When Wolfestone clients think of localisation projects, their focus is usually on website translations or marketing translations from English into another language.  True localisation, though, often involves converting one form of the English language into another, respecting the linguistic and cultural nuances of a target region and putting in just as much effort as if the languages were completely distinct.  We’ve learned from experience that the billion people across the globe who speak English certainly don’t speak with one voice.

South Africa, the economic powerhouse of the African continent, is the member of the BRICS group of emerging economies where English is most widely spoken.  28% of South Africans speak English and 8% speak it as a first language.  British exporters still find that translation and localisation services add enormous value to their business development, and Wolfestone partner Debbie Bouwer, Director of TheWordWright in Johannesburg, gives us an insight into why.

“We offer copywriting services to English speaking clients everywhere, and the variations between what’s spoken and written in South Africa, Australia, the United States and the UK are significant enough to cause major problems for clients who ignore them.  Consumers respond to what they understand, and it’s reasonable for them to expect promotional material to be localised and focussed on them.  Our most successful campaigns always involve partnerships with clients who understand this”.

Unlike French, which has a central linguistic authority, English has no official “standard” version.  Wolfestone clients seeking to trade in South Africa should be aware that their target consumers have as much right as anyone to claim their version of English as the “norm”.  Where South Africa does differ is that it’s home to eleven official languages.  The most common language spoken by South Africans in their own homes is Zulu (24 percent), with English only sixth on this list.  The “rainbow nation” is home to one of the most diverse cultures on the planet and recent developments have made it a land of rich potential for exporters.

Trade agreements with other BRICS nations and investment from partners such as Odebrecht, Brazil’s largest construction company have highlighted South Africa’s appeal.  Purely intra-BRICS trade is expected to reach $500 billion per annum by 2015.  Closer to home, South Africa is also a key player in the ongoing work to establish a free trade area among twenty six African countries.  By the mid-point of this decade, this complex nation promises to be the engine room of a major global trading bloc.

Encouragingly, the signs are that Britain has recognised this potential and is keen to step on board.  Last summer Prime Minster David Cameron made his first official visit and publicly committed to doubling bilateral trade with South Africa by 2015. With a major focus on projects in the healthcare, engineering and energy sectors, opportunities exist for British specialists to export their knowledge and talent to a highly receptive market.

The South African consumer has embraced social media, and spending on mobile advertising, always a useful barometer, has skyrocketed.  Vodacom and Google have predicted that it will reach 1 billion Rand this year.  With a highly developed, well regulated banking system and solid infrastructure, there is a great deal to recommend this market, and in 2011 Britain pledged £76 million to a four year investment programme supporting efforts to improve health, tackle climate change and reduce violence against women.

Some issues remain culturally problematic, however, and the build-up to the 2010 football World Cup raised one in particular.

Plans to ritually sacrifice live animals to bless each of the ten stadiums used for the tournament caused widespread offence and led to a concerted protest.  Debbie Bouwer, who played a leading role in this protest, is philosophical about the clash of traditional African culture with modern sensibilities:

“I’m proud of my country and of our culture, but our first duty must be to our own ethics.  I find it encouraging that so much of our economic development goes hand in hand with ethical business practice.  What’s good for us environmentally and socially can also be very good for us economically”.

We couldn’t agree more, and Wolfestone is delighted to be working with strong partners and talented clients in this fascinating market.




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by Wolfestone Admin
  • You are absolutely spot-on when you say that South Africa is an exciting new market. It is often overlooked from an e-commerce perspective because of the diversity of our language base. This could be a mistake. Here are some facts and figures:

    1. We have 6,800,000 internet subscribers (13.9% of the population). This number is set to increase by a further million during the course of 2012.
    2. 51% of these subscribers are transactional internet users.
    3. The Boston Consulting Group predicts that e-commerce will increase from R51 billion in 2011 to R103 billion in 2016.
    4. English is the de facto business language.
    5. There are really only two significant players in the local market, and one or two rising stars. In other words, there is room for new entrants.

    Moving away from English for the moment… Afrikaans is the third most spoken language in South Africa (13.8%) and 50% of all South Africans understand it. In our country, it is not unusual to present business material in both languages. I want to point out to prospective entrants to the rapidly expanding South African market, that it may well be an astute business decision to follow suit and that Wolfestone has the ability to competently handle English-Afrikaans-English translations.

    Finally, I wish to add that we hold Wolfestone in the highest regard. It is rare indeed to find a company that consistently upholds high standards – both ethically and professionally. We are proud to be associated with you

  • Paul Chammings

    Fair points about cultural issues and a very good point about e-commerce. Even successful British exporters can fail to appreciate a country’s potential and I’ve known those who underestimated South Africa. I agree with Debbie Bouwer that the plethora of official languages contributes to this misconception and I’ve also known people fall into the trap of thinking of SA as a breadbasket and nothing more. Viewing South Africa as an agricultural nation because of the produce grown in Overberg and the Free State is like viewing the USA as an agricultural nation because of what’s grown in the midwest. The stats you’ve given here tell an interesting story about an interesting market..

  • Thanks Paul and particularly Debbie for these responses. The e-commerce stats are an excellent barometer of South Africa’s development. In an earlier article I referred to the high quality of general education and e-learning in Germany, which has led to German people making up one fifth of all internet users in the European Union. South Africa is clearly striving to provide this level of technological and economic leadership for the African continent. Like Paul I’ve dealt with British clients who might have move moved on from racial stereotyping when dealing with new markets but still practice economic stereotyping. Viewing South Africa in the narrow way you’ve referred to is a costly mistake.

  • Adele Marinescu

    There is irony that some people think South Africa is only agricultural manufacturer when Romania has in 2012 become exporter of large quantities of yellow maize to South Africa! I believe this is a trade anomaly which will not be ongoing but in addition to this small point I think this country is a very good market for technical goods, because our export of telecommunications and electronic equipment has given a very favourable balance of trade for Romania with South Africa.

  • Chiumbo Wangai

    I know of Debbie Bouwer for what she did with the animals for the world cup. I think there are good things to say about South Africa. I also think a trade group for Africa is ok if everything is considered. The devolution of Kenya must be a success for our future, if we are devolving as Kenya how can we centralise as Africa?

  • Thank you for your comment Chiumbo. I agree that the devolution of power to Kenya’s county governments must be allowed to prosper, and any wider trade agreement would have to take this into account. My personal opinion is that it’s possible for power to be devolved without a nation’s wider partnerships being compromised, and I believe Kenya has taken steps towards proving that. While the government has pursued a policy of devolution, they’ve also been prominent members of the East Africa Community trade group along with Burundi, Rwanda, Tanzania and Uganda. This group seems to me to be a progressive and positive force for African trade, and recent reports that Somalia is eager to join suggest that other African nations see its benefits.

    I’d reiterate the point I made previously, that South Africa seems intent on providing economic and technological leadership that can benefit the continent as a whole. I certainly agree with you though that the key policy goals of individual nations must be respected.

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