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$89.5 billion worth of goods around the globe in 2017. That dollar amount reflects a -5.9% drop since 2013 but a 20.8% gain from 2016 to 2017.

From January to August 2018, exported goods from South Africa were valued at $62.6 billion. This 8-month metric puts South African exports on track for an annualized $93.9 billion estimated for all 2018.

Based on estimates from the Central Intelligence Agency’s World Factbook, South Africa’s exported goods plus services represent 26.9% of total South African economic output or Gross Domestic Product. The analysis below focuses on exported products only.

From a continental perspective, 32% of South African exports by value are delivered to Asian importers while 26.3% are sold to fellow African countries. South Africa ships 23.9% worth to Europe with another 8% delivered to destinations in North America.

Given South Africa’s population of 54.8 million people, its total $89.5 billion in 2017 exports translates to roughly $1,600 for every resident in that country.

South Africa’s unemployment rate was 27.7% as of September 2017 compared to 25.5% in third quarter 2015, according to Trading Economics.

South Africa’s Top 10 Exports

Top 10

Overall South Africa posted a -$152.7 million trade deficit for 2017, reversing a $2.4 billion surplus one year earlier.

The following export product groups represent the highest dollar value in South African global shipments during 2017. Also shown is the percentage share each export category represents in terms of overall exports from South Africa.

  1. Gems, precious metals: US$14.9 billion (16.7% of total exports)
  2. Ores, slag, ash: $11.3 billion (12.6%)
  3. Mineral fuels including oil: $10.6 billion (11.8%)
  4. Vehicles: $9.8 billion (11%)
  5. Iron, steel: $6.1 billion (6.8%)
  6. Machinery including computers: $5.4 billion (6%)
  7. Fruits, nuts: $3.4 billion (3.8%)
  8. Electrical machinery, equipment: $1.8 billion (2%)
  9. Aluminum: $1.8 billion (2%)
  10. Beverages, spirits, vinegar: $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 (74.3%) of the overall value of its global shipments.

The fastest-growing top export categories from 2016 to 2017 were: mineral fuels including oil (up 49.4%), ores, slag and ash (up 47.9%) led by iron, manganese and chromium (up 47.9%) then gems and precious metals (up 24.7%) led by gold and imitation jewelry.

Only one top category declined, specifically South Africa’s electrical machinery and equipment which depreciated -1.4% in dollar value.


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 is 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$13.9 billion (Up by 24.3% since 2016)
  2. Ores, slag, ash: $11.2 billion (Up by 49.7%)
  3. Iron, steel: $5 billion (Up by 17.5%)
  4. Fruits, nuts: $3.3 billion (Up by 18.6%)
  5. Vehicles: $2.8 billion (Down by -18%)
  6. Aluminum: $1.1 billion (Up by 20.2%)
  7. Beverages, spirits, vinegar: $862.3 million (Up by 13.7%)
  8. Woodpulp: $843.2 million (Up by 15.6%)
  9. Vegetable/fruit/nut preparations: $402.9 million (Up by 8.5%)
  10. Wool: $399.6 million (Up by 32%)

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.


Overall South Africa posted a -$152.7 million trade deficit for 2017, reversing a $2.4 billion surplus one year earlier.

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. Electrical machinery, equipment: -US$6.7 billion (Up by 7% since 2016)
  2. Machinery including computers: -$5.6 billion (Up by 9.9%)
  3. Pharmaceuticals: -$1.8 billion (Up by 21.6%)
  4. Mineral fuels including oil: -$1.6 billion (Down by -44.1%)
  5. Optical, technical, medical apparatus: -$1.6 billion (Up by 10.4%)
  6. Plastics, plastic articles: -$1.2 billion (Up by 11.1%)
  7. Rubber, rubber articles: -$698.4 million (Up by 15.4%)
  8. Clothing, accessories (not knit or crochet): -$695.1 million (Up by 3.9%)
  9. Footwear: -$677.3 million (Down by -3.4%)
  10. Aircraft, spacecraft: -$636.3 million (Down by -5.7%)

South Africa has highly negative net exports and therefore deep international trade deficits for electronic equipment, particularly mobile phones and electricity generators.

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 2017. Shown beside each product label is its total export value then the percentage increase or decrease since 2016.

