The African continent’s southernmost country, the Republic of South Africa shipped US$90.2 billion worth of goods around the globe in 2019. That dollar amount reflects a 12.4% gain since 2015 but a -4.4% decline from 2018 to 2019.
South Africa’s exported goods totaled $59.7 billion during the first 9 months of 2020. Assuming an annualized $79.6 billion in exports for all 2020, South Africa is on track for an estimated -12% drop in value for its shipments from 2019 to 2020.
Based on the average exchange rate for 2019, the South African rand depreciated by -13.2% against the US dollar since 2015 and declined by -9.2% from 2018 to 2019. South Africa’s weaker local currency makes its exports paid for in stronger US dollars relatively less expensive for international buyers.
The latest available country-specific data shows that 61.7% of products exported from South Africa were bought by importers in: China (10.7% of the global total), Germany (8.3%), United States (7%), United Kingdom (5.2%), Japan (4.8%), India (4.6%), Botswana (4.5%), Mozambique (4.1%), Namibia (4%), Netherlands (3.2%), Belgium (3%) and Zambia (2.3%).
From a continental perspective, 31.3% of South African exports by value were delivered to importers in Asia while 26.7% were sold to fellow African countries. South Africa shipped another 26.1% worth of its goods to Europe. Smaller percentages arrived in North America (7.5%), Oceania (1%) led by Australia, and Latin America (also 1%) excluding Mexico but including the Caribbean.
Given South Africa’s population of 55.4 million people, its total $94.4 billion in 2019 exports translates to roughly $1,500 for every resident in the relatively wealthy African nation.
South Africa’s Top 10 Exports
The following export product groups represent the highest dollar value in South African global shipments during 2019. Also shown is the percentage share each export category represents in terms of overall exports from South Africa.
- Gems, precious metals: US$15.3 billion (17% of total exports)
- Ores, slag, ash: $13.1 billion (14.5%)
- Vehicles: $11.4 billion (12.7%)
- Mineral fuels including oil: $9.1 billion (10.1%)
- Machinery including computers: $5.5 billion (6.1%)
- Iron, steel: $5.4 billion (6%)
- Fruits, nuts: $3.4 billion (3.8%)
- Aluminum: $1.8 billion (2%)
- Electrical machinery, equipment: $1.7 billion (1.9%)
- Plastics, plastic articles: $1.4 billion (1.6%)
South Africa’s top 10 exports accounted for about three-quarters (75.6%) of the overall value of its global shipments.
Ores, slag and ash was the fastest grower among the top 10 export categories, up by 11.1% since 2018. In second place for improving export sales was vehicles thanks to a 5.6% gain. South Africa’s shipments of plastics including articles made from plastic posted the third-fastest gain in value up by 0.01%.
The leading decliner among South Africa’s top 10 export categories was iron and steel which fell -14.8% year over year.
Note that the results listed above are at the categorized two-digit Harmonized Tariff System (HTS) code level. For a more granular view of exported goods at the four-digit HTS code level, see the section Searchable List of South Africa’s Most Valuable Export Products further down near the bottom of this article.
Overall South Africa posted a $2.1 billion trade surplus for 2019, up by 112.1% from the $997.6 million in black ink one year earlier.
The following types of South African product shipments represent positive net exports or a trade balance surplus. Investopedia defines net exports as the value of a country’s total exports minus the value of its total imports.
In a nutshell, net exports represent the amount by which foreign spending on a home country’s goods or services exceeds or lags the home country’s spending on foreign goods or services.
- Gems, precious metals: US$14.1 billion (Down by -6.1% since 2018)
- Ores, slag, ash: $13 billion (Up by 11.5%)
- Vehicles: $4.4 billion (Up by 17.9%)
- Iron, steel: $4.2 billion (Down by -17.3%)
- Fruits, nuts: $3.2 billion (Down by -7.5%)
- Aluminum: $1.2 billion (Down by -13.1%)
- Beverages, spirits, vinegar: $571.3 million (Down by -29.4%)
- Woodpulp: $453.3 million (Down by -41%)
- Vegetable/fruit/nut preparations: $352.5 million (Down by -18.8%)
- Wool: $349.4 million (Down by -21.5%)
South Africa has highly positive net exports in the international trade of platinum, gold and diamonds. In turn, these cashflows indicate South Africa’s strong competitive advantages under the gems and precious metals product category.
