South Africa is nicknamed the “Rainbow Nation” due to its diverse history, customs, people and geography, and Cape Town is at the heart of this diversity. It’s a melting pot of cultures and traditions, which gives the city a unique charm. To help you adapt to the local way of life, here are eight customs you should be aware of.
1. March 21 is Human Rights Day
March 21 is a very important date in Cape Town, indeed in the whole of South Africa. It marks Human Rights Day, a day when slavery was finally put to an end in the country (in the rest of the world it’s celebrated on December 10). On this day different communities and ethnic groups come together to show their unity and there are major outdoor concerts, performances and food events hosted across the city. It’s also a good day to go check out some of the city’s numerous museums as they offer free entry.
2. Forget barbecuing, it’s all about the braaing
South African cuisine is built on a fusion of flavors from Africa, Europe, India, and Southeast Asia but what defines it is the practice of braai, which is South Africa’s answer to a barbecue and cookout. Ask any local and they’ll tell you that it’s far superior to the standard barbecue as it’s traditionally carried out on an open wood fire, giving the meat, which is usually lamb and beef, an added layer of flavor. Meat plays a major part in South African cuisine and a braai is always a very social event that involves copious amounts of wine, beer and maybe some of South Africa’s finest cream liqueur Amarula to finish off. If you’re invited to a braai, go hungry as it’s considered a bit of an insult to leave any food on the plate.
3. Afternoon tea is a thing
Given that South Africa was a British colony for some 100 years (1806–1910), it’s hardly surprising that some British traditions and customs have remained to this day, such as, for example, the tradition of afternoon tea that remains a popular pastime and usually consists of tea or coffee and cake in the late afternoon. Eating with a knife and fork instead of your right hand is another custom that was adopted from the British (but you might still see people eating with their hand at more traditional African dinners).
4. Firm handshake with a smile
In general South Africans are a warm and friendly bunch that like to socialize and enjoy life. While it’s not the custom to kiss one another like the Europeans, they like to greet each other in a friendly fashion and a firm shaking of hands and a gentle slap on the back are common, particularly between men. Making direct eye contact and smiling is also considered important when you first meet someone. If meeting someone for the second time in a social situation, women will often hug each other but men will stick to the handshake. And be sure to make it firm and heartfelt, as no one likes a weak handshake.
5. Avoid discussions about race
South Africa has a long and difficult history of race relations and politics and so be wary what you say in social situations, particularly with people you don’t know, to avoid causing offence. The apartheid system didn’t end until the early 1990s so it’s still fresh in many South Africans’ minds and remains a sensitive issue. You might still detect signs of racism in conversation and on the street, particularly from the older generations but avoid engaging in any sort of discussion about it.
6. Tipping rules
When it comes to tipping, leaving a 10% to 15% tip is standard in restaurants and bars. Parking attendants usually expect around R2 to mind your car. For other services such as hotel porters, taxi drivers, hairdressers and tour guides, use your discretion and give what you see fit based on the service you’ve received.
7. African time
Spend some time in Cape Town and you’ll soon become familiar with the phrase ‘African time’ as the locals have a more relaxed attitude towards time and punctuality than their North American counterparts. It’s part of the culture that events start later than indicated and people show up fashionably late so if you stick to ‘American time,’ you might find yourself the first person at the party every time.
8. Save yourself for the January 2 carnival
Don’t overdo the champagne on New Year’s Eve as the biggest celebration in town is yet to come on January 2; the day of the famous Cape Town Minstrel Carnival (also known as the Kaapse Klopse). Dating back nearly 200 years, this historical event used to mark the day of rest for the Malay slaves and was their opportunity to ring in the New Year by dressing up and dancing in the streets. The tradition has since been adopted by the entire city and it’s a feast for the senses that attracts performers from all over the world. Nowadays, a huge musical parade takes place through the main streets of the city, led by the ‘Cape Minstrels’ dressed in vibrant costumes and singing and dancing to the beat of drums and trumpets.
Have you noticed any other particular customs in Cape Town worth mentioning? Let us know about them in the comments below.