RankSouth African Export Product2017 Value (US$)Change
1Platinum (unwrought)$6.6 billion+9.1%
2Coal, solid fuels made from coal$5.74 billion+48.7%
3Cars$5.66 billion+7.3%
4Gold (unwrought)$4.98 billion+44.9%
5Iron ores, concentrates$4.8 billion+33.6%
6Iron ferroalloys$3.7 billion+6.6%
7Trucks$3 billion+7.4%
8Manganese ores, concentrates$2.5 billion+80.4%
9Processed petroleum oils$2.4 billion+17.5%
10Chromium ores, concentrates$2 billion+60.7%
11Diamonds (unmounted/unset)$1.9 billion-3.9%
12Centrifuges, filters and purifiers$1.6 billion-3.3%
13Fresh or dried citrus fruit$1.4 billion+20.1%
14Crude oil$1.3 billion+942.4%
15Aluminum (unwrought)$1 billion+30.3%
16Chemical woodpulp (dissolving)$778.4 million+6.7%
17Flat-rolled stainless steel items$751.5 million+20.9%
18Wine $716.9 million+8.4%
19Automobile parts/accessories$675.4 million+13%
20Electrical energy$645.1 million-7.2%
21Grapes (fresh or dried)$640.4 million+19.6%
22Titanium ores, concentrates$638.6 million+71.7%
23Apples, pears (fresh)$573.7 million+4.5%
24Corn$473.1 million+41.6%
25Precious metal waste, scrap$463.6 million+18.6%
26Aluminum plates, sheets, strips$440 million+6%
27Acyclic hydrocarbons$404.5 million+10.6%
28Machinery parts$386.7 million-6.1%
29Propylene/olefin polymers$386 million+4.5%
30Niobium/zirconium ores, concentrates$363.2 million+19.8%
31Wool (uncarded, uncombed)$353.8 million+30.1%
32Miscellaneous nuts$343.9 million+33.4%
33Sort/screen/washing machinery$342 million+14.9%
34Medication mixes in dosage$328.9 million+3.8%
35Initiators/accelerators, catalytic preps$322.4 million+54.8%
36Liquid pumps and elevators$314.8 million+25%
37Miscellaneous iron/steel items$303.1 million+34.5%
38Nickel (unwrought)$300.6 million+1.3%
39Miscellaneous iron and steel structures$299.1 million-8.1%
40Flat-rolled iron or non-alloy steel products (plated/coated)$289.6 million+17.8%
41Hot-rolled iron or non-alloy steel products$281.1 million+13.6%
42Precious metal ores, concentrates$277.8 million+15.5%
43Rubber tires (new)$277.4 million+9.8%
44Sugar (cane or beet)$274.5 million+96.8%
45Piston engine parts$264.7 million+4.2%
46Refined copper, unwrought alloys$263.6 million+37.8%
47Beauty/makeup/skin care preparations$253.1 million+10.5%
48Fruit and vegetable juices$252.3 million-1.1%
49Packaged insecticides/fungicides/herbicides$242.1 million+19.2%
50Petroleum jelly, mineral waxes$240.4 million+26.5%
51Granulated iron/steel slag$234.7 million+54.4%
52Mobile phones, other telephone sets$234.1 million-15.7%
53Fuel wood, wood chips, sawdust$225.9 million+9.6%
54Computers, optical readers$222.6 million+17%
55Acyclic alcohols$215 million+53.2%
56Aircraft parts$214.7 million-7.1%
57Nitrogenous fertilizers$212.4 million-1.6%
58Copper ores, concentrates$209.2 million+102.7%
59Sulphates, peroxosulphates$201.4 million+112.9%
60Ketones, quinones$201.2 million+69.9%
61Other food preparations$197.9 million+10.6%
62Miscellaneous preserved fruits$193.1 million+1.3%
63Piston engines$191.5 million+22.8%
64Pig iron$187.6 million+95.2%
65Plastic packing goods, lids, caps$183.7 million+13.9%
66Other organic cleaning preparations$180.9 million+13.2%
67Uncoated kraft paper$175.4 million-4.5%
68Alcohol (including spirits, liqueurs)$171.2 million+33.8%
69Insulated wire/cable$170.3 million-1.5%
70Special transportation containers$169 million+2.7%
71Soap, organic surface-active products$162.3 million+5.6%
72Heavy machinery (bulldozers, excavators, road rollers)$151.2 million-10.5%
73Non-alcoholic drinks (not water/juice/milk)$150.9 million-3.4%