Below are exports from South Africa that result in negative net exports or product trade balance deficits. These negative net exports reveal product categories where foreign spending on home country South Africa’s goods trail South African importer spending on foreign products.
- Electrical machinery, equipment: -US$6.8 billion (Down by -0.1% since 2018)
- Machinery including computers: -$5.7 billion (Up by 0.3%)
- Mineral fuels including oil: -$5.7 billion (Down by -19.5%)
- Pharmaceuticals: -$2 billion (Down by -4.1%)
- Optical, technical, medical apparatus: -$1.7 billion (Down by -2.3%)
- Books, newspapers, pictures: -$1.2 billion (Down by -8.9%)
- Plastics, plastic articles: -$1 billion (Down by -24.6%)
- Clothing, accessories (not knit or crochet): -$799.3 million (Down by -0.6%)
- Rubber, rubber articles: -$791.4 million (Down by -5.4%)
- Footwear: -$724.1 million (Down by -4.2%)
South Africa has highly negative net exports and therefore deep international trade deficits for electrical machinery and equipment.
These cashflow deficiencies clearly indicate South Africa’s competitive disadvantages in the electronics market, but also represent key opportunities for South Africa to improve its position in the global economy through focused innovations.
South African Export Companies
Fifteen South African corporations rank among Forbes Global 2000. Below are major South African companies involved in international trade.
- Sasol (diversified chemicals)
- MTN Group (telecommunications)
- Steinhoff International (furniture)
- Naspers (broadcasting, cable)
- Bidvest Group (industrials conglomerate)
- Aspen Pharmacare Holdings (pharmaceuticals)
- Remgro (industrials conglomerate)
Searchable List of South Africa’s Most Valuable Export Products
The following searchable table displays 100 of the most in-demand goods shipped from South Africa during 2019. Shown beside each product label is its total export value then the percentage increase or decrease since 2018.
|Rank||South African Export Product||2019 Value (US$)||Change|
|3||Iron ores, concentrates||$5,743,361,000||+35.9%|
|4||Coal, solid fuels made from coal||$4,838,972,000||-22.4%|
|8||Manganese ores, concentrates||$3,169,791,000||-12.1%|
|9||Processed petroleum oils||$3,017,353,000||+13.8%|
|10||Chromium ores, concentrates||$1,954,700,000||+1.8%|
|11||Centrifuges, filters and purifiers||$1,659,872,000||-1.4%|
|13||Fresh or dried citrus fruit||$1,352,092,000||-9%|
|17||Grapes (fresh or dried)||$651,528,000||-9.6%|
|19||Titanium ores, concentrates||$569,348,000||-3%|
|20||Apples, pears (fresh)||$558,042,000||-5.8%|
|21||Flat-rolled stainless steel items||$541,127,000||-22%|
|22||Sugar (cane or beet)||$489,781,000||+30.1%|
|23||Precious metal ores, concentrates||$453,454,000||+18.8%|
|24||Niobium/zirconium ores, concentrates||$449,682,000||-8.5%|
|25||Chemical woodpulp (dissolving)||$449,273,000||-40.5%|
|27||Aluminum plates, sheets, strips||$414,177,000||-24.1%|
|31||Initiators/accelerators, catalytic preps||$403,953,000||+33.3%|
|34||Medication mixes in dosage||$334,197,000||+4.9%|
|35||Liquid pumps and elevators||$318,511,000||-9.7%|
|37||Hot-rolled iron or non-alloy steel products||$314,407,000||-33.1%|
|38||Sulphates; alums; peroxosulphates "persulphates"||$309,020,000||+12.6%|
|39||Precious metal waste, scrap||$307,418,000||-33.5%|
|40||Wool (uncarded, uncombed)||$302,207,000||-24.1%|
|41||Miscellaneous iron and steel structures||$301,325,000||-19.4%|
|43||Piston engine parts||$280,500,000||-4.2%|
|46||Miscellaneous iron or steel items||$267,171,000||+5.3%|
