Formerly called Zuid-Afrika, South Africa continues to cope with international trade challenges related to its geographic distances from South African trading partners like China, Germany and the United States.
Overall, South Africa shipped US$86.1 billion worth of goods around the globe in 2020. That dollar amount reflects a 12.4% gain since 2016 but a -4.8% decline from 2019 to 2020. That dollar figure also represents roughly one half of one percent of all global exports estimated at $18.709 trillion one year earlier in 2019.
Applying a continental lens, some 33.8% of South African exports by value were delivered to importers in Asia while 28.6% were sold to European countries. South Africa shipped another 25.2% worth of its goods to fellow African nations.
Smaller percentages arrived in North America (9.7%), Oceania (1.1%) led by Australia, and Latin America (0.9%) excluding Mexico but including the Caribbean.
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 2020. Also shown is each import country’s percentage of total South African exports.
- China: US$9.8 billion (11.4% of total South African exports)
- United States: $7.2 billion (8.3%)
- Germany: $7.1 billion (8.2%)
- United Kingdom: $4.2 billion (4.9%)
- Japan: $3.8 billion (4.4%)
- Netherlands: $3.3 billion (3.8%)
- Botswana: $3.3 billion (3.8%)
- India: $3.3 billion (3.8%)
- Mozambique: $3.1 billion (3.6%)
- Namibia: $2.7 billion (3.1%)
- Belgium: $2.4 billion (2.8%)
- Zimbabwe: $2.2 billion (2.6%)
- Zambia: $1.7 billion (2%)
- United Arab Emirates: $1.5 billion (1.8%)
Two-thirds (66.3%) of South African exports in 2020 were delivered to the above 15 trade partners.
From the above list, the fastest-growth importing countries from 2019 to 2020 were the United States tied with Netherlands (both up 13.8%) trailed by Zimbabwe (up 12.2%).
Leading the decliners year over year were India (down -20.6%), Botswana (down -19.6%), Zambia (down -19.1%) and Mozambique (down -16.2%).
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$4.5 billion (country-specific trade deficit in 2020)
- Saudi Arabia: -$2.3 billion
- Nigeria: -$1.8 billion
- Thailand: -$1.8 billion
- Italy: -$1.1 billion
- France: -$1 billion
- Brazil: -$769.5 million
- Poland: -$656.7 million
- Oman: -$628.8 million
- Sweden: -$587.8 million
Among South Africa’s trading partners that cause the greatest negative trade balances, South African deficits with Brazil (up 1.3%) experienced the lone increase from 2019 to 2020.
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 $17.1 billion trade surplus for 2020, up by 677.9% from the $2.2 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$2.9 billion (country-specific trade surplus in 2020)
- United States: $2.7 billion
- United Kingdom: $2.5 billion
- Mozambique: $2.4 billion
- Netherlands: $2.4 billion
- Zimbabwe: $2.1 billion
- Namibia: $1.9 billion
- Japan: $1.9 billion
- Zambia: $1.6 billion
- Belgium: $1.5 billion
Among South Africa’s trading partners that generate the greatest positive trade balances, South African surpluses with the United States (up 456.7%), United Kingdom (up 36.3%) and Netherlands (up 31.3%) grew at the fastest pace from 2019 to 2020.
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
Central Intelligence Agency, The World Factbook: Country Profiles. Accessed on February 18, 2021
Forbes Global 2000 rankings, The World’s Biggest Public Companies. Accessed on February 18, 2021
International Monetary Fund, Exchange Rates selected indicators (National Currency per U.S. dollar, period average). Accessed on February 18, 2021
International Monetary Fund, World Economic Outlook Database (GDP based on Purchasing Power Parity). Accessed on February 18, 2021
International Trade Centre, Trade Map. Accessed on February 18, 2021
Investopedia, Net Exports Definition. Accessed on February 18, 2021
Richest Country Reports, Key Statistics Powering Global Wealth. Accessed on February 18, 2021
Wikipedia, Gross domestic product. Accessed on February 18, 2021
Wikipedia, Purchasing power parity. Accessed on February 18, 2021
Wikipedia, South Africa. Accessed on February 18, 2021