74Transmission shafts, gears, clutches$150.8 million+5.0%
75Iron or non-alloy steel products (semi-finished)$150.6 million+236.5%
76Cigars/cigarellos, cigarettes$145.5 million+10.7%
77Taps, valves, similar appliances$143.7 million+1%
78Refrigerators, freezers$143.4 million+9.9%
79Ethyl alcohol$141.2 million+13%
80Unrefined copper$139.3 million+53.9%
81Chemical woodpulp (non-dissolving)$139.2 million+53.7%
82Jewelry$132.6 million+10.5%
83Miscellaneous animal feed preparations$132.1 million+1.4%
84Ethylene polymers$130.5 million+9%
85Tractors$130.5 million+4.6%
86Miscellaneous fruits (fresh)$130.4 million+29.9%
87Trailers$126.4 million+9.8%
88Sauce, perparations, mixed condiments$125.8 million-3.1%
89Apricots, cherries, peaches, nectarines, plums$125 million+4.1%
90Moluscs$123.4 million+7.7%
91Iron or steel scrap$123.1 million-4.8%
92Yachts, other pleasure/sports vessels$122 million+4.5%
93Seats (excluding barber/dentist chairs)$121.6 million-2.6%
94Lower-voltage switches, fuses$121.6 million+8.7%
95Coal tar oils (high temperature distillation)$120.4 million+54.1%
96Engines (diesel)$118.7 million+17.1%
97Lead ores, concentrates$117.9 million+48.2%
98Miscellaneous furniture$117.8 million+4.1%
99Whole fish (frozen)$116.4 million-3.1%
100Chemical industry products/residuals$114.9 million+14%
101Fish fillets, pieces$113.4 million-2.0%
102TV receivers/monitors/projectors$112.2 million-14.7%
103Plastic tubes, pipes, fittings$108.7 million+6.9%
104Aircraft, spacecraft$107.9 million-54.3%
105Electro-medical equip (e.g. xrays)$104.4 million+13.7%
106Industrial fatty acids and alcohols$103.4 million+10.8%
107Electrical converters/power units$101.7 million-8.7%
108Printing machinery$100.9 million+6.9%
109Interchangeable hand/machine tools$100.7 million+47%
110Fertilizer mixes$100 million+30.6%
111Armored vehicles, tanks$99.3 million-24.6%
112Miscellaneous machinery$98.8 million+21.6%
113Poultry meat$98.5 million+12.9%
114Miscellaneous iron or steel tubes, pipes$98.3 million+94.9%
115Aluminum tubes, pipes$97.2 million+19.6%
116Dates/figs/pineapples/mangoes/avocadoes/guavas$96.3 million+1.9%
117Miscellaneous plastic items$95.4 million+6.3%
118Copper bars, rods$95.1 million+79.4%
119Personal toilet/shaving preparations, deodorants$95 million+6.1%
120Sun/safflower/cotton-seed oil$95 million+2.5%
121Spray/dispersing mechanical appliances$93.7 million+24.5%
122Sanitary towels, baby napkins/liners$93.3 million+18.6%
123Electrical/optical circuit boards, panels$93 million+5.9%
124Hydrazine, inorganic salts$92.8 million+75.6%
125Carbides$92.1 million+22.1%
126Hydraulic cements$90.6 million+8.1%
127Iron or steel tubes, pipes$90.5 million+97%
128Fresh or chilled beef$89.5 million+22.8%
129Paper containers, cellulose wadding$88.4 million+0.6%
130Phosphoric/polyphosphoric acids$87.7 million+7%
131Aluminum waste, scrap$86.7 million+12.2%
132Sugar confectionery (no cocoa)$86.3 million+10.1%
133Wool$84.3 million+21.4%
134Cereal groats, meal, pellets$83.6 million-17.3%
135Phosphates, polyphosphates$83.3 million+10.3%
136Bread, biscuits, cakes, pastries$82 million+16.6%
137Bovine/equine leather$81.5 million-0.03%
138Iron or non-alloy steel angles, shapes, sections$80.4 million+19.8%
139Flours, meals, pellets$78.6 million-29.5%
140Unsaturated acyclic mono acids$78.1 million+21.8%
141Solar power diodes/semi-conductors$77.7 million-26.3%
142Other measuring/testing machines$77.6 million-5.5%
143Iron or non-alloy steel bars, rods$77.5 million+5.5%
144Prepared cereal foods$76.1 million+5.1%
145Iron and steel screws, bolts, nuts, washers$75.4 million+17%