|47||Fruit and vegetable juices||$265,367,000||-15.4%|
|48||Beauty/makeup/skin care preparations||$257,043,000||-8.9%|
|49||Rubber tires (new)||$248,741,000||-6.5%|
|50||Iron or steel granulated slag||$243,928,000||-0.3%|
|51||Copper ores, concentrates||$233,429,000||+12.7%|
|52||Miscellaneous preserved fruits||$212,147,000||+6.6%|
|53||Flat-rolled iron or non-alloy steel products (plated/coated)||$209,692,000||-22.3%|
|54||Phone system devices||$204,583,000||-8.5%|
|55||Other food preparations||$201,999,000||+10.3%|
|57||Other organic cleaning preparations||$200,309,000||-2%|
|59||Heavy machinery (bulldozers, excavators, road rollers)||$196,939,000||-17.7%|
|60||Fuel wood, wood chips, sawdust||$192,710,000||-14.4%|
|61||Hydrazine, inorganic salts||$189,784,000||-28.1%|
|64||Plastic packing goods, lids, caps||$183,753,000||-10%|
|65||Zinc ores, concentrates||$178,992,000||+273.3%|
|66||Petroleum jelly, mineral waxes||$176,603,000||-14%|
|68||Miscellaneous animal feed preparations||$175,977,000||-17.2%|
|69||Computers, optical readers||$175,879,000||-10%|
|71||Iron or non-alloy steel products (semi-finished)||$171,935,000||+13.2%|
|72||Non-alcoholic drinks (not water/juice/milk)||$169,976,000||+11.8%|
|74||Miscellaneous fruits (fresh)||$164,767,000||+24.2%|
|78||Transmission shafts, gears, clutches||$155,718,000||-9.4%|
|79||Coal tar oils (high temperature distillation)||$154,578,000||-0.9%|
|80||Soap; organic surface-active products and preparations for use as soap, in the form of bars, ...||$151,716,000||-8.1%|
|82||Taps, valves, similar appliances||$145,254,000||-8.8%|
|83||Fish fillets, pieces||$144,343,000||-0.9%|
|85||Uncoated kraft paper||$141,060,000||-17.2%|
|87||Whole fish (frozen)||$139,061,000||+6.9%|
|88||Chemical industry products/residuals||$138,900,000||+15.9%|
|89||Sauces, mixed condiments/seasonings||$136,493,000||+0.1%|
|91||Yachts, other pleasure/sports vessels||$133,965,000||-7.5%|
|92||Refined copper, unwrought alloys||$133,948,000||-48.7%|
|94||Iron or steel scrap||$132,951,000||-7.2%|
|95||Alcohol (including spirits, liqueurs)||$132,093,000||-16.8%|
|96||Iron or non-alloy steel bars, rods||$129,341,000||+1.8%|
|98||Interchangeable hand/machine tools||$128,262,000||+20.2%|
These 100 exported goods were worth a subtotal of US$72.6 billion or 80.5% by value for all products exported from South Africa during 2019.
In macroeconomic terms, South Africa’s total exported goods represent 11.2% of its overall Gross Domestic Product for 2019 ($809 billion valued in Purchasing Power Parity US dollars). That 11.2% for exports to overall GDP per PPP in 2019 compares to 12% one year earlier, seeming to indicate a slightly decreasing reliance on products sold on international markets for South Africa’s total economic performance.
Another key indicator of a country’s economic performance is its unemployment rate. South Africa’s unemployment rate is forecasted at an estimated 37%, up from an average 27.855% in 2019 according to the International Monetary Fund.
See also South Africa’s Top 10 Imports, Top South African Trading Partners and Top African Export Countries
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International Trade Centre, Trade Map. Accessed on November 16, 2020
Investopedia, Net Exports Definition. Accessed on November 16, 2020
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Wikipedia, Gross domestic product. Accessed on November 16, 2020
Wikipedia, Purchasing power parity. Accessed on November 16, 2020
Wikipedia, South Africa. Accessed on November 16, 2020