Based on the average exchange rate for 2021, the South African rand strengthened by 3.8% against the US dollar since 2017 and appreciated by 6.7% from 2020 to 2021. South Africa’s stronger local currency makes its exports paid for in weaker US dollars relatively more expensive for international buyers.
South Africa’s biggest export products by value in 2021 were platinum, iron, gold, coal and cars. In aggregate, those major exports accounted for 42.2% of overall exports sales from South Africa. That relatively high percentage suggests a concentrated set of exported goods.
South Africa places number one for exporting platinum, ranks among world-leading export nations for iron, and is a major competitor selling coal on international markets.
The latest available country-specific data shows that 65.5% of products exported from South Africa were bought by importers in: China (11.2% of the global total), United States of America (10.6%), Germany (8.5%), Japan (6.7%), United Kingdom (6.6%), Botswana (3.5%), Mozambique (3.5%), India (3.4%), Netherlands (3.4%), Belgium (2.9%), Namibia (2.8%) and Zimbabwe (2.4%).
From a continental perspective, 34.6% of South Africa exports by value were delivered to Asian countries while 29.2% were sold to importers in Europe. South Africa shipped another 22.6% worth of goods to Africa with 11.9% going to North America (11.9%).
Smaller percentages are attributable to importers in Latin America (0.9%) excluding Mexico but including the Caribbean, and Oceania (0.8%) led by Australia.
Given South Africa’s population of 60.5 million people, its total $123.8 billion in 2021 exports translates to roughly $2,050 for every resident in the relatively wealthy African nation. That per-capita amount exceeds the average $1,450 one year earlier in 2020.
South Africa’s Top 10 Exports
The following export product groups represent the highest dollar value in South African global shipments during 2021. Also shown is the percentage share each export category represents in terms of overall exports from South Africa.
- Gems, precious metals: US$35 billion (28.2% of total exports)
- Ores, slag, ash: $18.6 billion (15%)
- Vehicles: $10.7 billion (8.6%)
- Mineral fuels including oil: $10.3 billion (8.3%)
- Machinery including computers: $6.6 billion (5.4%)
- Iron, steel: $6.3 billion (5.1%)
- Fruits, nuts: $4.5 billion (3.6%)
- Other chemical goods: $2.1 billion (1.7%)
- Aluminum: $1.9 billion (1.5%)
- Electrical machinery, equipment: $1.7 billion (1.4%)
South Africa’s top 10 exports approached four-fifths (78.8%) of the overall value of its global shipments.
Gems and precious metals was the fastest grower among the top 10 export categories, up by 75.3% from 2020 to 2021.
In second place for improving export sales was iron and steel which rose 58.9%.
South Africa’s shipments of mineral fuels including oil posted the third-fastest gain in value up by 49.51% year over year.
The most modest decliner among South Africa’s top 10 export categories was electrical machinery and equipment thanks to its 12.3% improvement.
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.
Products Generating the Greatest Trade Surpluses for South Africa
South Africa posted an overall $30.3 billion trade surplus for 2021, up by 78.7% from the $17 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.
- Gems, precious metals: US$33.5 billion (Up by 77.6% since 2020)
- Ores, slag, ash: $18.5 billion (Up by 45.5%)
- Iron, steel: $4.5 billion (Up by 47.4%)
- Vehicles: $4.3 billion (Up by 8.9%)
- Fruits, nuts: $4.3 billion (Up by 16.9%)
- Aluminum: $1.2 billion (Up by 2.8%)
- Beverages, spirits, vinegar: $793.7 million (Up by 16.7%)
- Woodpulp: $784.7 million (Up by 14.6%)
- Nickel: $660.7 million (Up by 122.2%)
- Vegetable/fruit/nut preparations: $414.1 million (Up by 21.6%)
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.
Products Causing the Biggest Trade Deficits for South Africa
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.
