Formerly called Zuid-Afrika, South Africa continues to cope with 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$90.2 billion worth of products around the globe in 2019. Down -4.4% since 2018, that dollar figure represents roughly one half of one percent of all global exports estimated at $19.285 trillion for 2018.
Applying a continental lens, 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.
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 2019. Also shown is each import country’s percentage of total South African exports.
- China: US$9.6 billion (10.7% of total South Africa exports)
- Germany: $7.5 billion (8.3%)
- United States: $6.3 billion (7%)
- United Kingdom: $4.7 billion (5.2%)
- Japan: $4.3 billion (4.8%)
- India: $4.1 billion (4.6%)
- Botswana: $4.1 billion (4.5%)
- Mozambique: $3.7 billion (4.1%)
- Namibia: $3.6 billion (4%)
- Netherlands: $2.9 billion (3.2%)
- Belgium: $2.7 billion (3%)
- Zambia: $2.1 billion (2.3%)
- Zimbabwe: $2 billion (2.2%)
- United Arab Emirates: $1.6 billion (1.8%)
- South Korea: $1.5 billion (1.7%)
Roughly two-thirds (67.3%) of South African exports in 2019 were delivered to the above 15 trade partners.
From the above list, the fastest-growing importing countries from 2018 to 2019 were Mozambique (up 13%), Belgium (up 12.1%), China (up 11.2%) then Germany (up 4.8%).
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$6.7 billion (country-specific trade deficit in 2019)
- Saudi Arabia: -$3.2 billion
- Nigeria: -$3.1 billion
- Thailand: -$2.1 billion
- Italy: -$1.5 billion
- Germany: -$1.3 billion
- France: -$1.3 billion
- Oman: -$873.9 million
- Sweden: -$837.3 million
- Poland: -$776.1 million
Among South Africa’s trading partners that cause the greatest negative trade balances, only South African deficits with Sweden (up 8.9%) and Poland (up 5.3%) grew from 2018 to 2019.
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 $2.1 billion trade surplus for 2019, up by 112.1% from the $997.6 million 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 2019)
- Mozambique: $2.8 billion
- Namibia: $2.7 billion
- Zambia: $1.9 billion
- United Kingdom: $1.9 billion
- Belgium: $1.8 billion
- Zimbabwe: $1.8 billion
- Netherlands: $1.8 billion
- Japan: $1.5 billion
- Hong Kong: $1.2 billion
Among South Africa’s trading partners that generate the greatest positive trade balances, South African surpluses with Belgium (up 29.2%), United Kingdom (up 25.4%) and Mozambique (up 21.7%) grew at the fastest pace from 2018 to 2019.
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 6, 2020
Forbes Global 2000 rankings, The World’s Biggest Public Companies. Accessed on February 6, 2020
International Monetary Fund, Exchange Rates selected indicators (National Currency per U.S. dollar, period average). Accessed on February 6, 2020
International Monetary Fund, World Economic Outlook Database (GDP based on Purchasing Power Parity). Accessed on February 6, 2020
International Trade Centre, Trade Map. Accessed on February 6, 2020
Investopedia, Net Exports Definition. Accessed on February 6, 2020
Richest Country Reports, Key Statistics Powering Global Wealth. Accessed on February 6, 2020
Wikipedia, Gross domestic product. Accessed on February 6, 2020
Wikipedia, Purchasing power parity. Accessed on February 6, 2020
Wikipedia, South Africa. Accessed on February 6, 2020