146Other diagnostic/lab reagents$75.2 million+24.9%
147Chocolate, other cocoa preparations$75 million+31.3%
148Pipe/chewing/snuff tobaccos$75 million+17.2%
149Locust beans$74.9 million+38.5%
150Uncoated paper for writing/printing$74.7 million+11.6%
151Concentrated/sweetened milk, cream$74.7 million+57%
152Crustaceans (including lobsters)$72.1 million+6.1%
153Flour/meal/starch/malt extract food preparations$71.9 million+25.2%
154Air or vacuum pumps$71.6 million+2.9%
155Radioactive chemical elements$70.8 million-12.1%
156Electric motors, generators$70.7 million+1%
157Air conditioners$70.2 million+22.4%
158Iron or steel pipe fittings$69.9 million+16.1%
159Zinc ores, concentrates$69.7 million+84.4%
160Iron/steel or pig iron granules, powders$69.7 million+316.3%
161Unrecorded sound media$69.4 million+17%
162Electric water heaters, hair dryers$69.1 million+4.1%
163Cold-rolled iron or non-alloy steel products$68.5 million+32.1%
164Iron/non-alloy steel bars, rods in coils$67.4 million+149.2%
165Soups, broths, food preparations$67.1 million+37.2%
166Miscellaneous electrical machines$66.1 million+0.2%
167Rice$65.8 million-14.1%
168Men's suits, trousers (not knit or crochet)$64.1 million+12.9%
169Safety/detaining fuses, caps$63.8 million+47.5%
170Other animal leather$63.4 million+42.5%
171Gas turbines, turbojets, turbopropellers$63.3 million-24.1%
172Manganese$63.3 million+0.5%
173TV/radio/radar device parts$63 million-10.2%
174Other fermented beverages$62.8 million+8.7%
175Malt beer$62.7 million+10.1%
176Hair preparations$62.4 million+8.4%
177Petroleum gases$61.9 million+41.4%
178Other prepared/preserved vegetables (non-frozen)$60.9 million+19.4%
179Non-cellular plastics plates, sheets, film$60.7 million+9%
180Precious metal compounds$60.3 million+136.3%
181Sowing seeds, fruits, spores$59.2 million+13.5%
182Gingers, saffron, turmeric, thyme, other spices$58.6 million+17.2%
183Wood carpentry, builders' joinery$57.2 million+2.4%
184Scents used for beverage or industrial manufacturing$57.2 million-6.4%
185Rough wood$56.4 million+21.5%
186Paintings, drawings$55.9 million+21.2%
187Not concentrated/unsweetened milk, cream$55.3 million+11.7%
188Saturated acyclic mono acids$55.2 million+37.8%
189Sheep/lamb rawhides, skins$55.1 million-0.4%
190Potatoes$54.9 million+15.3%
191Lamps, lighting, illuminated signs$54.6 million-1.9%
192Frozen beef$54.4 million-15.7%
193Industrial preparating machinery$54.3 million+2.8%
194Tanning extracts (vegetable)$54.2 million-1.8%
195Iron and steel stranded wire, cables (insulated)$54.1 million-2.8%
196Miscellaneous engines, motors$54 million+25.2%
197Warships, lifeboats$53 million+326.2%
198Vermiculite, perlite$52.8 million+10.7%
199Electric storage batteries$52.7 million+17.3%
200Feldspar, leucite, nepheline, fluorspar$52.6 million+73.4%

These 200 exported goods were worth a subtotal of US$77.6 billion or 87.9% by value for all products exported from South Africa during 2017.

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

Research Sources:
Forbes 2015 Global 2000 rankings, The World’s Biggest Public Companies. Accessed on August 1, 2018

International Monetary Fund, World Economic Outlook Database (GDP based on Purchasing Power Parity). Accessed on August 1, 2018

The World Factbook, Field Listing: Exports and World Population, Central Intelligence Agency. Accessed on August 1, 2018

Trade Map, International Trade Centre, Trade statistics for international business development. Accessed on August 1, 2018

Wikipedia, South Africa. Accessed on August 1, 2018