South Africans are generally polite, friendly and courteous towards tourists.
Behaviour in public is very similar to what you might find in Europe. Heterosexual expressions of affection in public are not frowned upon unless you overdo it. Homosexual displays of affection can attract unwanted attention, although they are 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 recognises same-sex relationships and homosexual marriages are legally recognised.
Men usually greet each other with a firm handshake, while women will give the continental kiss on the cheek.
Except on designated beaches, nude sunbathing is illegal, although topless sunbathing is permitted for women on Durban and Umhlanga beaches and on Clifton and Camps Bay beaches in Cape Town. Thong bikinis for women and swimming trunks for men (Speedos if you really must) are acceptable. Restaurants are casual unless otherwise stated.
Eating is usually done the British way with the fork in the left hand, with the tines pointing down. Burgers, pizzas, bunny chows and other fast food are eaten with the hand. It is also generally acceptable to steal a piece of boerewors from the braai with your hands. Depending on which culture you are in, these rules may change. Indians usually use their hands to eat Bureyani dishes, British whites often insist on eating pizza with a knife and fork, while blacks sometimes eat pup-and-stew using a spoon. Be flexible, but don’t be afraid to do your own thing too; if it’s really unacceptable, people will usually tell you 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 sharply rebuff any outsider who does so.
One thing you need to understand is that South Africans are very straightforward. If you do or say something that offends a South African, they will tell you in a very direct way. So don’t be offended if that happens, just apologise and change the way you do things so that you don’t offend other people.
Those more accustomed to North American racial terminology should understand that words that are familiar to them have different meanings in South Africa, and the rules for what terms are or are not polite are different. Also note that there are many South Africans who consider classification by skin colour or appearance in general, whether for political or social reasons, to be inappropriate and would prefer to be referred to simply as South Africans, regardless of what you think they look like.
- If you want to refer to South Africans of exclusively African descent, “black” (the term used under apartheid) is still considered appropriate by some. It might help to practice identifying specific language groups – Zulu, Xhosa, Sotho, etc. Most urban blacks are also able to speak English in addition to their mother tongue, although English proficiency may be limited in rural areas.
- The term “coloured” refers to a mixed-race cultural group with white and African ancestry from the early colonial period – and who typically speak Afrikaans and live mainly in the Western Cape, although some of these people reject the term and simply call themselves black. In general, the term does not have such a negative connotation as it does in the US or UK. Coloured can be used incorrectly to describe people who would consider themselves either black or white and should therefore be used with caution. Not every person of supposedly ‘mixed’ heritage will necessarily consider themselves ‘coloured’ in the cultural sense and may not identify as such; a well-known example is comedian Trevor Noah, who was born to a white Swiss man and a black Xhosa woman during apartheid. During apartheid, the group of “coloured people” also included the ethnic Chinese community.
- White South Africans can be referred to simply as “white” or “white South African”. The mother tongue of white South Africans is either Afrikaans (derived from Dutch) or English, so there are Afrikaans and English-speaking South Africans. Almost all white South Africans can speak English, even if their mother tongue is Afrikaans, because trade and entertainment are predominantly conducted in English, while English-speaking South Africans often speak Afrikaans or one of the African languages as a second language. This is especially true for the younger generation. Typical white South Africans consider themselves as “African” as those born in the United States consider themselves “American”; most have family that has lived in South Africa for centuries, and the only continent they can call home is Africa. Avoid calling Africans “Dutch” or “Boers”, both of which are considered derogatory and insulting, or Afrikaans “kitchen Dutch”, as they are very independent and proud of their language and do not consider themselves Dutch. Although the term “white” is primarily used for people of European descent, during apartheid it also included Japanese.
- The fourth racial category left over from the apartheid system is “Indian” (from India) and refers to people whose ancestors came from India during the British colonial period. The largest Indian populations are in KwaZulu-Natal, especially around Durban.
- There is also a small community of Cape Malays, mainly based in the Bo Kaap area of Cape Town. They are descendants of slaves brought over from what is now Malaysia and Indonesia during the colonial period. Although the majority of them are still Muslim, they no longer speak the Malay language and mainly speak either Afrikaans or English.
- 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 divided into Afrikaans speakers (the majority), and English speakers.
- Coloured – Afrikaans-speaking mixed race, concentrated in the Western Cape.
- Indian – concentrated around Durban.
- Malay – Muslims in the Bo Kaap area of Cape Town
It is advisable to avoid making racist or political remarks during your stay in South Africa unless you have a good understanding of South African history, as the very different cultural make-up of the country means that it is easy to “put your foot in your mouth”. However, you will meet many South Africans who lived through the apartheid era and are willing to talk about their experiences from that time. It can be very interesting to talk to them about their experiences and if you have an open mind and a willingness to listen, you can avoid insults.
South Africa is now in its third decade since the end of apartheid (a very sensitive issue for all) in 1990, but it is always easier to change laws than people. You will still occasionally hear openly racist remarks, from every racial group in South Africa, not just white South Africans. This is more common among the older generation than the younger. It is best to just ignore them; leave the responsibility for enlightening lectures to other South Africans who know the subject better than any foreign traveller because they have experienced it. South Africans of different races generally treat each other politely on a personal level. Political movements are another matter, and political parties have aligned themselves along the racial fault lines of society, although there is slowly a movement towards better integration. While the majority of black South Africans voting for the ANC, the majority of white South Africans and people of colour are voting for the liberal-centrist Democratic Alliance. Politics in South Africa is a sensitive subject that is best spoken about with caution.
Interracial marriages are becoming more common and, except perhaps for some of the older generation, people no longer take offence if you and your partner do not share the same skin colour.