Formerly called Zuid-Afrika, South Africa continues to battle international trade constraints presented by its geographic location notably in relation to distant South African trading partners like China, Germany and the United States.
Overall, South Africa shipped US$94.4 billion worth of products around the globe in 2018. Up 7% since 2017, that dollar figure represents roughly one half of one percent of all global exports estimated at $17.546 trillion for 2017 as calculated on February 3, 2019.
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 25.4% worth of its goods to Europe.
Smaller percentages were delivered to North America (7.4%), Latin America (1.1%) excluding Mexico but including the Caribbean, plus Oceania (also 1.1%) led by Australia.
South Africa’s Top Trading Partners
Below is a list showcasing 15 of South Africa’s top trading partners in terms of its export sales. That is, countries that imported the most South African shipments by dollar value during 2018. Also shown is each import country’s percentage of total South African exports.
- China: US$8.7 billion (9.2% of South Africa’s total exports)
- Germany: $7.1 billion (7.5%)
- United States: $6.4 billion (6.8%)
- United Kingdom: $4.8 billion (5.1%)
- Japan: $4.5 billion (4.7%)
- India: $4.5 billion (4.7%)
- Botswana: $4.1 billion (4.3%)
- Namibia: $3.6 billion (3.8%)
- Mozambique: $3.3 billion (3.4%)
- Netherlands: $3.1 billion (3.3%)
- Belgium: $2.4 billion (2.6%)
- Zambia: $2.4 billion (2.6%)
- Zimbabwe: $2.3 billion (2.5%)
- South Korea: $1.9 billion (2%)
- United Arab Emirates: $1.8 billion (1.9%)
Almost two-thirds (64.4%) of South African exports in 2018 were delivered to the above 15 trade partners.
From the above list, the fastest-growing importing countries from 2017 to 2018 were the United Kingdom (up 37.5%), Germany (up 22.4%), Mozambique (up 12.6%), the Netherlands (up 12.2%) then Zimbabwe (up 12%).
As defined by Investopedia, a country whose total value of all imported goods is higher than its value of all exports is said to have a negative trade balance or deficit.
It would be unrealistic for any exporting nation to expect across-the-board positive trade balances with all its importing partners. Similarly, that export country doesn’t necessarily post a negative trade balance with each individual partner with which it exchanges exports and imports.
South Africa incurred the highest trade deficits with the following countries:
- China: -US$8.5 billion (country-specific trade deficit in 2018)
- Saudi Arabia: -$5 billion
- Nigeria: -$3.4 billion
- Thailand: -$2.3 billion
- Germany: -$2.1 billion
- Italy: -$1.6 billion
- France: -$1.3 billion
- Oman: -$1.1 billion
- Brazil: -$1 billion
- Sweden: -$768.8 million
Among South Africa’s trading partners that cause the greatest negative trade balances, South African deficits with Nigeria (up 161.1%), Oman (up 94.8%) and Saudi Arabia (up 41.6%) grew at the fastest pace from 2017 to 2018.
These cashflow deficiencies clearly indicate South Africa’s competitive disadvantages with the above countries, but also represent key opportunities for South Africa to develop country-specific strategies to strengthen its overall position in international trade.
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.
Based on Investopedia’s definition of net importer, a country whose total value of all imported goods is lower than its value of all exports is said to have a positive trade balance or surplus.
South Africa incurred the highest trade surpluses with the following countries:
- Botswana: US$3.6 billion (country-specific trade surplus in 2018)
- Namibia: $2.5 billion
- Mozambique: $2.3 billion
- Zambia: $2.2 billion
- Zimbabwe: $2.1 billion
- Netherlands: $2 billion
- Japan: $1.6 billion
- United Kingdom: $1.5 billion
- Belgium: $1.4 billion
- Democratic Republic of Congo: $1.2 billion
Among South Africa’s trading partners that generate the greatest positive trade balances, South African surpluses with Democratic Republic of Congo (up 59.1%), United Kingdom (up 50.8%) and Netherlands (up 27.2%) grew at the fastest pace from 2017 to 2018.
These positive cashflow streams clearly indicate South Africa’s competitive advantages with the above countries, but also represent key opportunities for South Africa to develop country-specific strategies to optimize its overall position in international trade.
Companies Servicing South African Import Partners
South African Export Companies
Fifteen South African corporations rank among Forbes Global 2000. Below is a sample of the major South African companies that Forbes included:
- Sasol (diversified chemicals)
- MTN Group (telecommunications)
- Steinhoff International (furniture)
- Naspers (broadcasting, cable)
- Bidvest Group (industrials conglomerate)
- Aspen Pharmacare Holdings (pharmaceuticals)
- Remgro (industrials conglomerate)
See also South Africa’s Top 10 Imports, South Africa’s Top 10 Exports and Top African Export Countries
The World Factbook, Field Listing: Imports – Commodities, Central Intelligence Agency. Accessed on February 3, 2019
Trade Map, International Trade Centre, www.intracen.org/marketanalysis. Accessed on February 3, 2019
Investopedia, Net Importer Definition. Accessed on February 3, 2019
Forbes 2015 Global 2000 rankings, The World’s Biggest Public Companies. Accessed on February 17, 2016