South Africa’s Top 10 Exports

South Africa's Top 10 Exports


The African continent’s southernmost country, the Republic of South Africa shipped US$94.4 billion worth of goods around the globe in 2018. That dollar amount reflects a 2% gain since 2014 and a 7% uptick from 2017 to 2018.

From a continental perspective, 31.3% of South African exports by value are delivered to Asian importers while 26.5% are sold to fellow African countries. South Africa ships another 25.4% worth of its goods to Europe. Smaller percentages arrive in North America (7.4%), Latin America (1.1%) excluding Mexico but including the Caribbean, and Oceania (also 1.1%) led by Australia.

Given South Africa’s population of 55.4 million people, its total $94.4 billion in 2018 exports translates to roughly $1,700 for every resident in the relatively wealthy African nation.

In macroeconomic terms, South Africa’s total exported goods represent 12% of its overall Gross Domestic Product for 2018 ($789.4 billion valued in Purchasing Power Parity US dollars). That 12% for exports to overall GDP per PPP in 2018 compares to 13.2% for 2014, seeming to indicate a relatively decreasing reliance on products sold on international markets for South Africa’s total economic performance. And while this article focuses on exported goods, it is interesting to note that South Africa also provided $16 billion worth of exports-related services to global customers for an additional 2% of GDP in PPP.

Another key indicator of a country’s economic performance is its unemployment rate. South Africa’s unemployment rate was 27.6% as of March 2019 compared to 26.7% in January 2018, according to Trading Economics.

South Africa’s Top 10 Exports

Top 10

The following export product groups represent the highest dollar value in South African global shipments during 2018. Also shown is the percentage share each export category represents in terms of overall exports from South Africa.

  1. Gems, precious metals: US$16.6 billion (17.5% of total exports)
  2. Ores, slag, ash: $11.8 billion (12.5%)
  3. Vehicles: $10.8 billion (11.4%)
  4. Mineral fuels including oil: $10 billion (10.6%)
  5. Iron, steel: $6.3 billion (6.7%)
  6. Machinery including computers: $5.8 billion (6.2%)
  7. Fruits, nuts: $3.7 billion (3.9%)
  8. Aluminum: $2 billion (2.2%)
  9. Electrical machinery, equipment: $1.8 billion (1.9%)
  10. Plastics, plastic articles: $1.4 billion (1.5%)

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.

South Africa’s top 10 exports accounted for three-quarters (74.4%) of the overall value of its global shipments.

The fastest-growing top export categories from 2017 to 2018 were: gems and precious metals (up 17.4%), aluminum (up 12.5%), plastics including plastic items (up 10.6%) then South African exported vehicles (up 10.4%).

Only one top category declined in 2018, specifically South Africa’s mineral fuels including oil which slipped -5.1% in dollar value compared to 2017.


Overall South Africa posted a $997.6 million trade surplus for 2018, down by -88% from the $5.2 billion 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.

  1. Gems, precious metals: US$16.6 billion (17.5% of total exports)
  2. Ores, slag, ash: $11.8 billion (12.5%)
  3. Vehicles: $10.8 billion (11.4%)
  4. Mineral fuels including oil: $10 billion (10.6%)
  5. Iron, steel: $6.3 billion (6.7%)
  6. Machinery including computers: $5.8 billion (6.2%)
  7. Fruits, nuts: $3.7 billion (3.9%)
  8. Aluminum: $2 billion (2.2%)
  9. Electrical machinery, equipment: $1.8 billion (1.9%)
  10. Plastics, plastic articles: $1.4 billion (1.5%)

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.

  1. Mineral fuels including oil: -US$7 billion (Up by 315.4% since 2017)
  2. Electrical machinery, equipment: -$6.8 billion (Up by 1.8%)
  3. Machinery including computers: -$5.7 billion (Up by 1.6%)
  4. Pharmaceuticals: -$2.1 billion (Up by 16%)
  5. Optical, technical, medical apparatus: -$1.7 billion (Up by 9.2%)
  6. Plastics, plastic articles: -$1.4 billion (Up by 18.3%)
  7. Books, newspapers, pictures: -$1.3 billion (Up by 252.2%)
  8. Rubber, rubber articles: -$836.9 million (Up by 19.9%)
  9. Clothing, accessories (not knit or crochet): -$804.4 million (Up by 15.5%)
  10. Footwear: -$755.8 million (Up by 11.7%)

South Africa has highly negative net exports and therefore deep international trade deficits for crude oil well ahead of the red ink for refined petroleum oils, gases and coke or semi-coke.

