts make good impressions on a South African

  • Receivers tend to open gifts as soon as they are presented, though there are no defined customs surrounding this


  • Brai, a South African form of barbeque, is one of the top foods and mainly comprises beef, chicken, pork, lamb, and boerewors sausages

  • Bredie is a slow-cooked stew made with an edible flower and lamb, tomato, or beef served with rice and beetroot

  • Bobotie is a delicacy originating in Asia made by baking spiced minced meat with an egg-based topping

South Africa Culture: Conclusion

South Africa is a highly diverse nation characterized by its strong sense of family and entrepreneurial streak. Social networks are largely based around the extended family and, in some ethnicities, the tribe one belongs to. However, members of all ethnicities share the same propensity for risk taking and bold action. This makes for a highly sectionalized but incredibly expressive society renowned for its art and culture.


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