- Electrical machinery, equipment: -US$6.9 billion (Up by 24.6% since 2020)
- Mineral fuels including oil: -$5.1 billion (Up by 92.1%)
- Machinery including computers: -$4.6 billion (Up by 12.9%)
- Pharmaceuticals: -$2.2 billion (Up by 7.6%)
- Books, newspapers, pictures: -$1.7 billion (Up by 65.7%)
- Optical, technical, medical apparatus: -$1.6 billion (Up by 19%)
- Plastics, plastic articles: -$1.4 billion (Up by 72.2%)
- Rubber, rubber articles: -$930.2 million (Up by 57.9%)
- Knit or crochet clothing, accessories: -$741.5 million (Up by 37.2%)
- Clothing, accessories (not knit or crochet): -$723.7 million (Up by 14.7%)
South Africa has highly negative net exports and therefore deep international trade deficits for electrical machinery and equipment.
These cashflow deficiencies clearly indicate South Africa’s competitive disadvantages in the electronics market, but also represent key opportunities for South Africa to improve its position in the global economy through focused innovations.
Major South African Export Companies
Fifteen South African corporations rank among Forbes Global 2000. Below are major South African companies involved in international trade.
- Aspen Pharmacare Holdings (pharmaceuticals)
- Bidvest Group (industrials conglomerate)
- MTN Group (telecommunications)
- Naspers (broadcasting, cable)
- Remgro (industrials conglomerate)
- Sasol (diversified chemicals)
- Steinhoff International (furniture)
Searchable List of South Africa’s Most Valuable Export Products
The following searchable table displays 100 of the most in-demand goods shipped from South Africa during 2021. Shown beside each product label is its total export value then the percentage increase or decrease since 2020.
|Rank||South African Export Product||2021 Value (US$)||Change|
|2||Iron ores, concentrates||$10,224,012,000||+67.6%|
|4||Coal, solid fuels made from coal||$6,044,088,000||+54.6%|
|8||Manganese ores, concentrates||$2,750,837,000||+11.3%|
|9||Centrifuges, filters and purifiers||$2,592,577,000||+46.3%|
|11||Chromium ores, concentrates||$1,950,947,000||+27.3%|
|12||Processed petroleum oils||$1,888,283,000||+3.4%|
|13||Fresh or dried citrus fruit||$1,880,468,000||+10.2%|
|14||Precious metal ores, concentrates||$1,756,520,000||+83.9%|
|16||Initiators/accelerators, catalytic preps||$1,227,636,000||+85.5%|
|19||Chemical woodpulp (dissolving)||$847,575,000||+24.6%|
|20||Grapes (fresh or dried)||$816,863,000||+26.7%|
|25||Apples, pears (fresh)||$698,880,000||+16.6%|
|28||Flat-rolled stainless steel items||$607,330,000||+51.2%|
|29||Zinc ores, concentrates||$462,717,000||+125.6%|
|30||Medication mixes in dosage||$453,900,000||+65.3%|
|31||Aluminum plates, sheets, strips||$448,426,000||+43.5%|
|32||Flat-rolled iron or non-alloy steel products (plated/coated)||$436,879,000||+163.7%|
|37||Refined copper, unwrought alloys||$395,563,000||+134.7%|
|38||Niobium/zirconium ores, concentrates||$387,241,000||-4%|
|40||Precious metal waste, scrap||$381,165,000||+25.3%|
|41||Titanium ores, concentrates||$380,230,000||-21.5%|
|42||Blood fractions (including antisera)||$375,360,000||+605%|
|43||Liquid pumps and elevators||$371,053,000||+33.2%|
|45||Ground nut oil||$341,403,000||+194,987%|
|46||Wool (uncarded, uncombed)||$325,235,000||+26%|
|47||Beauty/makeup/skin care preparations||$324,318,000||+20%|
|49||Fruit and vegetable juices||$313,456,000||+25.6%|
|51||Piston engine parts||$299,569,000||+62.3%|
|52||Other organic cleaning preparations||$295,682,000||+42.3%|
|54||Miscellaneous iron and steel structures||$287,151,000||-3.4%|