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

At the more granular four-digit HTS code level, South Africa’s top export products are platinum followed by coal, cars then gold.

The following searchable table displays 200 of the most in-demand goods shipped from South Africa during 2018. Shown beside each product label is its total export value then the percentage increase or decrease since 2017.

RankSouth African Export2018 Value (US$)Change
1Platinum (unwrought)$7.8 billion+18.3%
2Coal, solid fuels made from coal$6.2 billion+8.6%
3Cars$6.1 billion+7.9%
4Gold (unwrought)$5.5 billion+9.8%
5Iron ores, concentrates$4.2 billion-11.7%
6Iron ferroalloys$3.8 billion+1%
7Manganese ores, concentrates$3.6 billion+42.7%
8Trucks$3.5 billion+17.4%
9Processed petroleum oils$2.7 billion+10.9%
10Diamonds (unmounted/unset)$2.1 billion+12.4%
11Chromium ores, concentrates$1.9 billion-6.3%
12Centrifuges, filters and purifiers$1.7 billion+6.4%
13Fresh or dried citrus fruit$1.5 billion+6.2%
14Aluminum (unwrought)$1.1 billion+8%
15Wine $783.4 million+9.3%
16Chemical woodpulp (dissolving)$754.5 million-3.1%
17Grapes (fresh or dried)$720.4 million+12.5%
18Flat-rolled stainless steel items$694 million-7.7%
19Automobile parts/accessories$690.4 million+2.2%
20Apples, pears (fresh)$592.4 million+3.3%
21Titanium ores, concentrates$587.1 million-8.1%
22Electrical energy$574.2 million-11%
23Aluminum plates, sheets, strips$545.8 million+24%
24Niobium/zirconium ores, concentrates$491.6 million+35.3%
25Hot-rolled iron or non-alloy steel products$469.7 million+67.1%
26Precious metal waste, scrap$462.3 million-0.3%
27Corn$452.2 million-4.4%
28Machinery parts$436 million+12.8%
29Coins$433.4 million+3213.3%
30Wool (uncarded, uncombed)$398 million+12.5%
31Propylene/olefin polymers$397 million+2.9%
32Acyclic hydrocarbons$395.6 million-2.2%
33Sort/screen/washing machinery$384 million+12.3%
34Miscellaneous nuts$382 million+11.1%
35Precious metal ores, concentrates$381.8 million+37.4%
36Nickel (unwrought)$379.9 million+26.4%
37Sugar (cane or beet)$376.5 million+37.2%
38Miscellaneous iron and steel structures$373.7 million+24.9%
39Liquid pumps and elevators$352.5 million+12%
40Medication mixes in dosage$318.5 million-3.2%
41Fruit and vegetable juices$313.6 million+24.3%
42Initiators/accelerators, catalytic preps$303 million-6%
43Piston engine parts$292.9 million+10.7%
44Unrefined copper$283.1 million+103.3%
45Beauty/makeup/skin care preparations$282.1 million+11.4%
46Sulphates, alums, peroxosulphates$274.5 million+36.3%
47Flat-rolled iron or non-alloy steel products (plated/coated)$270 million-6.8%
48Packaged insecticides/fungicides/herbicides$266 million+9.9%
49Rubber tires (new)$266 million-4.1%
50Hydrazine, inorganic salts$263.8 million+184.2%
51Refined copper, unwrought alloys$260.9 million-1%
52Miscellaneous iron or steel items$253.8 million-16.3%
53Granulated slag sand$244.7 million+4.3%
54Heavy machinery (bulldozers, excavators, road rollers)$239.4 million+58.4%
55Pig iron$236.6 million+26.1%
56Fuel wood, wood chips, sawdust$225.2 million-0.3%
57Phone system devices $223.5 million-4.5%
58Nitrogenous fertilizers$222.1 million+4.6%
59Jewelry$213.4 million+60.9%
60Miscellaneous animal feed preparations$212.6 million+61%
61Copper ores, concentrates$207.2 million-1%
62Petroleum jelly, mineral waxes$205.4 million-14.6%
63Other organic cleaning preparations$204.4 million+13%
64Plastic packing goods, lids, caps$204.2 million+11.2%
65Miscellaneous preserved fruits$199.1 million+3.1%
66Carbides$198.7 million+115.8%
67Acyclic alcohols$198.5 million-7.7%
68Aircraft parts$198 million-7.8%
69Computers, optical readers$195.5 million-12.2%
70Insulated wire/cable$193.2 million+13.4%
71Ketones, quinones$187.7 million-6.7%
72Other food preparations$183.1 million-7.5%
73Transmission shafts, gears, clutches$171.9 million+13.9%
74Moluscs$171.4 million+38.9%
75Uncoated kraft paper$170.3 million-2.9%
76Organic surface-active goods, soap$165 million+1.7%
77Trailers$162.6 million+28.6%
78Taps, valves, similar appliances$159.3 million+10.8%
79Alcohol (including spirits, liqueurs)$158.9 million-7.2%
80Transport containers$157.1 million-7%
81Coal tar oils (high temperature distillation)$156 million+29.6%
82Ethyl alcohol$155.7 million+10.3%
83Refrigerators, freezers$155.3 million+8.2%
84Tractors$154.6 million+18.4%
85Non-alcoholic drinks (not water/juice/milk)$152.1 million+0.8%
86Iron or non-alloy steel products (semi-finished)$151.9 million+0.9%
87Dates/figs/pineapples/mangoes/avocadoes/guavas$148.5 million+54.1%
88Fish fillets, pieces$145.6 million+28.4%
89Yachts, other pleasure/sports vessels$144.9 million+18.7%
90Iron or steel scrap$143.3 million+16.4%
91Chemical woodpulp (non-dissolving)$143.2 million+2.8%
92Aircraft, spacecraft$141.2 million+30.9%
93Polyacetal/ether/carbonates$138.5 million+240.2%
94Sauces, mixed condiments, seasonings$136.4 million+8.5%
95Cigars/cigarellos, cigarettes$133.7 million-8.1%
96TV receivers/monitors/projectors$133.1 million+18.7%
97Miscellaneous fruits (fresh)$132.7 million+1.7%
98Piston engines$130.9 million-31.6%
99Apricots, cherries, peaches, nectarines, plums$130.8 million+4.6%
100Whole fish (frozen)$130 million+11.8%
101Phosphoric/polyphosphoric acids$129 million+47.2%
102Iron or non-alloy steel bars, rods$127 million+63.9%
103Iron or steel tubes, pipes$126.4 million+39.8%
104Seats (excluding barber/dentist chairs)$126 million+3.5%
105Lower-voltage switches, fuses$121.3 million-0.3%
106Miscellaneous machinery$120.9 million+22.3%
107Plastic tubes, pipes, fittings$120.8 million+11.1%
108Chemical industry products/residuals$119.9 million+4.3%
109Printing machinery$118.9 million+17.8%
110Miscellaneous furniture$114.8 million-2.5%
111Engines (diesel)$113.1 million-4.7%
112Iron or non-alloy steel angles, shapes, sections$107.7 million+33.9%
113Aluminum tubes, pipes$107.6 million+10.7%
114Interchangeable hand/machine tools$106.7 million+6%
115Spray/dispersing mechanical appliances$106 million+13.1%
116Aluminum waste, scrap$105.7 million+22%
117Electrical converters/power units$104 million+2.2%
118Electro-medical equip (e.g. xrays)$103.1 million-1.2%
119Miscellaneous iron or steel tubes, pipes$102.3 million+4.1%
120Industrial fatty acids and alcohols$102.2 million-1.1%
121Hydraulic cements$102.2 million+12.7%
122Miscellaneous plastic items$101.9 million+6.8%
123Electrical/optical circuit boards, panels$100.8 million+8.3%
124Paper containers, cellulose wadding$99.6 million+12.6%
125Uncoated paper for writing/printing$98.8 million+32.3%
126Personal toilet/shaving preparations, deodorants$97.9 million+3.1%
127Sanitary towels, baby napkins/liners$97.5 million+4.4%
128Inedible meat flour$97.1 million+23.5%
129Hydrogen, rare gases$95 million+232.6%
130Ethylene polymers$93.8 million-28.1%
131Non-sublimed sulphur$93.1 million+78.6%
132Feldspar, leucite, nepheline$91.2 million+73.5%
133Unsaturated acyclic mono acids$90.4 million+15.8%
134Bread, biscuits, cakes, pastries$87 million+6%
135Iron or steel pipe fittings$86.7 million+23.9%
136Locust beans$86.1 million+15%
137Flour/meal/starch/malt extract food preparations$85.8 million+19.4%
138Poultry meat$84 million-14.7%
139Iron and steel screws, bolts, nuts, washers$83.8 million+11.2%
140Armored vehicles, tanks$83.2 million-16.2%
141Phosphates, polyphosphates$82.9 million-0.4%
142Lead ores, concentrates$80.9 million-31.4%
143Fertilizer mixes$80.6 million-19.5%
144Malt beer$79.6 million+27%
145Soups, broths, other food preparations$78.1 million+16.4%
146Sun/safflower/cotton-seed oil$77.6 million-18.3%