|55||Sugar (cane or beet)||$279,096,000||-24.5%|
|56||Miscellaneous iron or steel items||$268,682,000||+51.3%|
|58||Rubber tires (new)||$264,382,000||+21.7%|
|59||Copper ores, concentrates||$251,066,000||-13.3%|
|60||Heavy machinery (bulldozers, excavators, road rollers)||$249,375,000||+40.6%|
|61||Miscellaneous fruits (fresh)||$227,616,000||+19.4%|
|62||Plastic packing goods, lids, caps||$216,471,000||+32.8%|
|64||Phone devices including smartphones||$211,295,000||-8.9%|
|67||Fuel wood, wood chips, sawdust||$205,822,000||+43.7%|
|70||Computers, optical readers||$200,708,000||+22.7%|
|71||Miscellaneous preserved fruits||$197,213,000||+11%|
|72||Other food preparations||$196,182,000||-2.8%|
|73||Miscellaneous animal feed preparations||$195,506,000||+22.1%|
|75||Mixed sauces, preparations||$176,123,000||+29.7%|
|77||Yachts, other pleasure/sports vessels||$171,600,000||+31.8%|
|78||Apricots, cherries, peaches, nectarines, plums||$170,142,000||+68.3%|
|79||Petroleum jelly, mineral waxes||$170,014,000||-20.1%|
|80||Non-alcoholic drinks (not water/juice/milk)||$167,735,000||+29.8%|
|81||Transmission shafts, gears, clutches||$167,570,000||+10.3%|
|84||Chemical industry products/residuals||$160,788,000||+15.2%|
|85||Taps, valves, similar appliances||$159,411,000||+17.8%|
|87||Whole fish (frozen)||$148,158,000||+4.4%|
|88||Fish fillets, pieces||$144,857,000||+17.6%|
|89||Organic surface-active goods, soap||$142,997,000||-2.1%|
|90||Alcohol (including spirits, liqueurs)||$140,597,000||+29.2%|
|94||Plastic tubes, pipes, fittings||$138,697,000||+37%|
|96||Lower-voltage switches, fuses||$132,061,000||+26.8%|
|97||Hot-rolled iron or non-alloy steel products||$128,093,000||+64.6%|
|98||Unsaturated acyclic mono acids||$126,112,000||+85.6%|
|99||Iron or non-alloy steel bars, rods||$125,796,000||+73.6%|
|100||Cereal groats, meals, pellets||$125,746,000||-19.8%|
This cohort of 100 exported goods were worth a subtotal of US$104.8 billion or 84.6% by value for all products exported from South Africa during 2021.
In macroeconomic terms, South Africa’s total exported goods represent 14.4% of its overall Gross Domestic Product for 2021 ($861.9 billion valued in Purchasing Power Parity US dollars). That 14.4% for exports to overall GDP per PPP in 2021 compares to 12.1% one year earlier. Those percentages suggest an increasing reliance on products sold on international markets for South Africa’s total economic performance, albeit based on a short timeframe.
Another key indicator of a country’s economic performance is its unemployment rate. South Africa’s unemployment rate was 33.5% at October 2021, up from an average 29.175% for 2020 according to the International Monetary Fund.
See also South Africa’s Top 10 Imports, Top South African Trading Partners and Top African Export Countries
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Forbes Global 2000 rankings, The World’s Biggest Public Companies. Accessed on March 23, 2022
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International Monetary Fund, World Economic Outlook Database (GDP based on Purchasing Power Parity). Accessed on March 23, 2022
International Trade Centre, Trade Map. Accessed on March 23, 2022
Investopedia, Net Exports Definition. Accessed on March 23, 2022
Richest Country Reports, Key Statistics Powering Global Wealth. Accessed on March 23, 2022
Wikipedia, Gross domestic product. Accessed on March 23, 2022
Wikipedia, Purchasing power parity. Accessed on March 23, 2022
Wikipedia, South Africa. Accessed on March 23, 2022