147Rough wood$77.1 million+36.5%
148Other animal leather$75.9 million+19.8%
149Plastic plates, sheets, film, tape, strips$75.8 million+24.9%
150Petroleum gases$75.1 million+21.3%
151Sugar confectionery (no cocoa)$74.8 million-13.3%
152Roasted cereal prepared foods$74.7 million-1.8%
153Electrical machinery$74.2 million+12.3%
154Fresh or chilled beef$73.5 million-17.9%
155Air or vacuum pumps$73.4 million+2.5%
156Rice$72.4 million+10%
157Chocolate, other cocoa preparations$71.6 million-4.5%
158Crustaceans (including lobsters)$70.9 million-1.6%
159Derricks, cranes$70.5 million+114.9%
160Coiled iron or non-alloy steel bars, rods$70.1 million+4%
161Other fermented beverages$69.7 million+11%
162Electric motors, generators$69.4 million-1.9%
163Copper bars, rods$68.7 million-27.7%
164Cold-rolled iron or non-alloy steel products$68.5 million0%
165Computer parts, accessories$68.4 million+41.1%
166Manganese$68.3 million+8%
167Lamps, lighting, illuminated signs$68.2 million+24.8%
168Iron and steel stranded wire, cables (insulated)$67.8 million+25.3%
169Electric water heaters, hair dryers$67.7 million-1.9%
170TV/radio/radar device parts$67.7 million+7.5%
171Cobalt$66.6 million+93.3%
172Unrecorded sound media$65.9 million-5%
173Miscellaneous engines, motors$65.8 million+21.9%
174Wool, animal hair$65.7 million-22%
175Frozen beef$65.7 million+20.9%
176Ginger, saffron, thyme, curry, other spices$65.2 million+11.2%
177Concentrated/sweetened milk, cream$65.1 million-12.8%
178Bovine/equine leather$64.1 million-21.3%
179Hair preparations$64 million+2.5%
180Air conditioners$63.4 million-9.7%
181Other diagnostic/lab reagents$63.4 million-15.8%
182Wood carpentry, builders' joinery$63.1 million+10.4%
183Other measuring/testing machines$63.1 million-18.7%
184Iron or non-alloy steel wire$62.9 million+25.9%
185Men's suits, trousers (not knit or crochet)$62.6 million-2.3%
186Industrial preparation machinery$62.1 million+14.2%
187Scents used for beverage or industrial manufacturing$61.6 million+7.8%
188Safety/detonation fuses, detonation caps$61.6 million-3.4%
189Pipe/chewing/snuff tobaccos$61.1 million-18.5%
190Electric storage batteries$61.1 million+16%
191Temperature-change machines$60.9 million+29.5%
192Cereal groats, meals, pellets$60.7 million-27.3%
193Move/grade/scrape/boring machinery$60.7 million+44.3%
194Other prepared/preserved vegetables (non-frozen)$60.5 million-0.6%
195Glass bottles, flasks, jars, pots, other containers$60.5 million+31.5%
196Ceramic wares for technical uses$59.7 million+63.1%
197Printed books, brochures$59.6 million+28%
198Sowing seeds, fruits, spores$58.8 million-0.7%
199Vermiculite, perlite, other mineral substances$57.4 million+8.7%
200Soya-bean oil$56.1 million+11%

These 200 exported goods were worth a subtotal of US$83.7 billion or 88.6% by value for all products exported from South Africa during 2018.

See also South Africa’s Top 10 Imports, Top South African Trading Partners and Top African Export Countries

Research Sources:
Forbes Global 2000 rankings, The World’s Biggest Public Companies. Accessed on February 3, 2019

International Monetary Fund, World Economic Outlook Database (GDP based on Purchasing Power Parity). Accessed on June 27, 2019

The World Factbook, Field Listing: Exports and World Population, Central Intelligence Agency. Accessed on February 3, 2019

Trade Map, International Trade Centre, Trade statistics for international business development. Accessed on June 27, 2019

Wikipedia, Gross domestic product. Accessed on June 27, 2019

Wikipedia, Purchasing power parity. Accessed on June 27, 2019

Wikipedia, South Africa. Accessed on February 3, 2019

World’s Richest Countries, Targeted research > Enriching insights > Global opportunities (GDP based on Purchasing Power Parity). Accessed on June 27, 2019